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

 

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

39679076House of Salt and Sorrows is a standalone YA gothic murder mystery set in a high fantasy world.

This book doesn’t get that heterosexuality is not a personality trait.

I’m not saying this to be funny: no one in this book had a personality. I can’t tell you anything about the main character apart from the fact that she’s attracted to Cassius and cares for her sisters; she was more a placeholder than a character. The boys were even worse, existing in the book just to be handsome, vaguely mysterious, and exchange possessive glares that the book will carefully specify are masculine while fighting for the main girl.
And while I knew, getting into a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, that not every sister was going to be developed, I didn’t expect their attraction to boys to replace the personality of all of them (in the older ones; the younger one is never anything more than a “creepy little girl” stereotype.)
Four sisters are dead at the beginning of the book, and the living ones are worried not because of that, or not because maybe they’re going to die next, but because their supposed “curse” scares men away and they think they’re going to grow old and die unkissed, without ever having danced with a boy.
Yeah. Priorities!

So, let’s be kind and say that this book is plot-driven.
The plot wasn’t that great. House of Salt and Sorrows is a gothic mystery with a really interesting premise and solid background, but the execution ended up being really messy. All the tension relied on the usual “is the main character *gasp* insane or is that magic?” trope, which is cheap and I hate it, especially when the answer is so obvious and when the book constantly approached even only the possibility of mental illness in really insensitive ways.
By the way, in case that wasn’t already clear: there is no diversity whatsoever in this book. The whole cast is all-straight, and, unless I missed something, also all-white and all-abled (which: the realism, where?). There’s one old blind man whose entire personality was “crazy” who appeared for half a scene, and that’s it. No diversity, bland unnecessary romance, love triangle… did we all somehow time-travel to 2013?

The mystery was kind of underwhelming, but it wasn’t terrible. The foreshadowing was somewhat unsubtle and heavy-handed at times, but it didn’t give away the whole story immediately as many YA mystery books do; the revelation wasn’t the most unpredictable thing ever, but it was fine – I was mostly annoyed by how rushed the resolution was.

And I still didn’t dislike this, not really.
I mean, I clearly had many problems with it, but the thing is, it kept my interest. I’m barely reading these days and I finished it really quickly – which yes, that also means that there wasn’t much substance to it, but it was a fun ride most of the time, and I wanted to know what happened. I never really thought about DNFing it.

Another reason I didn’t dislike this book is that I got into it for the island gothic aesthetic, and in that aspect, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Have you ever watched a movie or a show in which the acting was bad and the plot was mediocre but the setting and the costume design made it worth watching at least once, purely as eye candy? House of Salt and Sorrows is the book version of that. The descriptions are beautiful, and the island atmosphere is perfect. I loved all the mentions of coastal marine life, the descriptions of tide pools, all the details this book gave me about buildings and dresses and shoes and accessories.

This is deeply forgettable and really flawed, and not something I would ever reread, but it was worth reading once just for that.

My rating: ★★¾

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

36683928Spin the Dawn is the first book in a Chinese-inspired fantasy series. If you think that this book’s cover is beautiful, I can now tell you that its inside is even better, and that it is worth reading just for the descriptions and atmosphere, if you care about that sort of thing.
I certainly do.

One of the first things I noticed while reading this book was that I could visualize everything perfectly – from the dresses and the needlework to the landscapes and the magic – so much that I was actually happy when, once the sewing competition ended, this became a travel fantasy. Travel fantasy is very hit-or-miss for me, but when I love the author’s writing (especially the descriptions), I always end up loving it, and this was no exception.

It was so refreshing to read about a heroine who wasn’t a warrior in a book about a competition that didn’t in any way involve fightingSpin the Dawn is about a competition to become the Emperor’s personal tailor; in this world of demons and magic that can spin sun rays and paint with the blood of the stars, it’s exactly as beautiful as one would think, and the mythology is just as interesting.
Maia, the main character, isn’t good at wielding traditional weapons – her “weapons” are needles and especially her magical scissors, but this doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I always appreciate when YA fantasy portrays characters who have a different sort of strength from the usual warrior archetype.

I almost wanted to give this book five stars, because I did love parts of it, and it’s been a while since a YA fantasy novel captivated me so much. However, some tropes this book employed left a bad taste in my mouth – crossdressing plotlines usually have transphobic implications in some scenes (which is why I skimmed the ~gender reveal~) but what I didn’t expect was the whole “I’m disguised as a boy and I’m attracted to a boy, people think we’re *gasp* gay“. It almost felt like the book was playing it for laughs, and… that’s really not good, especially not in a book in which there are no explicitly queer characters. [there’s also a really ableist trope at the end of the ARC, bus as I’ve heard it was removed from the final copy, I won’t let it influence my rating.]

It might be that this is the first straight book I’ve read in a month, but the romance wasn’t great – it’s the typical “kind of naive girl + mysterious boy with an eye color far more striking than his personality” dynamic that is everywhere in YA fantasy. I wouldn’t hate m/f YA fantasy romances so much if it weren’t for the fact that 90% of male love interests sound like the same person. It’s also one of these mortal + old immortal romances, except the love interest doesn’t sound old at all (I don’t get why he had to be immortal in the first place), and I didn’t get why the two liked each other at all either – their banter was fun at times, but what did they see in each other? I don’t know, I liked them enough as individual characters (especially Maia) but as a couple… I just didn’t feel it.

My rating: ★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F YA Books

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f young adult books I’ve read recently, one contemporary and one fantasy.


Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

31180248I’ve now read all the books Becky Albertalli has written, and of them, Leah on the Offbeat felt like the most realistic one to me. There’s an amount of teenage drama that would be annoying, if I didn’t remember how it was like to be in high school and hear about my classmates’ relationship problems.

Teenagers are messy, teenage relationships are even messier, and I loved how this book didn’t shy away from that for a moment. The result is a novel with a plot that is less solid than Simon vs.‘s, but one that actually feels like a story about real teenagers. I mean, it features a friend group that is mostly queer and the characters aren’t even out to each other for most of high school, and yes, that’s far more common than YA books would lead you to believe.

Leah Burke as a character felt so real to me. She constantly says the wrong thing, she overreacts, she misinterprets, she doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s a 17-year-old girl, not a role model, and I liked her so much for it. Sometimes she reminded me of myself, sometimes she reminded me of things some of my classmates have done. Teenage girls have… a lot of emotions and don’t always cope in the healthiest ways, and this book knows that. What I don’t get is all the hate Leah got for being a realistic teenage girl, but I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing how the book community is usually about girls who don’t deserve a halo.
Her relationship with Abby was very cute, but not without misunderstandings, because both girls are insecure and kind of take it out on each other at times (see: the label policing conversation – that’s Leah being a dick because she feels guilty about 100 other things; I never got the impression that the book wanted me to agree with her). However, their dynamic didn’t feel unhealthy to me overall.

I have to say that reading these books also makes me kind of sad, because while I’m always glad I can find happy queer stories (this time, one that was translated in my language!), this hasn’t been my high school experience, not even close– and to see books that say things like “you’ll miss these years!!”… well, I hope not. They were a five-year-long nightmare. I’m a year out of high school and I miss nothing.

Also: this time the pop culture references felt less overwhelming, maybe because I expected them, but the translation continued to make very questionable choices. I especially disliked the way the minor non-binary character was handled, as this book had the Italian version of “she uses they/them pronouns”.

My rating: ★★★★


The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

36998181Me and E.K. Johnston’s writing just don’t get along. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just that the narrative choices don’t make any sense to me: in years of reading fantasy, I’ve never read a book that had at the same time this many infodumps and a worldbuilding as generic, inconsistent and lacking in details as The Afterward.

Let’s talk about what I mean:

  • generic: this book has a typical medieval fantasy aesthetic, with knights and kings and magical gems, which is fine, if not exactly my preference;
  • inconsistent: what sets it apart from many other fantasy books is that it has gender equality to a degree and less queerphobia, which would have been great if the book hadn’t gone about it in an extremely inconsistent way, for example by telling us that the language shifted to include non-binary people but constantly using binarist phrasings – and since we’re talking about the way things are phrased, some parts were really uncomfortable to read as an aromantic person;
  • lacking in details: the Mage Keep is the only place that was really described, and I have no idea how anything else looked like. It relied a lot on the idea that the reader could envision a generic medieval fantasy world, but that’s both boring for me and lazy writing.

I had a similar problem with That Inevitable Victorian Thing – at this point, I doubt she’s able to write worldbuilding that doesn’t fall apart if you look at it twice – so I think she’s just not the author for me.

Now, let’s mostly focus on the positives, since this was, after all, a three star book – and three stars isn’t a bad rating for me.
The Afterward is a quietly subversive fantasy novel. It looks generic on the surface, and its world is, but what it does with the set-up isn’t. Instead of having a group of men with the one woman™ go on a quest, it’s a group of female knights (one of which is a trans woman) and thieves with only one man, and the story centers an f/f relationship between two young women of color. What it did with arranged marriage tropes was really interesting to see too, as it didn’t approach it the way most YA fantasy novels do.

I thought that The Afterward would be about what happens after the quest, but it isn’t, not really – half of it is set during the before. I can’t really complain about that, since those are the parts of the book in which we actually see the f/f couple instead of only hearing about it while the girls are separated. However, the quest itself wasn’t that interesting to read about.

And finally: the f/f romance. I loved Olsa and Kalanthe’s dynamic, but they aren’t in the same place for most of the book. Which is sad, because the scenes in which they were together were enough to make me at least believe in the romance, so I wonder how strongly I would have felt about it had it had more page time.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

39733052What I love the most about Margaret Rogerson’s books is how they don’t take themselves too seriously. It was true for An Enchantment of Ravens, and it’s true for Sorcery of Thorns too – the humor in them is effortless and makes everything feel lighter. 16-year-old me would have had so much fun with this.
I mean, I loved this book now too, but it’s the kind of novel for which I want a time machine, so that I could give it to 16-year-old Acqua. This is the way I want YA fantasy to be: funny, and on the lighter side, without needing to shy away from dark themes from time to time; enjoyable for adults but mostly aimed at teens.

Sorcery of Thorns is the story of Elisabeth, who was raised in – and in a way, by – a magical library, and it’s the story of how she got drawn into a scheme much bigger than herself, involving sorcery, demons, and the power of books.
Elisabeth took a while to grow on me. At the beginning, her voice reminded me a lot of Isobel from AEOR and didn’t really stand out to me, but the way she went at things and defeated them, sometimes out of pure stubbornness, made me love her. The romance also grew on me after a lukewarm start – Elisabeth and the bisexual disaster of a sorcerer named Nathaniel are one of the best m/f couples in YA fantasy, and how could I not love them, when Nathaniel started calling Elisabeth “you menace” (I mean, he’s right. Elisabeth is unstoppable.)

But I have to be honest, the main reason I liked this book wasn’t the romance, or the beautiful descriptions of magical, terrifying libraries, or even the amount of casual queerness (there’s an aro side character and I love her).
The main reason is Silas, Nathaniel’s Inherited Demon™, who tries to convince Elisabeth for most of the book that he is a dignified powerful demon who totally doesn’t care about humans, especially not Nathaniel, no, why would you think that
And the thing is, he doesn’t care like a human would, but in his own way, he definitely does. Margaret Rogerson strikes the “doesn’t feel like a human, but definitely feels” balance perfectly, which I already knew from her portrayal of the fair folk in her debut, but here the dynamic was even more interesting. Silas is such a compelling combination of “terrifying and beautiful and powerful, but also caring (in a demon way) and exasperated by teenage humans”.

When I wrote what I want from YA fantasy, I said that I wanted books to not shy away from difficult themes, too, and this book did that – it talks about how easy it is for young women in difficult situations to be dismissed as crazy, as “difficult” themselves. It was hard to read, but it’s what made seeing Elisabeth succeed even more satisfying.

One thing that didn’t work for me, however, was the pacing. It’s not that this book is slow, I just felt weird about it. Almost as if things took too long to get started and then became too quick all of the sudden, but multiple times through the book. I have to say that overall my favorite kind of YA fantasy is the one that is closer to 300 pages than to 500.
Also, it was a really predictable read, which is why I think I would have loved it even more at 16, when I hadn’t read as much of this genre. However, I didn’t mind that too much, because I don’t consider predictability a flaw when the storyline is what makes sense for the book and the foreshadowing isn’t heavy-handed.

My rating: ★★★★¼