Weekly

T10T: Out of My Comfort Zone

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone.

If you want to read more about this topic, I have an ongoing series of posts about reading genres and formats I don’t usually read, Out of My Comfort Zone. Some of the next topics might be either adult thrillers, middle grade contemporary or adult literary fiction. (Let me know which one you’d like me to focus on first!)


The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

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I’ve always avoided historical romance. As someone who usually ends up being bored by both non-historical romance and non-romance historical, combining the two things didn’t seem like a good idea.

However, making things gay also makes things automatically more interesting, apparently, because I loved the romance in this book so much. The writing was perfect, the atmosphere too, and the scientist/artist f/f romance was everything. And while it’s set in 1816, it’s not a story about how hard it is to be gay! It’s fun and it’s happy and it was all it needed to be.


Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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YA fantasy, especially f/f YA fantasy, is perfectly within my comfort zone. Books about girls who are forced to basically be sex slaves definitely are not.

This… wasn’t painless. I said in my review that if you’ve ever been forced to do things that you found humiliating or violating, even though they’re not even remotely similar to (or of the magnitude of) what the main character goes through, this will bring them up in your head, so be careful with it. And it was still worth it for me. It’s a beautiful story about resistance and about a forbidden queer romance born in an unlikely, dark place; the descriptions of this world (which is Malaysian and Chinese-inspired, too) are so beautiful that I wanted to see it, even though it’s the kind of place I would never want to be in.

(It still meant that I ended up DNFing a book that dealt with a similar topic a few days later, Empire of Sand, because I couldn’t do this anymore.)


The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This novel had so many things I should hate in it. Senseless slaughter. Realistic-feeling military training. Depressing atmosphere. A world devastated by climate change. War, war, war. Corporations rule the world. Extremely confusing timeline due to continuous time jumps. But if a book has so many things I hate in it and I still end up not hating it and I think about it… if not every day, at least every week months after I read it, it means that it’s great.

This is one of the worst and best things I’ve ever read, at the same time.


Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda

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I might have a medium-to-high tolerance for gore in a written format, but I have no tolerance at all when it comes to movies, or, as this graphic novel showed me, to drawings. But it’s so beautiful and queer and angry that it was worth it anyway, even though it’s all but a light read, especially for a graphic novel. This is now one of my favorite series, and I can’t wait for the next installment.


Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This is about the rise of fascism in a fictional world.

It is, together with Girls of Paper and Fire, probably one of the most painful things I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t think I would be able to reread it, especially now. And yet… I loved it. I loved it because it is a laugh in the face of overwhelming horror, it’s a reminder that things can still be done and life doesn’t stop there, and it’s for the most part an unambiguously fun book, with intrigue and romance. That doesn’t diminish its message: I actually think that books that try to handle heavy topics without humor forget one of humans’ favorite coping mechanisms, and from a writing standpoint, it works better than endless misery – it never lets you get used to to the pain, so it hurts more when things inevitably fall apart.


Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter

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This is a contemporary fantasy story with horror aspects following an abusive and incestuous relationship between two foster siblings, and it’s as unpleasant as YA gets. It’s also a beautiful story about getting out of said toxic relationship, and finding… if not healing, at least a beginning, told from the point of view of a genderqueer person.

It has one of the best character arcs I’ve ever read, but if I said that I actually enjoyed any part of it, I would be lying.


Twisted Romance (edited by) Alex de Campi

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Graphic novels and anthologies aren’t something I reach for that often to begin with, and this one is both – it’s made of short stories both in a traditional format and as short comics. Also, it’s about romance.

The fact that this is specifically about “unusual romance” – both in the sense that many of these stories are paranormal, fantasy or sci-fi, and in the sense that here you’ll find characters that have often been excluded from mainstream romance, from polyamorous women to kinky queer people and asexual men – meant that I ended up loving it. A surprising amount of my problems with the romance genre come from what people think a happy ending should look like (monogamous couple – which, if the main character is a woman in a full-length novel, is almost always heterosexual), which never applied to this.


Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

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I don’t read a lot of middle grade, because my experiences with it in the last few years have mostly been negative. It probably has to do with the fact that the most popular middle grade books of the decade are Rick Riordan’s, and I really don’t like his style – and yes, what is popular does affect what gets published.

I didn’t know how I was going to feel about this at first (it is a RR presents book) but this… this was gorgeous and it reminded me a little of how I felt when I read The Golden Compass. It felt wild and free in ways adult and YA books just don’t, and middle-school-Acqua would have loved this. And it is the casually queer and trans novel middle-school-Acqua needed so much, too.


The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

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Poetry is really hit-or-miss for me, especially when it comes to poetry novels. I loved The Poet X and haven’t had any luck since, but then I found out about this and bought it on a whim. Best decision of the entire month of August! This is a coming-of-age story about a gay biracial black boy as he and finds himself through drag culture and poetry, and while it wasn’t as solid on an individual poem level as The Poet X, it was less shaky in terms of storyline, and just as beautiful.

Sometimes, picking up random things because they sound good actually works?


The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

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I have talked about this book many times on this blog, because it’s one of my all-time favorites and probably the book that has affected my perception of myself more deeply since I started reading (the best portrayal of anxiety I’ve ever read, and from the point of view of a queer girl: the things representation can do). One thing I don’t often say is that before reading this novel, I thought I didn’t like horror.

Horror is still not in my comfort zone, but now I know that I can like it, when it talks about mental illness in a sensitive way and not for shock value.


Have you read any of these? Do you often find favorites outside your comfort zone?

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Weekly

My Favorite Tropes

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Favorite Tropes.

As I couldn’t restrain myself from writing multiple paragraphs for every trope (I really can’t shut up when it comes to favorite anything, can I), this got long – half a top ten tuesday and half ten discussion posts – so I decided to cut it and talk about seven tropes instead of ten. I hope you don’t mind.


Hero/Villain Sexual Tension

My favorite trope.

I usually call it “villain romance“, but as a description it’s slightly misleading, as these situations are often very unromantic and usually don’t end well for at least one of the people involved.

I love this trope because I find it as fascinating as it is horrible, and – when executed well – I end up understanding why the characters feel the way they do, and why they choose to fight each other anyway. It’s twisted and always on the verge of becoming a total disaster if it’s not already, and… it’s just a lot, emotionally.

I like many versions of this trope, but as I like it more the more it gets messy and toxic and unacceptable, my favorite versions do not include anything similar to a redemption arc, as they often end with at least one of the two dead (if the other person in the couple killed them: now that’s what I call perfection).

Also: The queer versions are better, that’s just the truth, I’m actually not that into the “villainous guy/morally gray but still overall good girl” version anymore.

I read my favorite example of this trope in Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. This book made me think “I can’t believe [villain] did that and I can’t stop laughing but I also want brain bleach and [villain] to drop dead”, which, yes, more of that (the “couple”, and I feel weird even calling it a couple, is m/m). Another example, which is more of an exploration of feelings from loyalty to grief to the awareness of being in love with an objectively despicable person is The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, a story about the relationship between a courtesan turned revolutionary and the series’ villainess (f/f).
It seems that I love reading about people who are deeply conflicted because of what they feel?

Some other books to keep in mind if you like this trope:

  • The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, adult sci-fi, f/f/f triangle with villain romance;
  • The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard, m/m, adult fantasy, “villain romance” shading to “enemies to lovers” in an arranged marriage;
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, adult sci-fi, not romantic at all but clear sexual tension between main character and the evil pirate lady (f/f)

Plant Horror

Atmospheric forests are already one of my favorite settings, and to have a straight-up horror forest? That’s perfect: I am studying botany, which means that I have a lot of opinions about trees, and I have a history of dendrophobia, which means that these books always hit close.

My ideal plant horror setting is one in which:

  • the author gives you an idea of which trees there actually are – I don’t need scientific names, something like “white pine”, “beech” or “quaking aspen” is enough; I need to be able to visualize it.
  • the main source of horror are the plants themselves and not something else roaming in the wood, though that’s also welcome.

I still haven’t read a book that fulfills both – Uprooted is one of my favorite plant horror books because the plants are the creepy ones, but it doesn’t tell you which trees there actually are (as far as I remember); Wilder Girls was lovely because it did tell me which trees there were but what was actually creepy were the animals, not the plants; same thing for Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé and Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton. They were still really atmospheric, and what I loved the most about them was the setting.


Haunted People

I’ve never been a fan of stories about haunted places, or stories about possessions, but I love stories about haunted people. If stories about possessions are usually about the evil that is in every person being brought to the surface, and if stories about haunted places are usually about the past coming back to bite people, stories about haunted people are stories about isolation.

They feel a little like a dark version of the imaginary friend, and an obstacle at the same time – hard to have a functional social life in that situation, especially if the “ghost” is a person in their own right, which adds so many complications. You will be isolated, but you will never be lonely. It is at the same time comforting and terrifying, and the effect depends a lot on which side the author decides to lean on more.

And, especially in cases in which the author is taking “haunting as isolating obstacle” as the main angle, this trope is a portrayal of mental illness without directly talking about mental illness. Metaphorical representation has its own place and value, if the author knows what they’re doing: my favorite portrayal of anxiety is in the horror novel The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé, a story about a haunted girl which uses the haunting as a paranormal metaphor for anxiety and avoidant behavior. The fact that the character isn’t cured and is explicitly portrayed as mentally ill makes the representation even more valuable to me. And it works: some things are better when approached indirectly, or they are too emotionally painful to read.

Some other examples of this trope I love: I was having a lot of feelings about the Cheris/Jedao living situation in Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee since I heard what it was about (a woman has to ally with the ghost of a murderous and very likely evil general to win a space siege, and it really does feel like a haunting story with a sci-fi twist). Another story with this trope I loved is Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy by JY Yang (free online!) which takes more the imaginary friend/maladaptive coping mechanism angle than the “evil obstacle” one.


Everyday Ruins

I’m currently rereading The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, set in a post-apocalyptic version of Paris in which there are fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons, and there’s something both deeply beautiful and sad in seeing people’s everyday life in the ruins, and I love this kind of setting.

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In books, “ruins” are usually something ancient and mysterious and abandoned. But my experience is that ruins are everywhere in various states of decay, from so many different times, and we live here. We build around them, and they’re still somewhat mysterious without even really being dead places.
Authors should find a way to make the mysterious and the ordinary coexist more often. I just think it’s fun – characters who live in places that have a mysterious History but that are not actively hostile to them? That’s great. Why have obviously evil haunted ruins when you could have unpredictable magical palaces that might or might not have an agenda and maybe are kind of falling apart?


Well-Intentioned Extremist

I’m not going to write examples for this one, as this trope is often a plot twist, my favorite kind of plot twist.

I love the dissonance of it. How a character might do something that you could never, ever justify, and the story makes you look at the motivations, and maybe you can’t help but think for a moment that maybe the character had a point, however – the well-intentioned part can’t erase the extremist part. And the extremist part can’t erase that not doing anything would have been worse. There are often no good answers, and if there are they are not simple, and I love this.


Blue-Orange Morality

Kind of an answer to the previous trope: if that’s about a character who is dissonant exactly because we can understand them and kind of wish we didn’t, this is about characters who don’t even understand human ideas of morality. (Or, what I wish fae in YA fantasy were, instead of what we usually get. The blue-orange-nonhuman version is just more interesting than the toxic masculinity because I said so version.)

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I expect aliens – especially aliens who are not usually in contact with humans – to be some version of this trope; I remember that the first portrayal of aliens I ever really liked was the one in the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie: the things the Presger translator said didn’t make sense to the main characters (and were, often, funny and kind of terrifying), and that was refreshing, because why are aliens always so easy to understand? I still have no idea what the Presger are actually like as a society, but I’m fine with that.


Organic Technology

The weirder it gets, the happier I am. Especially if the author goes for the “it’s so advanced it looks like magic” route, it has so much potential for really unusual body modifications.

Almost everything Kameron Hurley has written is a good example of that; my favorite is the universe of The Stars Are Legion, in which there are parthenogenesis and biological spaceships involved, but many of the worlds seen in Meet Me in the Future were just as interesting for that aspect.

And it’s been a while, so I don’t remember it as vividly as I’d like, but I also remember loving what was done with organic technology in Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It didn’t make sense, but when you go all the way into not making sense territory, the book might end up being great. Here, it did – I especially loved Borne himself, the creature that couldn’t clearly be described as animal or plant or anything, really.

There is something about taking the shapes of everyday life and reminding you of how much inherently gross parts there are about living that makes all of this really appealing to me. Life is weird.


What do you think of these, and do you have any recommendations?

Weekly

T10T: Favorite Fictional Friendships

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Book Characters I’d Love to Be Besties With, but since I couldn’t think of (m)any, I’m going to talk about something a little different: my favorite fictional portrayals of friendships.

While writing this list, I tried to mostly focus on female friendships, and… the YA world has come so far since its long “all is about romance; friendships, especially female friendships, are irrelevant” phase.


The Grays from The Lost Coast

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It only makes sense that in a book from the point of view of a queer girl that is specifically about finding your community, friendship is one of the most important themes, and this group of queer witches (“the grays”) are now one of my favorite friend groups. This whole book and the way it talks about friendship reminded me a little of The Raven Cycle, except not male-focused, and I loved that.

The Grays are really close, all love each other in different ways, and everyone has their own magic; it’s so great to see this in an age range in which most friendship groups have always more male characters than women and no non-binary characters at all.


Haimey, Connla and Singer from Ancestral Night

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It’s always so nice to read books in which the relationships the characters value the most are friendships instead of romances, especially when it comes to books that, like Ancestral Night, are specifically about recovering from trauma. (The “romantic love cures you” trope is out. The “support from friends can be great” trope is in.)

Haimey Dz is a lesbian space salvager who lives on a spaceship with her pilot friend Connla (who is a bisexual or pansexual man), the AI Singer, and their two cats (yes, everything is better with cats, including space). I loved reading about their interactions and their ship-scavenging pirate-escaping life in low gravity.

[This is the only book on this list that is adult and not YA.]


The friend group from The Weight of the Stars

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Teens in difficult situations come together in this genre-bending sci-fi romance, and the friendships in this book have a complicated and… sometimes all but smooth dynamic, but there’s so much love here. Ryann and her group of mostly dysfunctional friends. It’s one of the examples in which I didn’t care strongly for every single character individually (it’s a standalone, the space to develop characters is what it is, and I still really liked most of them) but I cared so much for them as a group.


Fatima and the Alif sisters from The Candle and the Flame

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Fatima is a character who has lost so much – both her parents and her adopted parents, and might lose more yet – so seeing her have a relationship relatively devoid of conflict with the three Alif sisters was so refreshing and wholesome (they’re not her sisters, adoptive or not, but they feel as if they were). Also, this book portrays an aspect of female friendship, especially between young teens, that you rarely see in books: part of it is just… being silly because you can, and I loved how this book never portrayed that in a judgmental way.


Jam, Redemption, and Pet from Pet

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I feel like middle grade is really good at portraying friendships (I haven’t read a lot of it, but that’s the impression I have), and upper YA is getting better at it, but as time goes on, I see less and less lower YA in general. So, reading Pet, a lower YA focusing on friendship and family, was so refreshing. The friendship Jam and Redemption had was so sweet, and I also really liked how the two interacted during their “monster hunt” with Pet, the mysterious creature who came out of one of Jam’s mother’s paintings. I know this isn’t going to happen, because this makes sense as a standalone – and a really short one at that – but I’d love to read more books with them.


Jules, Dia and Hanna from This Is What It Feels Like

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Complicated friendships! One of my favorite topics to talk about in literature. This Is What It Feels Like is about three girls who were once friends and in a band, but their band fell apart for various reasons (one of the girls was dealing with grief and a pregnancy, another with alcoholism) and this story is about them reconnecting. It’s an emotional read with three beautifully-written character arcs and one of my favorite portrayals of friendship ever.

Maybe a friendship can’t survive everything, but just because something ended, it doesn’t mean it can’t start again. The second chance trope isn’t just for romance.


The Mercies and Trigve from The Boneless Mercies

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Four warrior girls and a soft healer boy go on a quest to slay a monster, not because they have to, but because they want to, they’re seeking glory, and isn’t reading about active protagonists looking for their place in the world the best thing ever, especially when they’re women? This is one of the very few books I know that, instead of making the usual, boring assumption that romance is “being more than friends”, explicitly has a character answer “so it’s deeper, then” when the main character says that Trigve is not her lover, he is her friend – and this was so interesting to see. I loved the Mercies and Trigve so much, all of them, and I really want this to get a sequel.


Mercedes and Victoria from The Gallery of Unfinished Girls

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The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is a story about art and perfectionism just as much as it is a story about a friendship going through a difficult time – high school is ending and Mercedes and Victoria aren’t going to see each other as often during college; also, Mercedes has realized that she has unrequited romantic feelings for Victoria. It’s not a romance, it is a character-driven story about the complexity of teenage female friendship, about moving on, and… it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.


Xiomara and Caridad from The Poet X

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This is a poetry novel, and there is one poem that stuck with me over all the others, in a book that was already really emotional and impactful: Caridad and I Shouldn’t Be Friends. What you almost never see in novels are friendships in which the people involved are… so different, even sometimes in what they believe in, that they should clash all the time, but they don’t. Because, as this poem says, they know each other in ways they don’t have to explain.

I’d love to read a book that explores a dynamic like this one as the main plot, because there’s a lot to say about the… inevitable moments of resentment and sometimes envy, and why the characters are close anyway. I’d love to see this for both friendships that end up working out and for ones in which the characters grow apart.


Jess and Angie from A Line in the Dark

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And to end the post on a “typical Acqua” note, I’m going to talk about my favorite portrayal of a toxic friendship, from A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo. This is a story about unrequited love and tangled feelings and how the line between loyalty and obsession is sometimes far too thin. It’s fascinating and ugly, and I loved every moment of it. Not only parents and significant others can be toxic for you – I’d say that teenagers are as likely to have been in a toxic friendship as in a toxic relationship – and I’d like YA fiction to reflect that.


What are your favorite fictional portrayals of fictional friendships?

Weekly

T10T: Cover Change Opinions

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Cover Redesigns I Loved/Hated.


The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

I don’t love this paperback redesign, but I don’t dislike it either. I prefer the original one because I’m really attached to it and because the color scheme is just better for the story, but the new one represents the content just as well – if it weren’t for the new tagline.
“Is it real or a nightmare” isn’t really meaningful to what the actual conflict is, in my opinion, especially considering that previous editions had “something is waiting to pull her under” and “something is waiting to pull you under” (my copy has this one. and I mean, it’s true), which are much better. Old cover or new cover [do tell me which one you prefer!], if you’re even marginally interested in emotional and introspective queer YA horror, you should try this.


Final Draft by Riley Redgate

I’m sorry. This is one of the most hideous paperback redesigns I’ve ever seen.

I mean, it’s not like the first cover actually tells you anything about the content of the book, but at least it doesn’t look like something you’d throw into the trash, with a cutesy background that doesn’t fit the atmosphere of the novel at all (it’s a story about mental illness, and it’s all but lighthearted.)


The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

This is a really interesting one, especially considering that both are meant to be paperback covers. The original one represents the content of the book really well, with the gloomy atmosphere, the ruined building, the unnatural-looking light of the wings – it’s exactly what this novel is. However, the second cover works better on something small, like a paperback, looks significantly less awkward, and still has a lot of interesting details. I might be biased because that’s the edition I own, but I prefer the second one, even though the first one is beautiful too.


Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Meh. The original cover has a lot of symbolism I really appreciate, because symbolism is… the backbone of this series, honestly, and all of that is lost in the second one. It is pretty, but while from the first one I can see “Russian-inspired fantasy involving magical shadows and something with antlers”, the second one doesn’t tell me anything but the fact that there might be something involving a deer.


Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

This paperback redesign worked a lot better than the one of The Dark Beneath the Ice. The first cover is eye-catching and detailed and creepy and represents the book’s atmosphere perfectly; the second one is simpler and perfect for a smaller cover while also telling you that we’re talking about plant horror with skulls. Really good.


Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

I’m probably the only person on this planet who liked the old cover with the fake-looking snake. The second one is just boring, which is sadder when you consider how much of a wasted occasion it was – we could have had a cover with Xifeng looking beautiful and dangerous on it, and we got this instead. It’s not bad, it’s… it doesn’t tell me anything about the book apart from “vaguely Asian-inspired” and it’s not in any way memorable.


Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Yawn.

You had a quiet, dark cover that got the wintry atmosphere perfectly while also vaguely hinting at a crown without actually making it a generic YA fantasy cover – and you changed it for a generic YA fantasy cover with a crown on it that does nothing at all and has a bold “only one can be queen” tagline as if this were a competition for the throne story in a Three Dark Crowns style? This is bad.

(Yes, the misleading tagline is in the first one too, but at least it’s not in your face.)


Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

On one hand, the first cover represents the inside of the book better, as it’s literally a scene from it, but the second one is perfect for a paperback (striking, simple design? yes) and I like what they did with that theme in the sequels too. An effective cover change.


The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

This is really interesting, because as you can see from previous examples, the hardcover usually has illustrations/cover models on it, and the paperback has a simpler design meant to work on a smaller cover. Here, the opposite happened, and while I think the second cover is a little wasted on a paperback, I’m glad that it was changed, because the first one tells you nothing about the book and it’s not even that pretty.

Also, I love this trend of YA contemporary covers in pastel blue, pink and purple!


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (UK Covers)

Just no.


Tell me your opinions about these cover changes!

Weekly

T10T: Recently Added to TBR

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is a freebie, so I decided to talk about the books I recently added to my TBR, and what I expect from them.

I think it would be interesting to go back to this post in a year and see how many of these I have read (and what I thought of them), how many of them I have removed from my TBR, and how many of them are still on my TBR.


1. I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

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I’ve been on the fence about this one for a while. On one hand, it’s an ownvoices non-binary novel, which is rare, especially in the YA age range; on the other hand, I don’t do well with stories involving bigoted parents, so I’m not sure how this will go, or if I will end up changing my mind and not reading it.

2. After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott

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Lesbian adult thriller! It sounds amazing as an idea, but I’m also aware that adult thrillers might not be my thing at all, so while I’m pretty sure that I’m going to try this, I have no idea what to expect. This would be my first adult thriller – unless I decide to read If We Were Villains first.

3. Infinity Son by Adam Silvera

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I have read two books by Adam Silvera so far, and really liked both of them, especially They Both Die at the End, so I’m really looking forward to this – I wonder how his writing style will look in a fantasy novel, and it’s not like ownvoices m/m YA fantasy is that common, too. I hope I love this.

4. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This is another case of “I have absolutely no idea what to expect”, because my experiences with this author have been opposites, since I loved her short story Do Not Look Back, My Lion (fantasy matriarchal society! gay!) and hated A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (I can’t explain exactly why and it’s been months, but the tone of this specific kind of story gets on my nerves). Also, I’ve had mixed experiences with portal fantasy too, so I truly don’t know what to think, but I know I’m going to read it because I have an ARC.

5. The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

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If I don’t love this, I’m going to be very upset. I mean, non-linear, beautifully-written f/f fantasy novel that should make me feel a lot, from an author I already know because of her short fiction… I have a physical copy of this one and I hope I can get to it before the year ends.

6. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

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A Mongolian-inspired fantasy story written by Elizabeth Bear, the author of one of my favorite books of this year! Most reviews of this are mediocre, which isn’t encouraging, but that was also true for Ancestral Night, and look how that one turned out (I don’t think I’ve talked about it on this blog yet? But that book. I’m still not over it.) Also, I liked the excerpt when I read it, and this cover is gorgeous.

7. The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

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I love this cover, I love the idea of a fantasy following a main character who – I think – is two-spirit, and it comes highly recommended by multiple people. I’m not sure it’s my kind of fantasy story and if/when I’ll be in the mood for it (and I’m also somewhat hesitant with – as far as I know – non-ownvoices books about indigenous cultures, but it’s not like I’ve seen anything that says it’s bad), but I did like the excerpt, so I’ll try reading all of it someday.

8. We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul

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I’m not hearing the best things about this but it was free to download on edelweiss and will I ever not give a chance to an f/f book? I hope the inside is better than the cover, because really, that’s… kind of hideous.

9. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

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I actually really don’t like reading about nuns unless they’re the murderous, basically not-religious kind like in Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, but this… can you guess what made me add it to my TBR? Well, it’s a gay novella. I never claimed to be unpredictable. I haven’t heard anything about it yet, so I’m not actually sure I will read it, but we’ll see.

10. Call Down the Hawk

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Another one I’m not sure about. The Raven Cycle was a 4-star series for me overall, and I didn’t feel that strongly about any of the boys (Blue was my favorite character, and my favorite aspects of the book were her relationship with her family and the creepy magic), so I don’t know if I want a whole book about Ronan and Adam. At the same time, I’m intrigued, so there’s that.


Have you read or are you anticipating any of these?

Weekly

T10T: But What About the Plants??

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Settings I’d Like to See More Of (Or At All).

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might already know that I care about atmosphere, and a detailed setting really helps with that. You might also already know that I care a lot about plants – if not, get ready for the inevitable botany-related rants, because today I’m going to talk about what I think is missing from bookish settings, especially fantasy settings.

(Plants. It’s plants. You know me.)

All pictures in this post are mine.


Mountains

specifically, not-snowy mountains

I don’t know what it is about fantasy books, but apparently their mountains and mountain ranges are either non-existent or always snowy, and the landscape goes from “prairie” to “rocks and snow” immediately. And… that’s not how mountains are, at least, not in all the places I’ve been? Also, I get that snowy mountains are cool as an idea, but if your characters live near them, they should probably know that going on a hike there can be really dangerous, and fantasy books almost never reflect that. (There is, generally, very little about mountain life and what people did to adapt there before modern technology in fantasy books.)

Also, there’s a good chance that in the summer the fantasy snowy mountains should actually look like this:

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Which, to me, looks a lot more interesting. Generally, the more there’s plants, the more they’re interesting – ok, I’m studying botany and I’m biased, but the thing about rocks and snow is that there’s usually nothing but rocks and snow and cold, and gazing at the stars at night gets a lot less romantic when your characters are freezing to death. Mountains that aren’t snowy are just so much better as settings, and I wish fantasy reflected that.


Mediterranean shrubland

Do American authors know that the Italian peninsula is a place that existed before and after the Reinassance and also outside of Venice? One wouldn’t think so, from their books.

One thing that really amuses me about Italian-inspired American books is that they’re so obsessed with what they think is the ~Italian atmosphere~ that they will place something you can only find in a very specific place everywhere – like gondole in a fantasy city inspired by Sicily or Florence – but they will never, ever bother to give their settings something that actually feels Mediterranean, because the author only visited the cities (if they’re even ever been here) and didn’t pay any attention to the “macchia mediterranea”, the shrubland biome that is everywhere on our coasts; no, you get generic “woods” or even “plains” instead (which, where? If you’re not writing something inspired by the Po Valley – and why would you, really [sorry, had to] – nothing is ever that flat here).

How does the mediterranean shrubland look like? Here it is:

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I might be biased, because part of this year’s botany course involved learning how to tell apart all the shrubs in there, but to me this is far more interesting that anyone’s 100th fake fantasy version of the soulless tourist trap named Venice.

I’d love to see a book that gets the shrubland’s sounds and smells right, that knows what happens to it when it burns (our shrublands have the stressful habit of burning down every twenty years or so) and what happens to it after it burns. A book that knows that the characters living there don’t just see the place as “shrubs”, because some plants are resources – as food, as spices, as fiber – and some can be dangerous. And this goes also for other kinds of settings: more characters in fantasy should know the place they live in. Their lives depend from that.


Interesting coastal settings

There is, overall, a dearth of coastal settings. My city is basically sandwiched between the sea and not-snowy mountains, so I can’t not notice how both are almost absent in fantasy books. And the Mediterranean shrubland, even though it’s beautiful, is far from the only interesting coastal setting. I know – and really appreciate – that I have read some books that got how beautiful tide pools can be, but there’s more, so much more. I am Italian, so I mostly know of fishing villages (you’d think someone would set a book there seeing how well-known the Cinque Terre are?) based on many different kinds of fishing, but I know there are so many ways a coast can look. It’s the boundary between two worlds, and I want to see it more often.

From the overwhelming homogeneity of fantasy settings, I almost think that authors are most likely to base their settings on things they’ve liked in other fantasy books than on real places. Otherwise, I can’t explain why you never see something like this:

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[plant life! It tells you all things about the setting, like the fact that this picture, unlike the previous two, was definitely not taken in Italy, but in a place with a completely different climate. There are other non-plant hints, but they’re not as clear.]


Detailed Forests

I love a creepy wood just as much as anyone else, but the fact that the author usually doesn’t bother to describe which trees there are in the creepy forest is disappointing. And lazy writing, I’d say, because a beech forest is radically different from a larch forest, which is different from a chestnut wood (which needs far more human maintenance than a beech one) and not only for the trees but for what grows under them, the lighting, and the overall atmosphere.

These two pictures are of a beech forest and of a larch-and-mountain pine (I’d say Pinus cembra and Pinus mugo?) forest. They look really different, in many aspects, and the atmosphere of the hypothetical books set there would be completely different.

Anyway, a shout-out to Wilder Girls by Rory Power and Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé for actually telling me which trees there were in the creepy forests, even though I didn’t love the books themselves.


Pine Forests

(that actually tell me which kind of pines there are)

I could tell you that I love pine forests – and I do, because there’s something about conifers that makes them unlike other trees in many ways – and that I wish more books were set there. However, “pine forest” is an extremely vague descriptor. Look at Pinus hwangshanensis and how different it is from a Pinus pinaster and from a Pinus longaeva. There are more than a hundred species in the genus Pinus. While one can’t exactly throw around binomial nomenclature in a fantasy novel, one could at least attempt to describe the plant/the wood. From now on, every time I see a only vaguely-described “pine forest” that is supposed to be mysterious, I’ll just assume that it’s made completely of Pinus mugo plants out of spite.

Also: I know the English language likes to apply the world “pine” to basically every conifer, like firs, spruces, junipers, cypresses and even araucarias, which makes the “pine forest” description even more useless.

For example, none of these are actually pines:

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[Left to right: a fir (Abies sp.), some spruces (Picea sp.), and an araucaria (Araucaria bidwillii). Not pines, but if someone wrote a fantasy book set in an araucaria forest, I would die of happiness.]

This, instead, is a pine tree – a mountain pine (with a friend):

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Underwater Settings

Underwater settings are really uncommon. And in a way I get why, because before modern technologies the sea was a complete mystery – and in part still is even now. However, the thing about fantasy is that you can make everything up, and you don’t need to write a mermaid story to write a story that takes place at least in part underwater.

But I’d love if someone did write a story set underwater, especially if there were no coral reefs involved – I get it, they’re beautiful, but if you’re writing something in a setting inspired by Europe, they’re also out of place, and it’s not like the rest of the underwater world isn’t interesting, or all looks the same (it doesn’t). And you don’t even need to go into the abyss to have an interesting setting; I loved that Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant did, but it’s not necessary – there’s something magical even only about how the light looks when you’re underwater.

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Another thing I know from being an underwater photographer: sand, when underwater, is often covered in rainbows. [insert a “the ocean is gay” joke.] You really don’t need coral reefs to make your underwater setting pretty.


Seagrass Meadows

The overly specific underwater setting I’d like to see? Seagrass meadows. I could act like this has to do with the ecological importance of Posidonia oceanica meadows in the Mediterranean sea, or even with the fact that I’ve never even seen them mentioned in fiction (the only book I know that mentions seagrass is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, but there, it’s the name of a character), but the main reason I’d like to see them in a novel is that I think they’re scary.

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When you’re swimming over them, you can’t see anything of what’s under you. And while the chance of anything dangerous being able to hide in something that, after all, doesn’t reach 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) in height is very low, something in my brain is disagreeing.


Kelp forests

I don’t have a picture for this one because they don’t exist in my country and because I’d be far too afraid of them anyway, but I’ve been fascinated with them for so long. They’re algae but they look like trees, and I don’t know if it’s my dendrophobia speaking, but this is the perfect place to set a horror book in. A really aesthetically pleasing horror book, someone who actually has seen a kelp forest in person please write it


Fantasy Cities that Actually Have Plants in Them

Of all the things to complain about, you could say. However, I can think of only one book that actually bothered to describe plant life in a city (a shout-out to The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad for all the gulmohar descriptions).

This doesn’t make sense to me. Many real cities are full of plant life, but fantasy authors seem to think that the only plants that exist are roses, which only grow in beautiful gardens where the main characters can kiss. They don’t see how pretty buildings can get when they’re overgrown with creeping plants, they don’t see the beauty of what can grow over the ruins. Talk me about weeds and unkempt overgrown flowerbeds and what grows in the cracks on the side of the road and I’ll love you.

I walked for a few minutes in my city and took two pictures of the most remarkable plant life I could see. If my city can have them, so can the invented ones in fantasyland.

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Interesting Spaceship Design

Finally a part of the post in which Acqua isn’t going to talk about plants!

…joking. As Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee showed me, you can have plants, trees and even koi ponds in your spaceships even when you’re writing military sci-fi. Not only you could, you should.

Apart from the plants: from biological spaceships that are basically an excuse for more gore to more realistic ships in books that actually talk more or less “realistically” about what humans would need to function in space, I really appreciate when it’s clear that the author put some thought into what they were doing, instead of only thinking “yes they vaguely look like the ones in Star Wars”.


TL;DR: Less Generic Settings, More Plants. What do you want to see from SFF settings?

Weekly

T10T: Favorite Non-PoV Characters

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Character Freebie. I decided to talk about Non-PoV Characters that I remember just as vividly as (if not more than, in some cases) the PoV ones; some of them might be popular, but far too many don’t get enough appreciation.


The Darkling

Technically, we see his PoV in The Demon in the Wood, but back then he was a preteen, so to me it doesn’t count. Anyway: he is a powerful magician from Shadow and Bone; you probably have already heard of him, but if that’s not the case, the explicit spoilers are blacked out.

  • sometimes, between rereads, I forget just how dramatic he can be
  • the obvious solution would have been (spoiler-y)

    Trying to seduce Mal too, and yet

  • I’m not saying it would have worked but I am saying that it would have been far more entertaining to read and far harder for everyone to disentangle themselves from! I’m disappointed that he didn’t even try
  • But I mean, what can we expect from someone who goes around the country in a Dark™ carriage with Dark™ horses and calls himself the Darkling™ and can cut people in two with his Magical Darkness™ and then acts surprised when people living in a world where darkness can spawn man-eating monsters assume him to be evil
  • also I’ve met characters who made one of his ideas sound more rational than he did. 5/10 try harder (spoiler-y)

    said idea is “let’s save the world with mass murder

  • 10/10 for the aesthetic, however
  • I love him, and I will never not love characters who are competent manipulators but have one (1) functional brain cell when it comes to certain topics [Alina. Alina is the topic, especially the more you go on with the series]

Nineteen Adze

A major side character from A Memory Called Empire, and probably my favorite I’ve met so far this year. I still remember that, when I was trying to write my review, I was trying to say at least a few things about all relevant characters, but for her at the time my brain was still going “!!!!!!!!!!!” and I couldn’t come up with anything coherent for a while.

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  • “she could stab me and I’d thank her” was the first vaguely coherent description of her I put together
  • in my defense, Mahit’s reaction to her isn’t too different
  • will this ever not be me with competent and powerful morally gray women who know what they’re doing when it comes to political intrigue?
  • it’s not like I got to see them often and it’s not like I get so see them often today too
  • why is this kind of character literally always a man
  • now I really want to reread this book just because of her

Andan Tseya

I usually don’t get that obsessed with side characters. But there are exceptions, and she is probably the main one.

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Raven Stratagem: *is about machinations and mind games during a space war, there’s a known murderous traitor on the loose and a foreign invasion and the big bad is basically doing the space version of watching the whole thing go down while eating popcorn, just with a side of worrying about when it will catch up to him*

Acqua, every time she reads this book: …marry me Tseya

So, who is Tseya? Here’s a few non-spoilery facts about her to introduce the character:

  • she’s an assassin, and, like most people in this book, also a liar
  • while meeting her, you’d probably think that she’s intimidatingly beautiful but really nice
  • (she might or might not be trying to make you lower your guard to kill you later)
  • How could anyone not love Andan “slept with the villain out of spite” Tseya
  • actually cares about interior decor! Her spaceship has plants in it! Yes this is relevant to me
  • find yourself a girlfriend who will gift you passive-aggressive aquariums
  • Also her dynamic with Brezan is everything to me
    • Brezan: I am not going to fall for this
    • Tseya:
    • Brezan: *falls for it, and for her*
  • In case that wasn’t already clear, I am Brezan
  • she’s a trans woman [and Brezan is a trans man]
  • was this post just an excuse to talk about how much I love Tseya? yes
  • I am not sorry

Long Chau

A major character in this Sherlock Holmes retelling set in space. She’s the Sherlock Holmes figure; the narrator and main character is the “Watson” of the story, the sentient spaceship The Shadow’s Child.

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  • abrasive, competent women who come off as cold: literary equivalent of catnip
  • especially if they don’t get romantic subplots to make them less cold or something like that
  • yes, narratives about “letting down inner walls” are important, but… sometimes you can also just let the character be like that
  • again, she falls in the “why is this archetype literally always a man” category, but in a different way
  • the “unintentionally rude” way, and I loved that about her
  • I really hope Aliette de Bodard will write another novella about her and The Shadow’s Child

Ilsa Flynn

She’s the main character’s adopted sister in the Monsters of Verity duology, and like him, she is a powerful monster – a Sunai, which means that she feeds on souls.

  • it’s been two years since I read these novels and yet I remember her so clearly
  • star-patterned girl with red hair, quietly beautiful
  • star-patterned monster born of a massacre
  • when August described her as “scattered”, I instantly knew I was going to love her
  • she stands out so much from all the other characters in Schwab’s novels
  • Schwab’s female characters are usually cold, sharp, and always ready to fight; Ilsa… she’s dangerous, really dangerous, but in a different way
  • Things I wish Schwab hadn’t done (spoiler-y)

    I wish Schwab would stop killing off her female characters so often. And in Our Dark Duet she did it twice. Ilsa and Kate deserved better than being fuel for August’s pain. (I think it was her who once tweeted about male authors constantly fridging women and in my head I was like “yes but you do that all the time” and that’s part of the reason I don’t read her new books anymore)

  • anyway Ilsa deserves the world

Silas

He is the love interest’s demon servant in the fantasy novel Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson.

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  • Shapeshifting demon! The scenes in which he is a cat are the best scenes
  • MR FLUFFINGTON
  • you know the kind of distant & distinguished character who is collectively dragged into the hellish pit called “caring about humans” by the rest of the cast?
  • he is that character
  • and yet, he is still a demon, so he will care in his very demonic way
  • I’ve never read about anyone quite like him
  • and since he is a very developed and nuanced character, he ended up outshining everyone else, main characters included, even though they were well-written too

Maram

The Vathek princess from Mirage, a book I loved mostly because of her, the discussion of colonialism and the effect it has on people, and the aesthetic (space fantasy in which the space aspect is basically just there for the aesthetic? I support it.)

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  • another example of “completely outshining the other characters in the book”
  • part of the reason I didn’t love this book was that I felt like she was the only interesting character
  • she has a lot of internalized self-hatred and goes from vulnerable to cruel in the span of a few seconds, but knowing her background, you understand her
  • the main character does too (and kind of wishes she didn’t)
  • it’s an interesting twist on the “spoiled princess who is cruel just to be an obstacle for the protagonist” trope
  • her PoV would be really painful to read from, but so was Amani’s
  • she’s so well-written and I will always be there for books that let women be angry and hurt and… just far from perfect or even good or reasonable
  • I almost feel like female main characters are almost never allowed to be like that (can you imagine how many reviews complaining about unlikability), especially if the story it’s not a straightforward villain origin story, so I get really attached to side characters who are like that

Daiyu

The 17-year-old heiress the main characters kidnap at the beginning of book one. I think this is maybe cheating because I don’t remember if we got her PoV for a few chapters in Ruse, but I started loving her in Want, and I’m sure that in that one we didn’t get her PoV.

  • she does kind of feel like a teenage and less morally gray version of Tseya to me
  • rich and beautiful and also always scheming under a façade of innocence? I love this kind of characters
  • (it’s not a coincidence that in 2017 my pre-review of Want was something like “can I marry Daiyu”: 17-year-old me was also really predictable)
  • sadly, I can’t be specific at all because of spoilers
  • she’s awesome and the best character in the series

Unnamed Character from The Fever King

Said character has a name, and if you’ve read the book you know who I’m talking about. I just don’t want to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet, even though it is the most predictable revelation ever (and still amazing to read. Which takes skill. Please read it.)

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  • me, for half of the scenes about said character: this is so fascinating, I want to know more!
  • me, for the other half: please die. right now.
  • half of the annotations on my eARC are some version of “shut up and leave [various character names] alone, what’s wrong with you”
  • the more I think about this character, the more I’m horrified
  • is there anyone who is even remotely emotionally healthy in this book?
  • the answer is no
  • and the relationships are worse!

Margot and Angie

Major side characters from A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo, a contemporary novel which is half slice-of-life and half mystery, featuring a toxic f/f/f love triangle.

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  • terrible girls! always there for terrible girls!
  • especially terrible lesbians
  • and when I read it, I found Margot really fascinating, because again, she has a role in which you usually don’t see queer women, and she’s… kind of evil
  • seeing how Angie gets caught up in Margot’s clique and drags Jess (the main character) in it? Great content
  • and the way the main character was kind of hate-attracted to Margot and obsessed with Angie? Even better content
  • “no one is even only remotely healthy and the relationships are worse” is a perfect description of this book too
  • (I’d like to be more specific but… too many spoilers, I don’t feel like writing three paragraphs to black out right now, but maybe when I reread the book I will do something like that)

Who are your favorite non-PoV characters? Have you read any of these?