Fantasy · Young adult

No Thoughts Only Shadow and Bone (2021)

When I decided to participate in this year’s Wyrd and Wonder, I had a lot of plans and underestimated just how strongly nostalgia would end up kicking me in the face, and honestly, that’s my fault for underestimating my 15-year-old self. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be as present as I thought I would be, even though I had low expectations; aside from Real Life issues, I also had a terrible case of Shadow and Bone brain. After watching the Netflix show (and watching. and rewatching. and then rewatching with a friend who is also now obsessed.) it took me several weeks to get out of my own head enough to actually write something like a review.

Shadow and Bone is the book that got me into blogging, and while it isn’t the book that made me discover the English book community, it’s the one that got me to stay. I loved it more than I could explain and it’s the kind of story I thought about daily for years on end, in a way I’ve only ever done with another series later on (fun fact: I found that series because of someone in the old S&B fandom!). It’s also a flawed novel that in some aspects feels was clearly written ten years ago, and that in other aspects only got worse as the series continued (worldbuilding, esp. re: Shu Han); and, to be honest, it’s a straightforward straight YA fantasy, the kind of book I today refuse to even try because none of them do anything for me anymore.

I thought I was over it. I was a fool.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Grishaverse adaptation, I was worried not only because of my attachment to it but also because it set out to adapt both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series. My worries rapidly evaporated as I read the first reviews, and I now can confirm that somehow they made it work – and, I think, Alina’s storyline was actually strengthened by that choice. I don’t necessarily think the show did Six of Crows‘ story justice (more on that later), but as that’s both the best and the least important to me of the two series, I can deal with that.

this review spoils who the villain is, of course.


The Good

If you know me and know why I love the Shadow and Bone trilogy, you can probably imagine what was my main worry: I thought that the show wouldn’t be able to make the Darkling feel convincing. As he’s the character that made Shadow and Bone stand out from a sea of similar chosen-one-love-triangle series from around 2012 and the character that made me realize I loved villains, actually, this was probably the most important part to me.

I’m happy to say that the show didn’t disappoint at all, and while his characterization is somewhat different – as is Alina’s – it works, and comparing show!Darkling and book!Darkling was actually one of the things I had the most fun with. Book!Darkling leans more into the ~mysterious, look at the ~power side of things for his manipulation, while Show!Darkling leans more into showing “vulnerability” in a oh, Ravka is (I’m) such a wounded creature… Alina, only you can save Ravka (me, I’m Ravka and Ravka is me actually) way. Both Darklings of course have elements of both, but the… balance of them is different.

Show!Darkling strikes me as more slimy, and that for me comes across especially in the way he treats Mal. In the books, he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge his existence and calls him “tracker”; in the show, he deliberately calls him “Mal” with a disdainful overfamiliarity that was almost painful to watch.

I loved how the show made explicit that a cardinal plot point of the story is the villain reading the two protagonists’ love letters and keeping them! I just find that so funny

Another thing I loved was what they did with the Darkling’s clothes, which are beautiful with an eldritch twist – those metal things look as if they’re staring at you! The show’s take on everyone’s Keftas and clothes in general was everything I hoped for. Even when it wanted “ugly”, it truly went for it: Alina’s veiled outfit is the closest a human has ever been to looking like a lamp, and I mean, it’s appropriate. That’s how the king sees her, after all.

Shows have the chance to truly make something come to life, and this one succeeded. It’s easy to make a story following the Six of Crows characters compelling because they already are, but I didn’t think anything could manage to make me care about Marie or make scenes with Ivan of all characters both interesting and enjoyable. The Jesper/Ivan fight is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show and my favorite of the ones that aren’t in the book at all. (The second one is the carriage theft and its aftermath, I’ve wanted something like that since I read Shadow and Bone and love how it went down.)

Another thing I didn’t know I needed was seeing Alina and Inej meet, and what that means for Inej! Alina is important to her in the books already and this is just taking it to another level.

I also really appreciated the general Zlatan storyline. It made the Darkling’s decision in Novokribirsk make much more practical sense instead of that scene being just the most horrifying example of showing off that Ravka has ever seen.

Miscellaneous things I loved:

  • the goat, of course
  • Leigh Bardugo and Shadow and Bone (book) cameos
  • Jesper is the only one who gets a (implied) sex scene. I call that LGBT justice
  • Mal’s friends are actually developed
  • the true-north-erase-the-scar montage was art and so painful at that
  • Ketterdam looks amazing & exactly as I imagined it & I can’t wait for more

The Complicated

I didn’t necessarily love what the show did with Alina. While I really liked the casting, I didn’t love some choices that were made – like making the cartographers’ death her fault at the beginning, which… never comes up again and makes her feel weirdly cold, and given that Jessie Mei Li’s interpretation of Alina is more “literal sunshine” than the (comparably grumpier) book version, it felt very dissonant to me. I’m also sad that Alina’s inner monologue can’t come across in this format; what could have been avoided instead is the flattening. In the books she’s also very insecure (and sickly and tired) and they got rid of most of that, which… I don’t know, it’s this trend of editing out flaws from female characters in the name of “here’s a woman who knows what she wants!” and I hate that, actually. But when I stopped comparing show and book version, I did really like following Alina’s character. There’s no version of her I won’t love; she means so much to me.

Making Alina biracial was also a chance to make something better with the worldbuilding of Shu Han and its relationship to Ravka, a chance to develop the country past a (frankly racist) stereotype. That opportunity was not taken and there was a lot of intentionally-but-clumsily included anti-Asian racism.

they finally translated it because of the show. I hope the translation is good?

Many people have said the show made them like Mal, but I firmly remain in a Mal-indifferent zone. He’s just not my type of character. I wonder how much of the recent Mal love comes from the fact that in the books he’s an unlikable character and here he isn’t as much. My friend – who hasn’t read the books and therefore didn’t have the “he’s going to be insufferable, isn’t he” kind of worry – didn’t feel drawn to him at all either, and she’s usually easier on male characters than I am.

And while the inclusion of the Crows’ plotline made the show more interesting – the first half of Shadow and Bone would feel kind of empty on screen without that! – they objectively steal the scene, which saddens me, because on a subjective level I prefer the other plotline (so much that I sometimes skipped the Crows while rewatching) and I don’t want Shadow and Bone to be… overshadowed in its own show. Also, fusing two different stories – one of which is a cautionary fairytale and the other a fast-paced heist story – just makes you feel like half of the characters are way too smart for the story they’re stuck in.

Other things I have mixed feelings about:

  • I find show!Alina way prettier than show!Genya, which just feels weird
  • the train scenes are very cool. the rest of the world seems not to have invented trains yet
  • Alina’s power being portrayed not like sun rays but like literal little suns looks kind of goofy
  • I’m fine with Kaz having plot armor of course, but wow did they weaken the Cut!
  • Nina Zenik was great but her storyline felt cut off from everything else
  • There isn’t even a mention of Nikolai’s name. He’d be so mad

The Disappointing

The Little Palace should look like something out of a fairytale. Half of the buildings in my city have more character than that. It sounds minor but atmosphere is very important to me and this might be my main dislike.

I get that it’s difficult to do establish worldbuilding in a show, but I feel like the magic system wasn’t… I don’t want to say “explained” because I don’t like magic to be explained, but grounded well. There are rules in the book that the show applies but never actually mentions, and I don’t get why it didn’t even mention like calls to like. Some of those “rules” are also plot-relevant: my friend who didn’t read the book didn’t understand what happened with the stag’s power while in the fold.

Also, no “wanting makes us weak”? The Darkling’s name being revealed so casually? I get why, but still!


Hopes for the Future

My main hope? That we get season two!

Apart from that, there are some things I’d very much like to see, like the show actually taking a chance to develop Shu Han and Alina’s relationship with her Shu heritage when Tamar and Tolya will be introduced; the Crows going on an actual heist like the one in the Ice Court instead of the lackluster halfway thing it had to be at the Little Palace (too smart for this story, I said) because otherwise this show doesn’t do justice to Six of Crows at all; also I think seeing Zoya and Inej having an actual conversation would be very cool.


I’m going to end this post with links to the two reviews that convinced me that the show was worth watching (that you should also read!) and that went more in-depth in several of the issues with the worldbuilding: Hadeer’s and Silvia’s.

Have you seen Shadow and Bone? What are your hopes for its future? Is there anything I should watch now that I’ve resurrected my Netflix account? [Will I be able to keep myself from rewatching this again? No]

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is a YA fantasy novel following Tarisai, a girl born in the Swana region of the Arit Empire, as she is sent to court by her secretive, powerful mother to become one of the prince’s closest advisors… and maybe also kill him. If you’ve read a lot of YA fantasy, you’ve already read or heard of many stories with the same hook, and you might think you know where this is going. But do you? Raybearer is never quite what it seems at first sight.

This is a difficult book to talk about without spoilers. We first follow Tarisai when she’s just a child who is starved for affection, then we see her grow into her role at court and outside of it, always ready to question the rules and what she has been sold as the truth. At the beginning of the story, she knows nothing – not about how the world works, not about the costs of an empire, not even about herself. Between discoveries, developments, and actual plot twists, I feel like I’ve read a trilogy’s worth of material – and yet I never felt like I was being taken through things too quickly. Because of this, this novel may take a little to grow on readers, but among the many reasons I think you should keep reading, it’s worth it just to witness Tarisai’s growth.
So much her early decisions are shaped by wanting to be loved, and I deeply appreciated how this book flipped a common YA trope on its head – it has a realistic portrayal of the long-term repercussions of isolation and parental neglect while also not having the parental figure be completely absent. [If you don’t read a lot of YA: parents are often noticeably absent and that’s just not dealt with, which is… unrealistic and unoriginal.]

Raybearer is a very unusual book. I don’t mean that in the sense of “strange” (you know I love those, but I wouldn’t say this one is), more for how it frames its own story. It spans years, when most YA doesn’t; it draws inspiration from many different places, folktales and traditions while centering West African culture; it’s a story about an empire that doesn’t shy away from talking about the inherent violence of imperial assimilation and the differences between justice and order. And while Raybearer is not lacking in romantic elements, friendship is even more of a driving force for Tarisai, and the prince’s council was the most intriguing part of the book for me. A group of kids who grow up extremely close and then have their minds linked together by their love for each other and for the prince? That was a lot.

Another thing about Raybearer I loved was how alive it felt – and the audiobook really helped with that, Joniece Abbott-Pratt is an amazing narrator and made the story come to life. Even the rhymes! (This book has many of them – there’s so much attention to developing the cultures here.) Unlike most audiobooks I’ve listened to so far, this one doesn’t just read them to you in a dull tone. Then there are the descriptions, that are as vivid and colorful and unforgettable as the cover of this book would make you think.

A list of things I didn’t like as much:
🌟 The main one is that the climax felt underwhelming, and I think that’s because there are some truly… explosive development around 80% (the scenes set on right before and then on Heaven, if you know what I mean) and what followed just couldn’t match how much all of that made me feel. The epilogue, however? Perfect.
🌟 I didn’t feel strongly about the romance, but this dynamic with the love interest being the protector isn’t really my type, so that’s probably on me – I did think it was sweet. Also, what this book does in its portrayal of toxic vs. non-toxic masculinity with the character of Sanjeet is important;
🌟 I’m not a fan of stories that don’t question the divine and magical right to rule in general; I also know I wouldn’t have noticed it and/or minded it as much when I was a teen. I think this is one of the cases in which the conflict between “I want this fantasy trope and the implications of it I find morally abhorrent to die” and “no trope is truly dead until marginalized authors get to use it, and non-ownvoices readers shouldn’t demand from marginalized authors a subversion that is palatable to them” is at its strongest for me.

This was a truly remarkable read and I’d recommend it to all readers of YA fantasy who want something that feels new in a landscape that feels somewhat same-y. It’s also the kind of story that is perfect for a reader who doesn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to reading, as I was in these months, because listening to it in small bites over the course of a few months didn’t impact my enjoyment at all.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Night Shine by Tessa Gratton

this book: this mysterious, possibly evil character is known as The Sorceress Who Eats Girls
Acqua, immediately: 👀

Night Shine is, more than anything, a story about the importance of having a choice.
It follows a girl known as Nothing as she goes on a quest to rescue Kirin Dark-Smile, the prince and her closest friend, after he has been kidnapped by a Sorceress.
Hearing this premise, one might think they already know this story. They don’t.

The first thing you should know about Night Shine is that it is, from the surface to its heart, a very queer story. I’m not only talking about the characters, though of course that’s a major factor; I’m talking about what it prioritizes as well. Night Shine is a story that says, you should get to choose. Your name, over the one that was given to you. Your relationships, over what has been forced on you either through magic or norms. The way you define yourself, over an assigned gender or other kinds of restrictive roles.
For a story, having this kind of priorities means trope subversion, and this book is full of it.

Maybe the girl and the prince love each other, but not the way one would think, and maybe the girl is going to rescue the prince with the help of the prince’s secret boyfriend, his bodyguard Sky, and maybe the prince is charming, genderfluid, and also the most beautiful maiden of the realm, and maybe the sorceress is hot in a very gay way. Consider!

I always love to find new books to recommend to other gay villain romance fans, and Night Shine might be my favorite F/F example so far. The tension between the main character and the Sorceress… to give you an idea, I had to pause many times because I felt like spontaneously combusting, and that’s why this took me five days.

That’s far from the only reason this book deeply appealed to me, however. Another, maybe the most personal one, is that the main character’s arc is about understanding who she is and can be, and the first step in that is learning to want things. I was drawn to “Nothing” from the moment I met her, because I know the appeal of being functionally invisible and haunting the place you live in, unpredictable and unseen but more than anything unassuming, never-bothering, never really even occupying space if you can. And maybe that’s what you think you want, or maybe it’s a coping mechanism because the world is cruel, and it’s not all there is to you.

Then there’s the portrayal of intimacy. Back in 2018, Gratton’s Strange Grace was described by many as “full of kissing”, and I can say that it applies to Night Shine even more – people kiss! A lot! For different reasons and with different results! Like most binaries, the line between platonic and romantic isn’t a concern to this book, and this is particularly clear in the dynamic between the main character, Sky, and Kirin, which was so fascinating to read. They all love each other, it’s clear, but there are power imbalances and things turn sour – the relationship between Kirin and the main character takes a clear controlling bent, especially when contrasted with how she and Sky grow close without forcing any expectations on each other, allowing themselves to be surprised.

About Kirin specifically, I loved how he was portrayed. I know I’ve talked many times about the importance of portrayals of queer villainy, and queer flawed characters, from queer authors – and just like we get to have a sorceress who eats girls’ hearts and is a lesbian and a love interest, we get to have a genderfluid prince who is charming but also entitled and jealous, and portrayed sympathetically. We understand the reasons for his actions, and that’s why they hurt even more to read. I’m always here for books that understand that good and evil exist in shadows.
(Kirin is also not the only non-binary character who appears. The narration also uses he/him pronouns for Kirin, so that’s what I did, while it uses they/them for the other n-b character who appears.)

Another fascinating part of Night Shine are the names. Every character has a full name which almost reads like poetry; for example, Sky is The Day the Sky Opened, and another example is Sudden Spring Frost – and since we were on the topic of Kirin, it’s said that the main character starts using different full names depending on what he says about his gender that day, among which “Neither Kirin”, which is… so cool of a name. Then there’s the matter of “Nothing”‘s name, which is… plot-relevant and I’m not going to say more.

The writing was dreamlike, and yet I could see the setting so clearly – because this book knows the balance between giving enough descriptions to make everything feel real and bright but not too much to still leave some mystery and distance. In a world of sorcerers, demons, spirits and dragons, it only feels right – and the meticulous attention to detail helped, as usual for Tessa Gratton’s works.

I loved Night Shine a lot, even more than I loved Strange Grace in 2018; I think it might be a new favorite book of all time. I will know that for sure in a few months, but for now, I can say that there’s a good chance.

My rating: ★★★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

One of the best things about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is how it makes its world come alive. It takes place during a festival that only happens once in decades, Solstasia, and it felt magical in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
Between the Patron Deities (who doesn’t love a good faction-like system?), all the mythical creatures (talking hyenas? chipekwes? serpopards? yes), and the challenges we get to witness both inside the actual Solstasia competition and outside of it (…the wakama match is one of the best scenes), this world was so interesting to read about, and just fun.
It also felt grounded. One has to see a city’s worst sides to fall in love with it, and this book never shies away from Ziran’s issues – the xenophobia, the corruption, the opulence existing side by side with poverty; the way the city’s history might be darker than anyone imagines, with real repercussions on the present.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is narrated in dual PoV, and while I liked both protagonists, I was surprised the most by Malik.
Boys in YA often seem to come from the same mold, especially if they have a “love interest” role. They react to traumatic events and other difficulties in almost always the same ways, the designated Acceptable Manly Ways™, which are to use sarcasm to cover wounds or become closed-off and brooding, which ~enhances their mysteriousness~.
Malik has anxiety.
Malik has anxiety and several panic attacks on the page.
 Some very realistically portrayed ones, by which I mean uncool and embarrassing and weird and oh no now you’re going to cry again; and this book gets it. It gets how panic attacks lower your self-esteem and feed off your low self-esteem; it gets what it means to grow up knowing that everyone kind of sees you as the village freak; it gets how they make living (and taking part in an important competition) in a place that discriminates against Malik’s people even more difficult. This books gets it, and that’s why this first chapter of Malik’s story ends up being about self-acceptance.
(This book also has content warnings in the beginning, which is kind and also shouldn’t be rare.)

Karina couldn’t be more different from Malik, being the daughter of Ziran’s Sultana, and yet the two have a lot in common – in the end, they just want to be accepted as they are. Karina wants people to appreciate who she is, but also knows she doesn’t really want to rule. She’s an impulsive mess, which made for a lot of really interesting developments, some of which involving necromancy! I love her.
Her story also involved learning to see the people around her more clearly instead of taking them for granted, and the way it ended was just… perfect. (The female friendships…)
And since I forgot to mention that before: this book is casually queer-inclusive. When Karina decides that the Solstasia competition reward will be her hand in marriage – she needs the heart of a prince: an important ingredient to perform a certain necromantic ritual – the competition isn’t closed to women, because law says she can have a wife. Now she just has to make sure that a woman won’t win, because that’s someone she can’t use the corpse of!

Please don’t let the marketing mislead you. Before I actually tried this book, all I knew about it was that it had the enemies-to-lovers trope and that someone needed to save a younger sibling, which didn’t make it sound interesting at all – I don’t even like these tropes. Especially the sibling one. And I still loved this, because it’s that good. It helps that Malik has more than one sister, so you get to see that he cares about his siblings, instead of being told about it for all the book and shown the contrary. It helps, more than anything, that this book puts thought into things as it builds over its premise – so it doesn’t even matter that I wasn’t so drawn to the premise.
Also, publishing should stop being so attached to comp titles, because the way the marketing (nonsensically) pushed the comparison with Children of Blood and Bone almost made me not read this. Just because it’s West African fantasy it doesn’t mean that they’re alike.

I listened to the audiobook, which I liked: in this novel storytelling is a form of magic, so it’s great to have someone tell it to you.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

How can you write something so unprecedented yet so tropey?

43561631The Never-Tilting World is a queer post-apocalyptic fantasy book inspired by ancient Mesopotamian mythology and climate disasters. It’s a really peculiar book, and yet, despite my love for weird queer novels, I never fell in love with it. I did enjoy it a lot, yes – it was overall a really fun time and the audiobook was amazing, making the four PoVs work perfectly with four different narrators.

Let’s start from this book’s main strength: the worldbuilding is inherently cool. It’s set on a tidally locked planet (instant love for me), it has an interesting spin on what could have been a very tired elemental system but wasn’t, with a sprinkle of creepy plant magic. This book understands how to maximize the cool factor with the characters as well, having two goddess with rainbow-shifting colored hair as main characters, and involving undead underworld priests covered in lapis lazuli. And it’s really diverse, having an all-PoC cast, an F/F romance, an amputee main character and another with PTSD, with some really great conversations around trauma, including what’s more or less their world’s version of therapy.

However, while The Never-Tilting World is made up of a lot of very interesting and often unique ideas, they never quite came together in a satisfying way, and you could see the scaffolding too much.
This book has two storylines, one that is a hate-to-love romance during a desert chase, one that is a goddess/bodyguard love story featuring a descent into darkness. And everything about them felt like the author came up with the pitch before actually writing the story. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the result felt a lot more like a list of ingredients than a book. I wanted more depth from it, from the relationships, instead of it relying on tropes over and over, but that’s difficult to achieve when the novel seems to think that the way to keep the reader engaged is throwing either romance tropes or fight scenes against monsters at them. (Fight scenes are really not that interesting. I promise. Please let the characters have an actual conversation for once.)
The result is character work that is shoddy in places, predictably.

This book is inspired by climate disasters, and it was promoted as a book that had “climate change” as a theme. Did it, though? I guess that it does in the sense that it’s a story about young people doing what it takes to change the status quo in an increasingly hostile environment, and it talks about how the powerful believe they can survive by living in a bubble (the golden city) while stealing resources from poorer people, but the thing about fighting climate change is that it’s nothing so cool as fighting monsters; rather the often depressing and too slow work of, among many things, pushing for better policies, learning to deal with our problems instead of making them someone else’s, listening to scientists and indigenous people, reshaping the ways we conceptualize growth and economy, changing our priorities and whole way of living. This is not a problem we’re good at dealing with as humans, and the fact that you can’t solve it by whacking something might have something to do with that. The solutions this book gives to the environment-warping magic do not resonate, so far.
Maybe that will change in the sequel, I don’t know – it’s true that there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and this novel kept my interest enough for me to want to read The Ever-Cruel Kingdom. Something in the ending made me think this might be aiming for “we can solve this problem only if all the world works together”, which would already be thematically a better path. I hope that’s what it meant, as there is already one egregious case of wasted potential: Odessa’s descent into darkness.

You’re telling me that you had a whole character arc tied to greed for power in a book about climate disasters and you didn’t tie the “greed” and “climate disasters” themes together? Why? Is that not one of the main driving forces of real-world climate change?

I also found Odessa’s arc, like most “descent into darkness” arcs, unsatisfying: it relies too much on magic that warps the character’s mind. It deprives the main character of agency, and generally makes for a very uninteresting story. Hundreds of pages of a main character falling into a trap, slowly, with stilted magic-induced character development: not great!
(Also, let’s add “character eavesdropping on other character’s therapy session” to the “content warnings I didn’t know I needed” folder.)

Acqua, you might say, you spent the whole review complaining. But you still said you liked this?
Mainly because I’m a simple gay distracted by shiny cool things and this book is full of them and gay girls, so this was actually a great time, as long as I wasn’t thinking too much about how much better it could have been if only it had done certain things differently. But I don’t want to undermine that this book did get a lot right, mostly pertaining to Lan’s storyline and the ways it talked about power.
Lan’s arc around trauma, survivor’s guilt, and her attraction to Odessa was really well-written; if Odessa’s arc disappointed me, the exploration of the power dynamics between her and Lan, the way they shifted as Odessa changed, was really interesting to read. So was the subplot revolving around abuse in religious orders, which was accompanied by some hard truths this kind of stories don’t often deal with – everyone has the potential to be an abuser, and switching the people in power won’t put an end to abuse if the power structure itself isn’t changed.

Also, it was fun. It was entertaining and it was tropey but tropes exist because they work, so yes, I enjoyed this a lot, and I want to know what happens next.

My rating: ★★★½

This is my third book by Rin Chupeco, and so far all the books I’ve read by them have been either 3.25 (The Girl from the Well) or 3.5 stars (The Bone Witch, The Never-Tilting World), which is… really interesting, considering that they’re an author I still want to pick up more books from in the future.

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

36292242._sy475_After loving Girls Made of Snow and Glass, I’ve been anticipating Bashardoust’s second novel for years. I broke my ARC ban for it (yes, again) and it didn’t disappoint. Faith partially restored in YA fantasy!

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a standalone YA fantasy novel inspired by ancient Persia, its folklore, and Zoroastrian beliefs. It follows Soraya, the shah’s reclusive sister, whose touch is deadly because of a div curse.

It’s the kind of fantasy story I prefer not to say a lot about, one I’d recommend going into without knowing much at all, because it’s really short and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, as it’s true for most books that rely on not quite being what they seemed. It makes so much sense that the original title of this was She Was and She Was Not, as so much of Girl, Serpent, Thorn relies on shifts of the main character’s perspective on the world and herself. It’s intricate in an elegant way (as the cover is); a little game of characters-as-mirrors that comes together in a wonderful story about the inherent power of self-acceptance.
The new title is just as appropriate, for spoilery reasons I hope you’ll decide to discover for yourself.

I could continue by praising the atmosphere for paragraphs, or Melissa Bashardoust’s effective, light writing, but I want to say that a big part of the reason I loved this book is that I, too, would fall in love with the moth girl. (And I did, of course I did, it’s Parvaneh.) The F/F romance isn’t even that prominent, but it stole my heart in a few scenes. This book is so short, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, and I mean that in the best way.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an atmospheric, almost fairytale-like story about growing up unloved, and the vulnerabilities that kind of experience opens; at the beginning of the story, Soraya can’t see other people, much less herself, clearly. (This also has one of the most chillingly realistic portrayals of lovebombing I’ve ever seen.)
It’s full of twists, betrayal, and trust, be it misplaced or not; it has as much beauty as it has thorns – and it has a lot of thorns, as the best stories featuring plant magic do. It also happens to have one of the best endings I’ve read in YA fantasy in a long time.

My rating: ★★★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

51201758._sx318_sy475_Don’t let the rating I’m going to give this lesbian political fantasy on ice mislead you; this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend or advise against depending on these two options:

⇝ If you like plot-driven books, not in the sense of “fast-paced” (this isn’t) but meaning that you like amazing, complex, unpredictable political intrigue while character development can come second (as in, the characters are well-built, but the character arc moves at a… glacial pace), you’ll love this book.
⇝ If you like character-driven books and the most important part of political intrigue for you isn’t so much the politics but the way they influence deep, well-developed interpersonal relationships, or the way circumstances strain people and force them to reexamine their outlook and loyalties, this won’t do much for you. The main character doesn’t begin doing these things until 75% in.

This is a good book. I can’t understate how much one part of the final twist (there are so many twists, and yet they all make sense) took me by surprise, and YA fantasy hasn’t managed to do that in years. I also know that I would never have finished it had I not started skimming, or if it hadn’t been an audiobook.

The Winter Duke has an incredibly satisfying ending after all the frustrating events I had to read about, and the F/F romance was sweet, and just a treasure overall. Inkar was my favorite character, and it’s a shame that for plot reason we didn’t get much of her until the end.
I also have good things to say about the atmosphere, since this book is set in an ice castle, one standing over a moat hiding a magical underwater city below, and that’s just an amazing setting to explore. So is the idea of so many things being powered by magic when the characters’ don’t truly understand the forces at play.

It only failed in what I realize is the most important thing for me – the characters, and especially the main character, who was really flawed and had sensible reasons for doing what she did (of course at first she thought ruling meant being ruthless, seeing how her family was; she’s a victim perpetuating the cycle) but kept not learning from her mistakes, over and over and over, almost only because it was necessary for her to be dense for the plot to move forward.
I had to spend more than half of this book reading the same scenes with the same dynamic: Ekata tries to keep Inkar away, tries to rule without thinking of the consequences first and alienates people in the process, her prime minister scolds her, she keeps trying to wake up her father even when it’s obvious that would be the worst move, and tries to fend off Sigis’ advances without success.

That was the other problem, apart from how repetitive this dynamic was – I constantly had to read about skeevy Sigis, and I was so tired of that. Sigis this, Sigis that, Sigis invades Ekata’s personal space, Sigis creeps her out, Sigis threatens her and her friends and is almost so efficient he felt like a villain sue at times (though in the end I didn’t think he was one), Sigis gets more lines than the actual love interest (why). He isn’t an interesting character, he was always saying the same things, and I spent most of this book feeling bored and annoyed until I started skimming his scenes: they were unnecessary enough that I still understood everything. While this is not a Beauty and the Beast retelling at all, it’s the equivalent of a Beauty and the Beast retelling that dedicates no time to the Beast and has instead the main character talk with Gaston for most of the book. Why would I want to read that?

My rating: ★★½

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two M/M YA Fantasy Books

Today I’m reviewing two ownvoices m/m YA fantasy books, one that mostly worked for me and one that really didn’t, but that had an eerily similar flaw: the tendency to summarize important moments/tell the reader about them, instead of allowing the reader to experience them. I get that show, don’t tell is often overused as advice, but more showing would have helped with the pacing in both of these books.


40131428._sy475_Reverie is a story about the importance that dreams and fantasy have in people’s lives, and how balancing them with reality is just as necessary. It’s a story that gets on a deep level why the idea of escaping to a kinder world is so tempting to queer teenagers, but one that is also about learning to not run away from reality.

I think it’s important to state that a significant part of my problems with this book come from me wanting it to be something different than what it was. At first, I thought that Reverie was all flash and no substance, but I was wrong, because it can clearly drive a point home when it wants to. It’s just than more often than not, it seems to not want to, and I kept hoping it would.
So many topics, so many ideas are just touched upon, and I highlighted many parts, always hoping that I would get more about self-inserts, who gets to tell stories, belonging and not-belonging in reality, the reality of the unreal – specifically from a queer PoV, because all these things are important to me and I would love a book to actually go there. This isn’t that book, and I’ve always been more for the introspective kind of weird (for a queer book that is introspective and talks about not losing yourself into fantasies in a similar yet completely different way, I recommend The Gallery of Unfinished Girls by Lauren Karcz).

But this is weird, don’t doubt that for a minute. After all, it is about an amnesiac teenage boy and the powerful drag queen sorceress who is attempting to unravel the reality of Connecticut. Just not the kind of weird I like the most, and I didn’t fully get what this book actually wanted to be. For a story about something as intimate as dreams and fantasies, the unusually distant third person narration was a really unusual choice, and one I didn’t particularly like. Its penchant for telling and summarizing things (Kane did this and Kane did that and sense of passage of time, I don’t know her), which might have worked in another context, didn’t help here.
And apart from the angle about the meaning of dreams, I just don’t think this is a particularly good story. The side characters are kind of stereotypes – lovable for the most part, yes, but they still didn’t feel like they were people, especially the love interest – and the way this book starts with an amnesiac character rediscovering his friends muddled things instead of helping. I thought that being (re)introduced to these characters along with Kane would help me get to know their history, but I couldn’t even get a grasp on how much Kane remembered at different points of the story, much less on the characters themselves. All the friendships, sibling bonds and relationships felt shallow as a result.

What I liked about the characters was the casual queerness. There are two side f/f couple (the subplot about the two elderly women in love is the sweetest part of this book), and what stood out the most was the character of Dr. Posey. She is fascinating and completely unlike every other antagonist you’ll ever read about, the out-of-the-box heart of this unconventional book, and can I just say how great it is to read queer people’s takes on the feminine gay villain trope? A homophobic archetype that readers were meant to be disgusted by, or laugh at, becomes someone that is meant to be admired and feared at the same time, powerful and dangerous.

Ultimately, Reverie wasn’t really for me, but I think there’s still a lot to appreciate about it, and I’m so glad that a YA book that is as unapologetically weird and gay as this one got published.

My rating: ★★★


34510711._sy475_Infinity Son would have worked wonderfully as a comic book, and I think that it would also make a solid movie, because the bones of the story are there and there’s a lot of potential (urban fantasy novel in which the gay Puerto Rican main character gets to be the chosen one!), plenty of which would also lie in the visuals (It’s about modern-day Phoenixes, which as a concept is inherently cool.)

However, in the state it is currently? I read an ARC, but I think this needed at least another serious round of editing dedicated to structure, which I don’t think will happen before it gets released. As a multi-PoV novel with a neverending cast of side characters we’re supposed to care about (but can’t because what we know about most of them could be summed up in two words), it just doesn’t work. I’m not surprised by the many bad reviews, even though I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the story itself.

While Adam Silvera can clearly write emotional slice-of-life stories, as he has done multiple times, when it comes to action scenes, we’re really not there.
There was something seriously off with… the pacing? I’m not sure what’s the right word to use when a scene in itself doesn’t flow well because the book keeps summarizing things that shouldn’t be summarized or stating them in a really emotionless way. I’m talking about paragraphs and paragraphs of this:

“Stanton opens his mouth and emits a spray that smells like rotted animal carcass. Blood rushes to my head and I’m so dizzy and we all fall to our knees.”

I don’t know if it’s just me, but for the way this sentence is written, I’d think the character was telling me what he bought at the grocery store. It’s emotionless and makes everything in the story feel fake.

DNF 40%


Have you read or are you anticipating any of these?

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

43558747Me and YA fantasy this year really don’t get along.

In terms of how it compares to the first book, Girls of Storm and Shadow is probably the worst sequel I’ve ever read.
After all, how can a series in which I love the two main characters end up being actively unenjoyable? Somehow, this one managed, and without ever making me change my feelings about Lei and Wren – which is a remarkable accomplishment, one I hope to never see again.

The best word I can find to describe what went wrong with most of this book is “sloppy“. A lot of good ideas, but to say that the execution left something to be desired would be an understatement, and this was true right from the beginning. I read an ARC, and I hope some of these don’t make it to the final copy, but one of the first things that stood out to me about Girls of Storm and Shadow was the jarringly modern language – characters using words like “fanmail”, or “B.O.” to mean body odor, or saying “stealth mode activated” – out of nowhere, in what is very much a high fantasy setting. There are also some puns that, to work, would require the characters to be speaking English, which clashed with everything I know about the worldbuilding. Also, since we’re talking about the puns: I didn’t mind that they were purposefully terrible, but the attempt at funny banter involving Bo, Nitta and Merrin was so cringey I just wanted them all to disappear. There really isn’t a character more annoying than the unfunny comic relief.

The jarring parts didn’t stop there; no, soon I started to notice how awkward the dialogue was at times – always at the same very specific times. While every character has their own way to speak and it’s usually easy to understand who is saying what without needing a dialogue tag, most of the characters seemed to have a thing for launching themselves into monologues about what bravery is and the costs of fighting back. In those monologues, they all spoke the exact same way. It was as if these parts were made to work out of context instead of in context, as if they were meant to be quoted and shared instead of actually belonging in the text. While I agreed with what the book said about resistance and what it means to be brave, abandoning all subtlety to deliver important lessons to the reader is talking down to the reader.

This is also a journey book.
I’m always hesitant with sequels of books I loved, because in a trilogy, the second book often turns into a journey book. If the first book wasn’t one already, the second often fails. One of the things I loved the most about Girls of Paper and Fire was the atmosphere, at the same time dazzling and claustrophobic, and the way the f/f romance was framed as a light in the darkness for Lei. All of this is lost in the second book; we go from a developed, vivid setting that feels real to speeding through a series of locations we’re told relatively little about, and everything feels so flat and fake. We go from a romance that was a source of strength for the characters to something that is mostly yet one more obstacle for them.

I appreciated how this book portrayed the way even a loving relationship can become really strained when two people are uprooted from the circumstances in which the relationship began and thrown into a very different but still ugly situation. Lei is suffering because she feels out of place (on top of everything we saw in the first book); Wren has been raised by a family that mostly saw her as means to an end, and at times finds herself missing some parts of palace life, and this horrifies her. I wasn’t annoyed by the way the main characters found communicating difficult – no, I think the miscommunication was realistic and necessary. These are traumatized 17-year-olds and Lei is clearly displaying PTSD symptoms. Of course they’re struggling, and that impacts their relationship. This book doesn’t shy away from any of that, and that’s probably what I liked the most about it.

What really annoyed me was that this book thought it was necessary to include [spoilery thing] of all things, out of nowhere, 70% in. Now, I can have fun with this sort of thing in lighter reads in which I’m just there for the drama. This is very much not that kind of book, and I have no idea why this was done. To add conflict? As if there wasn’t enough. That sort of thing only annoys your reader, and it’s not like I needed that, because believe me, after spending 300 pages with Bo I was already annoyed.

Click here to see what the spoiler-y thing is, because I wish I had known:

Unnecessary drama involving an ex-girlfriend that is suddenly introduced.

I also felt like nothing happened, even though a lot of things clearly happened, since the characters were constantly on the run or trying to convince people to ally with them. The problem is, the situation felt very stagnant, because the characters’ goals were always the same, their relationship with the world and each other were always the same, the villains’ goals were always the same – at least for the first three quarters of the book.
I quit 75% of the way through, because I realized that I wasn’t actually liking anything of what I was reading anymore.

My rating: ★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Unnecessarily Long Review: The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

42265183This is nothing like Twilight: the similarities are superficial at best, and a trope in common does not a similar book make.

The Beautiful is a story about desire and power (and desire for power) from the point of view of a young woman. That’s the main reason I don’t want to say it’s similar to the vampire story that basically preaches abstinence in your face. They share a few tropes and plot devices; apart from that, I really don’t see the similarities.

Now that I got that out of the way, due to the borderline ridiculous length of this review I want to give you a disclaimer: this post should have probably been titled “here’s what happens when Acqua takes fiction way too personally”; as this book hit far deeper than a vampire book has any right to, this got both long and personal and not necessarily as coherent as usual.


I

On the Portrayal of Sexual Assault and Self-Loathing

This is the story of Celine, a girl who left everything she knew from her life in France and went to live in New Orleans after a deeply traumatic event. There, she will get more and more involved in the murderous paranormal underbelly of the city.

So, The Beautiful is the most culturally Catholic book I’ve ever read, and unexpectedly so. Celine is French and biracial Korean, and was raised in what’s implied to be a (by today’s standards) strict Catholic environment. I’ve never seen a character with this specific kind of background before, especially not in an American fantasy book.

And did it make for some unpleasant flashbacks.
From age 3 to age 13, I attended an Italian Catholic school led by sisters; all of them were both old and what one could call old-school Catholics. The environment I was immersed in for most of my childhood isn’t too different from Celine’s own background, and I’m familiar with the ways it can be toxic.

Which brings me to the point: this book has the best portrayal of Catholic self-loathing I’ve ever seen.
Celine is a wild, carefree person. She has always craved danger and on some level power; what happened to her and brought her to New Orleans only forced her to face that fact, and now she is disgusted by herself.
Celine was sexually assaulted by a man, and she killed him in self-defense. She doesn’t feel regret about that, the book is pretty clear about it, and she states (quote) that:

“Celine still wasn’t sorry for what she had done.”

What horrifies her is the fact that she liked it. That she liked wielding power, that she didn’t feel remorse at all, for killing – which, according to Catholicism, is a mortal sin. In the eyes of the Catholic church, especially of the Catholic church of her time who would no doubt blame her for what happened instead of seeing it rightfully as (acceptable by Catholics) self-defense, Celine has just done something evil, that she could atone in only some specific way I don’t remember because I didn’t pay that much attention during the mandatory religion class, being an atheist. But you can’t atone without regret, which she doesn’t feel. Of course she feels bad about not feeling it, even though we know she did nothing wrong.

We know, and if one understands what she’s going through, they also should understand why she has deeply mixed feelings about what happened. I disagree with the comments that say “this book tells sexual assault victims they shouldn’t fight back” – which Celine doesn’t even think, as she does the very Catholic thing of feeling bad about her own emotions instead. And getting out of this self-hating mindset is the heart of her character arc!

“Sin isn’t as black and white as they’d like us to believe.”

A character arc that is really meaningful and close to me.
One might think this is a book that wants to talk about “the mindset of people at the time”, but I want people to know that is still really relevant today.

I’m an atheist and a lesbian. I’ve always known about the first but not about the second. How long did it take me to be somewhat comfortable with that after being raised in this kind of deeply homophobic religious environment – if I start counting from the moment I knew and understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay?
Three years, and I don’t even believe in sin. You internalize that sort of thing. If I internalized homophobia on a deep level, Celine internalized that women should make themselves small, be humble, not crave power and feel anything remotely positive in being able to best their attackers. She knows she did the right thing, she knows defending herself was the right thing, but what you know doesn’t matter. She hates herself and has to work through it. Which she does, and she’ll probably continue to do in the following books.


II

Power: who has it, who craves it

There’s something wonderful about seeing marginalized people be involved in a historical narrative that is specifically about power. Reading about La Cour des Lions, an underground supernatural society composed mostly by people of color and queer people, is the best kind of escapism. The kind that asks, what if the ones that white American society always tried to make powerless weren’t powerless at all, in more than one way? That’s giving power to those who usually don’t get it in fantasy – much less historical fantasy – books, which is why I love that this wasn’t contemporary.

Reading about women who crave power is something I’ve always loved and yet rarely find outside villain origin stories. Yes, Celine is somewhat self-centered. The narrative doesn’t praise nor tear her down for that, and I appreciated that so much. The book even lets her make the classic clueless straight girl faux pas (“but I’m not into you” and the like) when the lesbian side character Odette comes out to her, and the book calls her out for it! I loved that scene. Celine is flawed and – in her words – reckless, incomplete and inappropriate, and I love her deeply.

Often, women are asked to choose between love and ambition; here, power is a central theme of the romance as well, which is the right thread to follow in a story involving vampires, if you ask me. Both potential love interests have power over Celine, and Celine is attracted to them both in spite and because of that, but most of all, she wants power over them. The idea that their attraction to her is one of their weaknesses is probably the most attractive thing about the whole tangle to her.

And while both relationships are unbalanced, the ways the two love interests approach the situation are very different and tied to the power/agency theme, which is why the romance being a hinted-at love triangle makes sense (fight me) even though you know who she’ll very likely choose:
🌹 the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain tries to keep the main character at a distance because danger (probably the most Twilight-y thing), but he is stunned by how daring and fearless Celine can be.
🌹 Michael Grimaldi is also surprised by Celine, but he wants her to tone herself down. He just wants to keep Celine safe from this horrible supernatural world, after all. (Did I somehow manage to omit that people are being murdered? Yes I did)
[by the way, I find an all-PoC love triangle – both the love interests are biracial, Bastien is of Taíno descent and Michael is Italian and Black – inherently not cliché]

I can’t wait to see this play out, and not because I don’t know the way this will likely play out. After all, the point of a romance and thematic arc isn’t surprising the reader.


III

Respect and Italian Representation

I’ve read more than a dozen American books that tried to incorporate Italian words into the text, especially in the form of an Italian-American character using both languages on the page.
Until The Beautiful, every single one of them got something wrong, because authors just don’t care enough to have someone who speaks the language check what they’re doing.

This book has a delightful scene in which a very realistic and stern Italian grandmother brings the main character she has never met before Italian food, and speaks both English and Italian on the page. There’s not one word wrong or out of place.

[Historical accuracy aside: as this book is set in 1872, an Italian character probably wouldn’t be speaking Italian at all, but another romance language or dialect – in this case, Sicilian, I think – but finding resources and people who are able to translate less-known languages spoken in Italy for you when you don’t even speak Italian is… well, it’s not reasonable to expect that from an English author, so I’m fine with this choice. I can barely write in my own region’s original language with a dictionary and I live here.]

As far as I know, the author doesn’t speak Italian, and she mentions asking for help to someone in the acknowledgments. The fact that she cared enough to do that – when most American authors don’t – meant a lot to me and made me see the whole book in a better, less nitpick-y way.


IV

Because yes, I do have complaints

I had mixed feelings about the writing. The atmosphere is undeniably beautiful, the descriptions vivid and detailed, enough that they will feel like too much to those who don’t specifically like slow reads that are meant to be savored (yes this took me more than a week no I’m not annoyed about that).
However, sometimes there were some weird turns of phrase. Characters who are walking as if they were moving through water to mean that they’re graceful (how does that look like? Are they swimming? Doesn’t feel graceful), for example; and while I understand that self-identifying as a monster is in fact one of the coping mechanisms typical of people who loathe themselves, reading about the movement of Celine’s “dark creature” only made me think of tapeworms.
And were all those Shakespeare quotes necessary?

I also recommend going into this with appropriate expectations for a vampire romance, which means: The Beautiful is as cheesy as one would expect. From the oh-so-forbidden lust we mostly won’t call lust because this is YA (cue weird metaphors) to the pages-long villain monologue, everything about this book is overdramatic. But I mean, if you’re going to do sexy vampires, being understated doesn’t really make sense either.

And now, to the biggest complaint: the unnecessary PoVs. For most of the book, apart from Celine’s narration, you also read from the villain’s PoV – except you don’t know who the villain is or their motivations or anything that would make their chapters interesting; you only get vague and ominous word vomit about tearing enemies down. Those chapters were so boring and didn’t actually add anything, not even suspense.
Also, the worldbuilding revolving around the paranormal creatures? Messy and underdeveloped. I get that it wasn’t the point and Celine couldn’t know anything anyway, but I hope the next book clears it up, because I definitely will be reading it.

My rating: ★★★★½