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Review: If This Gets Out: A Novel by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich (Out 12/7/21)

Cover of If This Get Out by Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich.

Genre: Contemporary romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: One Direction fanfiction (Larry?), The Charm Offensive, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, An Unexpected Kind of Love, VH1’s Behind the Music, found family, friends to lovers

I hate when people call gay romance novels cute. It feels infantilizing. It reminds me of the way straight people will stare and point at (especially male) gay couples on the street, and when they’re caught say, “Oh, you’re just so cute.” Like gay people (especially men) are fluffy handbags, statement pieces, not entirely real people.

Also, this book is cute as hell, and it’s only partially due to the romance. I can’t remember the last time I saw a media portrayal of male friendships this open and loving. Usually, when fictional friends say they love each other, it’s a pair of girls who are about to stab each other in the back. There’s no backstabbing in this book. There’s not even a single “no homo.”

The friends are four boys who met and performed together at music camp one summer when they were fifteen: “sensitive, sweet Zach … type A, cautious Jon … wild, hilarious Angel … perfectionist, darkly sarcastic [Ruben].” Though none of the other boys knew it at the time, Jon’s father is the famous pop talent manager Geoff Braxton:

… if he decides you’re worth it he can make you a global superstar, richer and more famous than you can ever imagine. If you want to be famous, he’s a god.

Geoff watched the boys’ finale performance (complete with “terrible choreography that we crudely put together … by watching YouTube … and altering the moves to fit our ability”) “through calculating eyes” and decided they were worth it.

Three years later, Geoff has carefully shaped the boys into Saturday, a world-famous pop band preparing to leave for their first international tour. He’s given them professional choreography and more money than they know how to spend, but also entirely new personals that they have to maintain both on and offstage.

Angel, who has a model waiting in every country, is the innocent virgin, while Jon, a devout Catholic, struggles against instructions to wear less and less clothing for every show.

I’m not going to say much about Jon in this review because when things happen, he’s usually standing on the sidelines yelling for his friends to put on their helmets, but I want to get it on the record that Jon is 10/10 the best boy. Jon would bring you soup when you’re sick and never forget your birthday. If I ever come into a possession of a human son, I want him to be like Jon.

Zach, the pop punk-loving cinnamon roll, is the bad boy of the group, but his vocals have been polished free of any edge. He longs to write a song for Saturday, but Geoff continually rebuffs his efforts, telling him to think more along the lines of “something that would play … in a mall.” Fuck managers, but I actually can’t hold this against Geoff. All the lyrics Zach shares in the book are comedically bad:

I bring my pen to the page and write: You’re like a hangover … I put my notebook down, and write down mysterious ways.

Is there a song in that … you’re hot like water?

Though his musical theater background makes him the strongest vocalist of the group, Ruben is bland, a blank slate for the projected fantasies of any girl who doesn’t want a virgin, a player, or a bad boy. Which seems like a good marketing strategy, at first. However, Geoff goes beyond just dressing Ruben in neutral-colored sweaters, preventing him from showing off his true singing abilities, and forbidding him from drawing any attention to himself. Geoff is terrified someone will find out Ruben is gay, even though it’s an open secret in the industry and Ruben has been asking to make it public since he was sixteen.

Ruben is the group cynic, which sometimes makes him hard to sympathize with. There’s more than a bit of condescension in the way he thinks about his friends’ hopes that their management company will give them more freedom in the future. None of his friends know Geoff has been keeping him in the closet for years because he hasn’t told them. I often wanted to shake him, but I also found him painfully real and relatable. In addition to a gay teenager who’s way over his head, Ruben was raised by parents who are cruel and controlling, and he’s learned to keep his vulnerabilities hidden.

Though all four boys are privately struggling, they manage to keep it more-or-less together until they leave for the international leg of their big tour.

Then, it quickly becomes clear that Angel’s partying is out of control, and there’s something more than friendship growing between Zach and Ruben. (Poor Jon has very little time to worry about his own problems because he’s somehow gotten stuck with the responsibility for keeping his friends alive and out of trouble.)

Even though I have only ever read one (horrifying) piece of bandfic, I loved this setup for a YA romance novel. It’s full of opportunities for angst and drama beyond the usual miscommunication. And it delivers! This is a book that’s practically dripping in teenage angst, but the authors usually manage to keep it from veering into melodrama by making sure there are actual, clear stakes and plenty of fluff to balance it all out.

One night early in the tour, Zach gives his hotel room to two girls who get too drunk at one of Angel’s parties. Of course he can crash in Ruben’s bed. They’re best friends. It’s not weird, just two bros chillin in the same bed five feet apart cuz they’re not gay.

Then they kiss, and it’s suddenly very gay. (Did you know you’re allowed to describe an erection in YA? Because I did not.)

There are several chapters of angst while Zach tries to figure out if he actually wanted to kiss Ruben (and that would mean about him) or if he just wants to have wanted to kiss Ruben because he doesn’t want to hurt his best friend. Ruben has a tendency to attract guys, both straight and not, looking to date their way into stardom. Zach’s almost more afraid of having used Ruben like all the others than he is of admitting he’s bi. Meanwhile, Ruben is panicking that he somehow forced or manipulated Zach into kissing him, and the media is picking up on the tension between them.

If I sound dismissive, it’s not because I have no sympathy for Zach’s experience. The way the authors describe his dawning realization that he’s always been attracted to people of all genders was similar to my own internal coming out process:

Is the truth that I don’t get strong crushes on guys the way I get on girls? Or is the truth that whenever those crushes start to poke their heads up I squash them, and ignore them?

I think of Lee. I think of Eirik. I think of Ruben, and his photo.

… There’s an explanation here, and maybe … no, it can’t be that. You’d know. You’d know.

However, I do think these chapters are the weakest part of the book. While Zach’s coming out feels honest and meaningful, the conflict between him and Ruben feels unnecessarily cruel and drawn out. It’s like the book comes to an abrupt stop so they can bicker in circles for a while.

I get that they’re teenagers. I do get that, but I don’t get why they have to have the same argument over and over again, or why Ruben apparently has no sympathy for what it’s like to realize you’re not as straight as you’ve always told yourself you were. Does he not know any other queer people?

The plot picks up again when Zach decides he does want to be with Ruben. He comes out to the other members of Saturday, who are so excited and supportive I wanted to cry. He comes out to their management team, who promise they can start “thinking about” announcing the relationship publicly after their Russian tour stop. Angel’s mental health continues to decline.

I have mixed feelings about Angel’s plot. On the one hand, I think it’s important to honestly portray what that kind of fame combined with a complete lack of autonomy does to people. Having it hit a supporting character the hardest makes space for more fluff and tenderness in Ruben’s relationship, which I adored.

On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with Angel’s addiction and mental illness being used as a plot device to create drama in his friends’ love story, especially when Angel is Asian American and Zach and Ruben are white. I’ve yet to make up my mind about how his arc is resolved mostly offscreen with a single stint in rehab. I guess I’m glad to see YA finally portraying therapy positively, but ehhh …

I did really appreciate the way Angel’s struggles motivated his friends to stand up to their management team, and I liked seeing Angel finally being able to open up about what he was going through once he’d gotten help. Again, this book has so much more emotional vulnerability than stories about boys are usually allowed to have. It’s truly lovely.

Something else you don’t see in many YA books: When things get really bad, most of the boys’ parents step up and fight for them. They form a moms’ club to lead the fight against Saturday’s management. It’s a nice change to the feelings of isolation and helplessness the boys have been dealing with for most of the book, and I appreciated the fact that the boys still maintained their autonomy to drive the conclusion.

Overall, this was a sweet read that nicely balanced tenderness with teenage angst and emotional intimacy with international pop star drama. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people struggling with addiction, but I think anyone who likes their fanfiction with a lot of fighting and a lot of kissing will enjoy If This Gets Out.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Can you do me a favor?

If you like this review, please like it on Goodreads and maybe follow me there.

More Info

Publisher: ‎ Wednesday Books
Hardback Page Count: 416

Sophie Gonzales is on Twitter and Instagram.

Cale Dietrich is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying BOOK on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Preorder Run with the Hunted 4: VIP

It’s October again, which means it’s time for you (yes, you!) to go and preorder the next book in Jennifer R. Donohue’s Run with the Hunted series of cyberpunk heist novellas. If you aren’t familiar with them, you can read my reviews of the previous novellas right here on this very blog.

I got to read VIP when it was still a Word document by virtue of being actual, real life friends with the author. I’m also an actual, real life big fan of these books, so I’m going to try to split the difference between friend and fan by abandoning my usual review format and using the rest of this post to explain why you should preorder this very good book.

Shes Back GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY
Gif of a man in a suit and tie saying, “SHE’S BACK!”

1. You should preorder this very good book because it’s a return to form.

If you read and enjoyed the first Run with the Hunted novella, you’ll enjoy the return to Bristol’s narration. She has a much clearer, more action-focused voice than either Bits or Dolly. That means the book as a whole moves more quickly because we get less monologuing, more plotting.

We also get the return of Will, the well-meaning super secret government agent from book one. It’s fun to see how he’s grown as a person in the intervening months, and how he hasn’t. He only gets a few scenes, but they’re impactful. I’m hoping he gets a bigger role in an upcoming book.

Romantic Comedy Pg13 GIF - Romantic Comedy PG13 Rebel Wilson - Discover &  Share GIFs
Gif of Rebel Wilson saying, “MY LIFE HAS BECOME A ROMANTIC COMEDY/AND IT’S PG-13!”

2. You should preorder this very good book because it’s like nothing Jen’s ever written before.

Inspired by a Twitter meme where people share their favorite romance tropes, VIP revolves around a fake engagement that slowly but inevitably builds toward real feelings. I can’t say more without spoilers, but there’s an unusual sweetness to this story. It reminds me somewhat of the resolution of Standard Operating Procedure, except Standard Operating Procedure was 1000% more stressful than VIP is.

VIP is by no means a romantic comedy, but it is the closest to a romantic comedy I think we’re ever going to get out of this series. Let’s cherish it.

Best Scooby Doo Villain GIFs | Gfycat
Gif of Fred from Scooby-Doo taking off the bad guy’s mask

3. You should preorder this very good book because it finally reveals Bristol’s real name.

Actually, it reveals quite a lot about Bristol’s past. We still don’t have any details about her family of origin, but a character from her past gets tangled up in her present and shares an origin story of sorts with Bits and Dolly.

There are just enough tantalizing details to seed a really good fanfiction if, say, you wanted to write a story in which Bristol and Dolly kiss and also other things happen.

deal with it badass gif | WiffleGif
Gif of Michelle Tanner from Full House in sunglasses and a black leather jacket

4. You should preorder this very good book because of the excellent Dolly content.

Listen, word of God from Jen, Bristol’s straight. She and Dolly are never going to kiss outside of my fanfiction, in which other unimportant things also happen, probably.

This is, I think, all the more reason to enjoy Dolly leaning and smoking and smirking at Bristol during Bristol’s wedding festivities. Also, the cute bickering! And the [very romantic moment redacted for spoilers]!!!

Enjoy them loudly, and tag Jen (@AuthorizedMusings) when you do, which is not at all bullying. Authors like it when you enjoy their work!

(Is this a book review? I don’t think this is a book review, but I’m going to put it in that category anyway because it’s close enough.)

Review: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (Out 10/12/21)

Cover of The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Middle grade/young YA
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: Matilda, Harry Potter, Willodeen by Katherine Applegate, magical schools, feminist children’s books, found family, lonely children making friends for the first time, stories about stories, tapestries, secret languages

With its thoughtful messaging about gender equality, the importance of education, and critically evaluating how history gets written and thus remembered, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is exactly the kind of book I want to give to my niece and nephews when they’re old enough. Despite some dark themes, it’s also so sweet, funny, and charming that I’ve recommended it to adult friends as well for comfort reading.

Don’t get me wrong: This is definitely a book for middle grade or young YA readers. However, as someone who regularly rereads A Wrinkle in Time, I recognize that children’s stories are often worthwhile reading for adults as well, both because it’s nice to be able to talk about books with the young people in our lives and because they’re enjoyable.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy opens with an explanation of the role of women in Illyria. While men might have great destinies as kings or sorcerers, women raise men, make their clothing, clean their homes, provide their food, and record their great deeds in beautiful tapestries. Written by another author, this opening might be heavy handed and cringey. It’s definitely didactic, but Ursu’s clever writing style makes it fun, too.

Then, we meet Marya Lupu, who’s cleaning the chicken coop. Everyone is sure her older brother, Luka, is going to be apprenticed to a sorcerer tomorrow:

The Lupus had been waiting for this day since Luka had come into the world thirteen years earlier bright-eyed and somehow already sage-looking, as if he had absorbed enough wisdom in utero to declaim on some of the weightier issues facing a baby, if only he could speak.

Even though Marya knows the council that evaluates potential sorcerers only care about whether or not their candidates possess magic, Marya’s mother believes their house and family must be clean and proper for Luka’s big day.

Due to a combination of bad luck and an ongoing feud between the Lupu children, this turns out not to be possible. Mrs. Lupu orders Marya to stay in her room and pretend not to exist while the council examines Luka (big Chamber of Secrets vibes), but that isn’t possible either. A hungry goat finds his way into the house. When Marya tries to catch him, she only makes things worse. She not only creates greater chaos; she loses her temper and snaps at a sorcerer.

Luka and Marya both had their roles in the family: his was to make them proud; hers was to disappoint them. Someone had to do it.

It’s no surprise, then, when the family receives a letter saying Luka will not be a sorcerer. It doesn’t matter that the council explicitly stated all that mattered was Luka’s magical potential. Marya is banished to her room and forbidden from visiting her friends.

A second letter arrives a few days later stating that Marya, by order of the king, will be attending “Dragomir Academy near Sarabet, a school dedicated to the reform of troubled girls.” No one in Marya’s village has ever heard of Dragomir Academy. No one knows what will be expected of her or even what she should pack. Still, no one tries to intervene when the deputy headmistress shows up the following morning to take Marya away.

I love Marya as a protagonist. Headstrong and brave, she spends most of her time frustrating the powerful people who would like to shape her into a soft spoken, elegant lady. She sees through adults’ “pretty words” to the hard truth of what they really mean, and she continues to demand honesty and fairness long after other “troubled girls” have given up.

Despite her strength, Marya is often self conscious, quick to take the blame for injustices beyond her control and anxious to fit in with her peers:

Katya, awkward; Daria, suspicious; Elisabet, anxious; Ana-Maria, haughty; Elana, controlled …

I found her fear that the other girls in her class would not want to talk to her about the mysteries of their school’s founding and purpose both endearing and painfully relatable. Marya’s the kind of kid who’s had to take care of herself because the adults in her life won’t, and that makes me want to take care of her.

At Dragomir Academy, girls are given a wide-ranging education in everything from history to magical theory, but the emphasis is on etiquette and “character.” The school’s goal is to turn them from “troubled girls” into proper young ladies who can fill administrative and supporting roles in sorcerer’s estates. There are strict rules governing everything from the proper use of “free” time to how to use cutlery. When a student commits even the smallest infraction, her entire class is punished.

This makes finding friends difficult for Marya at first. Most of her class’s punishments come from her. However, she quickly finds a kindred spirit in Elana, the daughter of a sorcerer who wanders the halls after curfew, seeking secrets and some sense of self-determination.

Elana uncovers the first mystery of Dragomir Academy: The school is housed in an estate donated to the crown by the Dragomir family, whose family portraits still hang throughout the school. A daughter appears in three of the portraits, from young childhood to around Marya’s age. Then she disappears, and there is no further mention of her in the Dragomirs’ letters or journals.

Other mysteries soon follow: What is mountain madness, an illness that usually strikes girls in their third or fourth year at the academy and causes them to see things that aren’t there? What happens to girls afflicted by mountain madness, who return looking thin and haunted several months after they fall sick? Is the academy cursed?

Why are the magical creatures that menace Illyria getting stronger? Why won’t Dragomir’s teachers or headmaster admit there’s a problem? And why has a sorcerer, one of the country’s most precious resources, been assigned to protect a school of troubled girls?

Marya and Elana are determined to find out. As things get worse, though, they’re gradually joined in their quest by the rest of their classmates and even people outside the student body. It’s really lovely to see such a disparate group of girls, who the school’s group-punishment policy have set at odds with each other, coming together to take on the people in power.

This isn’t a Chosen One narrative. Marya doesn’t save the day through prophecy or special powers. She isn’t the smartest or the strongest or the best at anything, aside from getting into trouble. Instead, Marya takes on the bad guys with a combination of bravery, determination, rule breaking and help from her friends:

It would be nice, Marya thought, if once in a while she went into a situation with some kind of plan, as opposed to simply opening her mouth and seeing whatever came out.

I love the way she sort of stumbles headlong into trouble and then grits her teeth and hopes for the best–no strategy, just conviction. Ironically, though the adults of Dragomir Academy don’t see it, Marya’s strength of character is her greatest gift.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. Buy it for your kids and your friends’ kids and your kids’ friends. Read it aloud to them or save a copy for yourself.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Can you do me a favor?

If you like this review, please like it on Goodreads and maybe follow me there.

More Info

Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Hardback Page Count: 432

Anne Ursu is on Twitter.

Preorder the hardcover or Kindle edition on Amazon.

Review: Wardenclyffe by Lloyd Hall (Out 10/1/21)

Cover of Wardenclyffe by Lloyd Hall

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: MG/YA
Series?: Wardenclyffe series

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: Star Trek’s Data, adventure games, the “It was earth the whole time!” trope

Achievement unlocked: I received my very first physical review copy of a book earlier this summer.

eARCs (eBooks for review) seem to be the standard for blogs like mine, and I get why. They’re much cheaper for publishers to manufacture and distribute, and reviewers can’t resell them (a controversial practice I’m not going to weigh in on right now). People with larger platforms get to require physical books for review. For the most part, I’m just happy to be invited to the party, but I was very excited to get this offer.

I was even more excited to receive the book! I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing most physical review copies don’t come packaged so beautifully, with coordinated tissue paper and thank-you notes:

The author and publisher of Wardenclyffe, Lloyd Hall, has a fashion and costume design background, and it shows. Even discounting the gorgeous packaging, which I assume retailers like Target won’t include, the book itself is a work of art. The satiny, dark purple hardback and matching dust cover were illustrated by Abigail Spence. You can’t tell from the little digital image, but when you hold it in your hand, the drawing almost looks like a linocut. It’s stunning.

Additional illustrations throughout the book by Minna Ollikainen help bring the world of Wardenclyffe to life.

An early illustration from Wardenclyffe shows carnival booths, trees, and banners at the Illumination Festival in the town of Valentine. The image is in black and white, with geometric shapes and patterns reminiscent of mandala designs.
Featuring my latest nail polish love, Femme Fatale’s “You’re Not Even Alive!”

Despite its beauty, I had a tough time getting into this book at first.

We got off to a bad start. Though it remains popular, I’m always put off by the sci-fi trope where characters in futuristic settings talk about weird old artifacts they found that we, the readers, recognize as commonplace in our time:

Mary is behind the counter distributing large containers to the crowd. I look inside the container and see it filled with hundreds of tiny pieces of white material. I approach Mary …

“What is the material you are distributing?” I ask her.

Mary laughs. “It’s food, Bit!”

ANALYSIS — UNKNOWN

“I am unfamiliar with this food,” I tell her.

“Well you’re not completely unfamiliar. You know the corn we grow up in the fields behind the cafe?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Well that’s what this is!”

DATABASE SEARCH — MATCH INCOMPATIBLE

“It does not appear to be the same,” I say. She laughs again.

“No it is, I promise! We just found a new way to cook it,” she explains.

“What method of preparation causes the physical appearance to change?” I ask.

“Well, Bruce found us this old book of recipes. If you take the corn kernels and heat them they do this.”

This happens several times in the first few chapters, and I seriously considered DNF’ing the book because of it.

Another problem I had is the book is written in a style that feels overly simplistic for the intended audience (thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds).

This could be a deliberate stylistic choice. The narrator, Bit, is an android. Though she’s physically stronger than ordinary humans, doesn’t age, and has perfect recall, Bit lacks several basic human traits, including emotions and the capacity to recognize beauty. She’s overly literal and lacks a sense of humor.

It makes sense that her sentences would be short and direct with limited sensory details, but I still struggled with them at first. I barely made it through the disaster that cuts off all power to Valentine and the surrounding towns and Bit’s decision to journey north (for years, if she has to) in search of a scientist she believes may have a solution.

Things changed for me almost as soon as she got out of town. While I struggled to invest in any of Wardenclyffe’s characters, I found the world fascinating and mysterious.

Bit travels through a town called Paradise, where most people spend their days turning power switches on and off to make sure they use the exact same amount of power in the exact same way as they have for generations, and an island called St. Helens, where technology is reviled and melted down for scrap. The people of Paradise believe disasters are the result of breaking tradition. The people of St. Helens believe they’re caused by technology.

I started to think of Wardenclyffe less as a novella and more as an adaptation of an adventure game or a Twilight Zone episode. It gave me serious Myst vibes. That way, the odd, clunky dialogue seems less like a flaw and more like an essential element of the genre.

As Bit travels, we learn more about the history of her world. A catastrophic event referred to as “the flooding” resulted in the loss of most of the human population as well as most human knowledge, so that surviving people can use old technology but they cannot repair it or create new technology. I like that the book doesn’t try to explain what caused the flood or fill in every detail of the world before and after. That kind of granular worldbuilding has to be immaculate, and leaving it vague makes it easier to suspend disbelief.

It wasn’t until Bit reached St. Helens that I realized her world is actually our world. St. Helens is an island in a thermal lake either near or in the crater of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. June, the location of the titular Wardenclyffe lighthouse, is Juneau, Alaska. Paradise is a town in California, and I think Valentine might refer to Valentine Camp, also in California. This is maybe hypocritical, given what I said earlier, but I was delighted by these breadcrumbs and felt very smart for getting them.

Wardenclyffe, if you’re wondering, is not actually a lighthouse in Alaska. It was an “early experimental wireless transmission station” built by in New York Nikola Tesla, later torn down to settle some of his debts. I didn’t know that part in advance. Google told me.

The mysteries of the scientist and what happened to Valentine’s power are tied to the mystery of Bit’s creation and why she has outlasted all the other androids. She finds all the answers she’s looking for near Wardenclyffe, which should make for a satisfying ending. I’m still torn on whether or not it does, though. I think it’s thematically appropriate, but perhaps because I never connected with the characters, I didn’t find it particularly emotionally resonant.

Still, I really enjoyed exploring the world of Wardenclyffe, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of future books. I’d definitely pick up book two if it had a different narrator with a more descriptive voice.

Can you do me a favor?

If you like this review, please like it on Goodreads and maybe follow me there.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 238

Lloyd Hall is on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

You can preorder the book (out October 1) directly from the author’s website.

Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (Out 9/21/21)

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: YA
Series?: Iron Widow #1

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: Darling in the Franxx, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Pacific Rim, The Hunger Games, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Chinese harem dramas, angry bisexuals who don’t flinch when they kill their enemies

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to spoil this book any more than the author has on social media, but if you’d prefer not to know what happens at all, please come back when you’ve finished Iron Widow!

Here is everything I knew about Iron Widow when I requested it from NetGalley: It’s a reimagining of the rise of the only female Chinese emperor written by the person who made those Mulan videos. I expected historical fiction, political intrigue, and maybe some family drama.

Iron Widow is nothing like I expected. If I had to write an elevator pitch, I’d say it’s a dark mecha anime with an MFM throuple that makes only minor concessions to YA conventions. There’s a makeover, a love triangle, and a homecoming, but there’s also so much violence The Hunger Games looks like a game of touch football.

It also isn’t a retelling in the sense I imagined. It isn’t set in ancient China, but rather a non-earth sci-fi world inspired by the culture and geography of ancient China. In this world, all girls are raised as sacrifices. They’re sold to wealthy husbands or to the army. Either way, their lives are cruel and rigidly confined by both their patriarchal society and their own internalized misogyny.

Wu Zetian’s older sister was sold to the army, where male pilots use girls as fuel sources to power their giant mechs in battle against the mechanical aliens beyond the Great Wall. Girls often die in battle, but Zetian’s sister didn’t even make it that far. Her pilot strangled her to death.

To her parents’ relief, Zetian finally agrees to join the army, but she doesn’t intend to die in battle either. She plans to kill her sister’s murderer. She knows she and her entire family will be executed as a result, and she believes she’s prepared to die for her vengeance.

However, before she can act, the pilot takes Zetian into battle with him, and two unexpected things happen. First, the pilot dies in her place. Second, Zetian discovers she wants to live.

Iron Widow continues my streak of LGBT books that are so delightfully fanfic-y (Queerleaders, The Calyx Charm) they make up for the fact that they’re also continuing my streak of books that are thematically heavy.

It reads like a wildly creative AU for some mecha anime I’ve never seen. (Confession: I have never seen any mecha anime.) Partially because of, you know, all the mechs, but mostly because there is so much here that I’ve only really seen in places where writers don’t have to contend with publishing gatekeepers. In a YA novel!

The MFM throuple is a fun subversion of the love triangle trope. While I’m more invested in the enemies-to-lovers pairing than the others, I was impressed by how clearly Zhao handled them all. They felt inevitable. All four of the relationships (each character with each of the others, and then all three characters together) had ample on-screen development time, including the relationship between the non-POV characters.

I had no choice but to love Zetian, who is angry, bisexual, and traumatized. That’s everything I want in a protagonist. She even gets some shit from other characters about her weight, though the cover model is thin and it’s hard to tell if Zetian is intended to be read as fat or if this is just another example of the patriarchal scrutiny she lives under.

I also loved the plot structure, which reminded me a bit of Six of Crows. Pop writing advice says that protagonists have to fail and fail and fail again until they succeed. Each challenge they fail raises the stakes, until they’re in an impossible position with the entire universe depending on them, and only then can they succeed.

Only, it’s actually much more fun to read about protagonists succeeding occasionally. In both Iron Widow and Six of Crows, we have characters who are smart and clever and good at what they do. They encounter obstacles, strategize, and then overcome those obstacles in ways that both raise the stakes and move the plot forward. Often, Zetian succeeds in ways that only end up getting her into more trouble, but at least we get to see that she truly is remarkable, instead of just being told how Special she is.

This is also my only real complaint: Zetian is Special in a way that I feel somewhat undermines Iron Widow’s feminist themes. I have no problem with Zetian spontaneously deciding to resist her patriarchal upbringing, which seems like a matter of self-preservation more than anything. I also don’t mind how much internalized misogyny influences Zetian’s perception of other women. My problem is how the narrative reinforces Zetian’s perception.

Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, other women in Iron Widow essentially fall into 3 categories: tragic victims, catty bitches, and the tragic-victim-catty-bitch Venn diagram overlap of victims who eagerly sacrifice other women.

Zetian does occasionally think about how there have to be other girls who are as remarkable as she is, and sometimes she’ll mentally challenge her internalized misogyny. I interpret that to mean later books in will contain more nuanced female characters. I’m still disappointed by their absence in Iron Widow, but I think Zhao has done enough to merit optimism for the rest of the series.

Content Warnings

From the author: “Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.”

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Penguin Teen
Hardback Page Count: 400

Xiran Jay Zhao is “on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.”

You can support your local independent bookstore by preordering BOOK on Bookshop.org, or on Amazon.

Review: Plague Birds by Jason Sanford (Out 9/21/21)

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone?

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy and Dreamblood duology, Meyer’s The Host*, Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, weird and unsettling AI stories, creepy children with godlike powers, cross-species friendships, furries

Don’t worry! This isn’t a story about a pandemic. It’s about bloodborne AIs.

It is not possible to write a better introduction this novel than Jason Sanford himself did on his blog:

Plague Birds is set in the far future and is the epic tale of a young woman betrayed into becoming one of her world’s hated judges and executioners, with a killer AI bonded to her very blood. While the novel is science fiction, it reads much like fantasy and is weird and dark.

The far future is a post-apocalyptic blend of low-tech agrarian societies and advanced AI. The young woman is Cristina de Ane, a human-wolf hybrid who lives with her father and their stubborn donkey in Day’s End, a small village of gene-spliced humans. (Yes, I’m reviewing two furry sci-fi books today.)

When she was alive, Crista’s mother told her stories of massive cities and the high-tech moon colony where her ancestors once lived. The other people in Crista’s village consider these stories essentially fairytales. Long before any of them were born, “excessive genetic manipulation” caused a species-wide series of conflicts and disasters collectively known as the collapse, after which:

a horrible war was fought. Eventually, the three-fold armies won and laid down new rules for our world. The hunters [human-animal hybrids who give into their animal sides and form packs] could live their lives within certain constraints while AIs would work with isolated villages to return [the rest of] humanity to your original state.

Plague birds are essentially wandering human-AI pairs that maintain the “three-fold balance” by ensuring no crimes go unpunished. By death.

When a plague bird confronts a suspect, they review the suspect’s memories to determine their guilt. The human host then draws their own blood in order to release the AI that lives within them. As a cloud of blood, the AI rains down upon the guilty, sometimes entire villages, killing them with agonizing slowness and creativity.

(This is why the human host is necessary: to temper the AI’s bloodlust as well as its black-and-white approach to justice.)

Obviously, plague birds aren’t exactly popular dinner guests, even though most people agree they’re necessary. Human hosts give up their village, everyone they know, and even their very connection to other humans in order to carry out their plague bird responsibilities. In exchange, their AIs enhance their senses, sustain them without the need for food or (much) sleep, heal even wounds that should be fatal, and greatly extend their lifetimes. Usually.

In the opening chapter of Plague Birds, a plague bird named Derena is attacked, incapacitated, and fatally injured in a way that shouldn’t be possible. She manages to drag herself to Day’s End, where she asks Crista to become her successor.

Crista denies Derena’s request at first because, you know, hero’s journey. However, when Crista realizes it’s the only way to save herself and her village, Crista Accepts The Call, becomes a plague bird, and sets out to find Derena’s attackers. The journey is filled with mysteries, from the plague bird Crista believes killed her mother to a sentient monastery that stores all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge to the powers fighting to maintain or disrupt the three-fold balance.

This is Sanford’s third published entry in the Plague Birds universe, following two acclaimed short stories (which don’t appear to be freely accessible online at this point). His announcement (linked above) includes a few pieces of fan art for the previous works, as well as his sheepish notes that the artists have taken some liberties in their portrayals: His protagonist doesn’t wear “red leather skin-tight suits” or “let her shirt fly up like that.”

I bring up those notes because while he’s right that this is a weird and dark book, his approach is careful and considered. This is a dark, post-apocalyptic book with no slurs. This is a dark, post-apocalyptic book in which children only die offscreen. This is a dark, post-apocalyptic book with no! sexual! violence! (There is intimate partner violence that might resonate painfully with people who have experienced sexual violence, so be aware of that, but I thought it was handled well.)

The other thing I love about this book is the characters. Crista is a brave, nuanced, conflicted character with a strong moral compass that grounds the story. On her travels, she collects a diverse group of friends and allies that slowly coalesce into a strange sort of found family. It’s always satisfying to watch battered, distrustful people grow together.

Also, Plague Birds fits into a trend I’m noticing where writers are allowing themselves to include scenes that resonate thematically but aren’t strictly necessary to advance the plot. It’s hard to be specific without spoilers, so instead I’ll spoil “Mist Songs of Delhi” (Podcastle 640), which is one of my favorite recent short stories.

The story follows Rajaji, a man with the power to decide which dying people’s lives get preserved as divine song as he copes with his mother’s approaching death and her reluctance to have her life “enspooled.” Early in the story, Rajaji meets with a merchant who has complaints about his wife’s enspoolment. This scene could have simply served to explain the enspoolment process and progress the main plot, but after Rajaji’s mother dies and the plot is resolved, we get one more scene, a happy ending for the merchant and his family.

That last scene feels generous, because we live in a world where aspirations of page-to-screen adaptation and advice from Save the Cat have made it almost taboo to include even a single sentence that doesn’t catapult the protagonist toward the next big set piece.

Plague Birds is full of interludes and quiet moments that feel equally generous.

The only thing that doesn’t work about this book for me is how much the final acts depend upon a series of nesting reveals that I completely saw coming. I don’t think endings need to be a total surprise. In fact, I think a twist ending that isn’t telegraphed at all is worse than a predictable ending. However, in this instance, I found the tension really went out of the story when I wasn’t struggling to figure out which characters to believe and which were lying.

Other reviewers felt differently, so take that with a grain of salt. You may be surprised on your first reading, or you may enjoy the ride regardless.

The ending of Plague Birds is satisfying, but not entirely resolved, so I have hope there will be a book two. If there is, I’ll definitely pick it up.

*Hot take but I stand by it.

Can you do me a favor?

If you like this review, please like it on Goodreads and maybe follow me there.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Apex
Paperback Page Count: 274

Jason Sanford is on Twitter. More importantly, he runs the Genre Grapevine Patreon, which is like a whisper network for people in the SFF community without whisper networks. Absolutely check it out and support him there, if you’re able.

You can preorder the book from Apex’s website, where they also have links to (most of) your favorite retailers.

Spoiler-Free Review: The First Sister

Cover of The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: The First Sister trilogy

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: R. F. Kuang, Margaret Atwood, This is How You Lose the Time War, Red Rising, A Memory Called Empire, Ancillary Justice, Dune, Sansa Stark’s character arc, queer platonic intimacy, Suffering but no one gets raped

The First Sister has been pitched as part of the wave of feminist dystopias we’ve seen since 2016/the Handmaid’s Tale Hulu adaptation, but I think it’s more accurately described as Dune with the queer themes made explicit and the Bene Gesserit made into fully realized characters.

(I’m sticking to my resolution not to read GoodReads reviews for books I like, so it’s possible this has already been said a thousand times. Let’s agree to pretend I’m a wholly original genius for this insight. I’m having a hard week.)

We have galaxy-spanning wars and political intrigue. We have assassinations and assassination attempts. We have a matriarchal religious order that ties itself to military/political power through the beauty and “servility” of its acolytes. We have a duelist named Lito, who fights with a blade even though he’s part of a spacefaring society with all the high-level technology that entails. We have … okay, I don’t know how Hiro, the rebellious scion of space!Bezos fits into this analogy, but Dune would be a much better book if it had a Hiro character.

Told in alternating perspectives, The First Sister is the story of Hiro, Lito, and First Sister (a mute, nameless acolyte of the aforementioned religious order) journeying from very different beginnings to a single moment of conflict that will change the solar system and all four societies that call it home. Although this book is a sci-fi epic in scope, this drive to a single inevitable crisis gives it a momentum that makes it hard to put down.

Except that I was very invested in these characters and their brave, reckless decisions, so I did keep having to pause for breath when I got too worried for them.

Lito is a poor boy whose rose to become the perfect elite soldier through hard work, self-abnegation, and his partnership with Hiro. Hiro once played the chaotic neutral rogue to Lito’s lawful good fighter, but we’re introduced to them through a series of recordings they sent Lito to confess and explain their treason.

First Sister serves the soldiers serving aboard an elite military spaceship so they can go into battle with clear hearts. As the highest ranking sister aboard her vessel, she is only required to hear confessions from everyone but the captain, but she lives in fear of having her rank stripped from her and, with it, her protection from the other soldiers’ sexual advances.

Their stories unfurl in layers. At first, it seems like the primary conflict is going to be between the Icarii (Hiro and Lito), who embrace technology and view religion primarily as a series of cultural artifacts from earth, and the Geans (First Sister), who revere the natural world and enforce universal worship of the Goddess. Lito is sent to assassinate the head of First Sister’s order (and kill Hiro while he’s at it), while First Sister is ordered to spy on a potential traitor aboard her vessel. Classic science versus religion stuff.

Then things get complicated. Through Hiro’s tapes and the potential traitor’s whispered secrets, Lito and First Sister come to realize the organizations that raised and shaped them have been responsible for untold atrocities. They begin to believe peace would be preferable to victory, but they remain conflicted over abandoning everything they know for a future they can’t even really imagine.

Aside from the rich and nuanced protagonists, what I loved most about The First Sister is the way Lewis manages to portray the brutality of both societies without veering into gratuitous depictions of violence, sexual or otherwise. First Sister has experienced sexual violence, and it looms on the periphery of her every interaction with the soldiers on her ship, but we don’t have to witness it. Lito has conversations with sick and dying children, but we don’t have to read about their final, excruciating moments. We get exactly as much information we need to understand the direness of the situation without the kind of abject despair that lingers even after you finish *cough* other books *cough*.

This is ultimately a hopeful book. It’s about realizing the world can be better and deciding that’s worth the risk. It’s about people who have hurt and been hurt by each other making amends and offering forgiveness – and sometimes not. It’s exactly the kind of book I needed at this point in my life.

If you’re having kind of a rough time (and who isn’t) and you like science fiction full of big adventures and big feelings, you need to pick up The First Sister right now.

Then, please come back and tell me if you saw the final twist coming. Lewis telegraphed it so clearly, I have no idea how I missed it, but I was shocked enough that I dropped my Kindle and said, “Oh,” out loud.

You know that feeling of relief when there’s a word or fact you know that you know but you can’t quite remember it, but then you look it up and you’re like, “Oh, yes, that!!!”? That’s how the final twist felt. Incredible. Please, please do not spoil it for yourself. You deserve that pleasure.

One last thing …

Preorder The Second Rebel, Coming August 24th

Linden A. Lewis returns with this next installment of The First Sister Trilogy, perfect for fans of Red Rising, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Expanse.

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Aunts who run the Gean religious institution, but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an outlaw colony station deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but they are not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner, Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Venus, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Souji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to review it before book three comes out.

Disclosure

I received a free eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Skybound Books
Hardback Page Count: 352

Linden A. Lewis (she/they) is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying BOOK on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Review: And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed (Out 7/20/21)

Cover of And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: The Handmaid’s Tale, Maria Haskins’ “Six Dreams About the Train,” Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician,” Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” eco sci-fi, poetic literary speculative fiction

In a science-fiction world where only the very wealthy have funerals and everyone else is dumped into the ubiquitous filthy canals when they die, a high end courtesan comes back to life to take vengeance on her wealthy client/murderer. Jewel, the protagonist of And What Can We Offer You Tonight, is the dead girl’s friend. Having not been reanimated with a terrible purpose, Jewel’s concerns are more quotidian: meeting clients, looking after her fellow courtesans, and trying to keep from losing her job as a known associate of the vigilante dead girl haunting the city’s rich.

This is a tough novella to summarize and an even tougher one to review. It’s beautifully written. Despite being 75% run-on sentences, it never feels dense, just poetic. Jewel’s helpless, often directionless ruminating turns her world into an anxious kaleidoscope. The imagery of the courtesans’ elegant House contrasts with the crumbling city outside in a way that makes both of them seem equally alien and lovely, and Mohamed has a way of describing familiar objects like perfume that seems stranger than her futuristic technology. I wanted to highlight entire chapters.

It’s also, objectively, something that should really connect with me. I love class conflict stories and I love female characters that other reviewers call too passive or too violent or too morally impure and I love a run-on sentence. But it didn’t hook me behind the belly button the way I wanted it to, and I can’t really say why.

If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably that Jewel is very Hamlet. She wants everything and nothing. She can’t make up her mind. She acts only when her hand is forced by other, stronger willed characters. Her definite trait is her compulsion to smother her unpretty emotions in order to keep her job and her life (which is saying the same thing twice).

I don’t think this is a flaw in the writing. I mean, Hamlet. If anything, Jewel is too relatable. Her dystopian future world is too real. Like, I am living through real climate disasters and class warfare, I do not have any spare energy for lightly fictionalized versions of them.

On the other hand, reading lightly fictionalized versions of the traumas you’re surviving can be healing. I think that will be the case for a lot of people who read And What Can We Offer You Tonight. After the murders in Atlanta and this summer’s heat wave, a lot of readers are going to find catharsis in the story of a murdered sex worker who traverses a flooded city to kill her killer.

I think this novella will also appeal to a lot of readers who don’t typically like SFF. If Margaret Atwood can say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t science fiction, then I think I’m justified in saying neither is And What Can We Offer You Tonight. Buy this book for your snobby aunt and tell her it’s Literature that happens to have some lightly futuristic technology and exactly one un-dead girl. 

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Neon Hemlock Press
Hardback Page Count: 80

Premee Mohamed is delightful on Twitter and on her blog, so check those out.

Preorder the book on Amazon (out July 20).

Spoiler-Free Review: The Calyx Charm by May Peterson (Out 7/13/21)

Cover of The Calyx Charm by May Peterson

Genre: Fantasy romance
Audience: Adult
Series?: Book 3 of The Sacred Dark

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: A Taste of Honey, Pet, Cemetery Boys, Ana Mardoll, Shakespeare AUs, childhood friends to lovers, hurt/comfort, cat boys, … I want to say fantasy trans and queer cultures but I’ve never read them like this

Note: I’m going to discuss abuse dynamics both in the context of The Calyx Charm and in real life.

Often, when a powerful person (employer, mentor, parent, or partner) hurts someone they are supposed to protect, their victim takes on the responsibility for covering up that harm. The dynamics of power and survival prioritize avoiding conflict and maintaining appearances over victims’ abilities to even name what has happened to us: We weren’t sexually harassed, we “were just joking around.” We weren’t abused, we were “taught the importance of discipline.” We weren’t raped, we “have regrets.”

There’s a lot to love about The Calyx Charm, May Peterson’s third entry in her dark fantasy romance series The Sacred Dark, but what I love most is that it rejects this responsibility on two levels. First, the book itself is explicit and specific in naming the abuse and oppression its characters experience. Second, both its leads are learning to say, “Yes, I used to protect you from what you’ve done to me, but no more.”

Violetta Benedetti was the Honored Child. With her twin abilities to predict the future and make anyone she focuses on invincible, she was the weapon that won her parents’ revolution and made her cruel father prince elector. Now, at seventeen, she’s escaped her abusive father’s household to try to make a life for herself, supported by a community of trans people who live on the margins of society:

The secret heartbeat of the city, the artists and crafters and storytellers and smugglers, flowed from places full of mollyqueens and androgynes and tomkings, and with queer lovers of all kinds.

Violetta’s childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, is also his parents’ weapon. Shortly after Violetta’s escape, Tibario’s mother attempts to use him to kill Violetta’s father. He dies and is reborn (the way non-magical people sometimes are) as a moon-soul, an immortal teleporting shapeshifter. Also, he gets a cat tail.

After his second assassination attempt also fails, Tibario’s mother asks Violetta to prophecy what’s protecting her father. But reading the future is not a science. Instead, Violetta fortells the end of the world as they know it, in two weeks or less.

Violetta’s instinct is not to try to prevent the apocalypse, but rather to live well in the time she has left:

Mollyqueens so seldom had futures to claim. We had todays. We had the little time we could claim for ourselves.

Maybe these would be the last days of my life, and maybe they would matter the most.

What follows is partially sweet, second-chance romance between childhood friends who finally find the courage to admit they’ve always loved each other, and partially scarred, scared people convincing each other they’re allowed to ask for more. Not just an end to suffering but a long life full of love and respect and a community that shelters them.

The community that embraces Violetta and Tibario is really lovely. It’s rare for cishet women in romance novels to have genuine female friends. I can’t think of any novel in any genre where the trans woman lead has friends who are also trans women, let alone trans women who are as fleshed out and lovely as Rosalina, who runs a bar and tearoom that is a safe place for trans women and the people who love them, complete with guest rooms and medical assistance. Medical assistance made possible by her girlfriend, who smuggles tea, sugar, and hormones into the country for her.

Can the next Sacred Dark novel be about Rosalina, please?

Another thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel: Violetta is honest with Tibario about what dating is like for her as a trans woman and a rape survivor, and Tibario never once says, “Oh damn, that sucks. Fortunately, I, an unproblematic cis guy–” He actually listens to her. He admits his shortcomings. He checks in with her often.

Their relationship is just so tender and heartwarming. I don’t usually go for romances with so little conflict between the main characters, because I think they tend to lack tension, but Violetta and Tibario have so much else going that it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve one nice, safe thing in their lives.

My only qualm with The Calyx Charm is I think I should have read the previous books in The Sacred Dark prior to this one. In my defense, I didn’t look very closely at the book prior to submitting my NetGalley request. I didn’t realize it was part of a series until I started reading it.

However, most romance series I’ve encountered have been made up of interconnected standalones. That is sort of the case here, but I think the degree of world building involved made it usually hard to get into. Also, at one point, something important happens involving a side character who is a main character in a previous book, and it’s never made clear what exactly that is. I’m hoping this is also an event in the other book, and Peterson expected readers to already get it.

That clearly isn’t a huge problem, though, because I’ve already recommended the series to a friend, and I’m recommending it now to you. I intend to purchase the rest of the series as soon as I whittle down my pile of overdue library books.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Content Warnings

This is exactly the kind of book that makes content warnings so hard. Putting “rape of a child by a parent” and “a trans woman lovingly and consensually penetrating her partner” in the same list implies a kind of equivalency that is way more harmful than any of the content in this book.

Yet I know that both of those things could be triggering to readers. If I just say, “There is a lot of transmisogyny and child abuse in this book,” am I responsible for people who encounter triggers that weren’t on my list? I don’t want that either.

I don’t know the right thing to do here. If you have any specific concerns, please feel free to ask in the comments or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com), and I’ll do my best to answer.

More Info

Publisher: Carina Press
Paperback Page Count: 286

May Peterson is on Twitter. In addition to her books, she offers developmental, line, copy, and sensitivity editing via her website.

Preorder The Calyx Charm (available July 13) on Amazon..

Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding (Out 6/20/21)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Not for me

For fans of: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, lyrical prose, Cersei Lannister, royal family special editions of US Weekly

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the ending of Lying with Lions. Like, right now.

Ready?

Okay.

In the last 10% of Lying with Lions, the protagonist, Agnes Ashford, and her lover/patron, Lady Helen Bryant, are confronted with a terrible choice: either sacrifice Helen’s wealth and independence, or the crimes she and Agnes committed to protect it will be revealed to the public. Agnes feels torn between her survival instinct, her loyalty to Helen, and her conscience. Every scene raises the stakes until Agnes is driven into desperate action with real consequences.

It’s a satisfying ending to Annabel Fielding’s turn-of-the-century gothic drama. Unfortunately, it also seems to belong to a different draft than the previous 90% of the novel.

Fielding’s writing is sometimes confusing (with frequent tense shifts that I hope will be caught in a final edit before it’s released on the 20th), but it’s more often beautiful, even poetic. I frequently highlighted passages I found moving or insightful:

It was a careful labour of months, to insulate herself from the pain [of her father’s death]. The art of half-forgetting. She did it so thoroughly, drawing borders of cool sensibility from dawn to dusk.

Chapter 2

[Helen’s daughter] has always been a swallow darting in and out of Agnes’ life, smiling the way every girl learns to smile if she wants to see some kindness from the world.

Chapter 6

She, Agnes, had thought once that pain is something that happens. It is like a wave, she thought, to hit you and then recede back into the depths, and if one is steadfast enough, if one is serene and solid rock in the ocean, one could weather it.

But she was wrong. Pain seeps into our bones; it changes their shapes forever. It changes the colour of our blood.

Chapter 11

Agnes and Helen are complex, often unlikable women with both agency and power. It’s clear that their lives and personalities are based on real Edwardian women. Even when they’re reckless or cruel, their actions are logical and grounded in a way I should have found compelling.

Best of all, every detail of their world is consistent and (as far as I can tell) accurate. Fielding is a history blogger, and she cites dozens of texts as sources for this novel alone. It’s clear that it was important for her to give readers a sense of what it was like to live in Edwardian England, from politics to social norms to infrastructure and even lighting.

So why didn’t this book work for me?

I think my problem was almost entirely structural. Though it’s a single novel, the plot of Lying with Lions is unusually episodic. Agnes and Helen will recognize they have a problem. Agnes will (briefly, without much emotion) contemplate the problem for a few pages, while Helen develops a solution offscreen. Agnes will execute the solution. Then, we get an equal number of pages of sightseeing or current events. Repeat for 200 pages.

This structure doesn’t allow the kind of tension that keeps me reading until 2 in the morning. Instead, I felt discouraged from worrying about the characters, because the repeated pattern of problem, contemplation, quick and tidy solution lulled me into thinking nothing truly bad could happen to Agnes or Helen. Neither Agnes nor Helen even seemed to suffer from guilt or anxiety at any point, even when their solutions have body counts.

Even the romance between Agnes and Helen suffers from this structure. There is no time for yearning. There are no tender, playful moments between the couple. There are some sex scenes, but these are really only settings for the conversations in which Helen gives Agnes instructions and Agnes reports her results.

It’s clear that Helen values Agnes’s loyalty and obedience, but that’s about it. Helen takes what she wants from Agnes, and Agnes gives it without conflict or self-doubt or even much prolonged joy, just the satisfaction of a job well done.

Again, the ending of this book is fantastic, but it’s also confusing. Agnes suddenly does mind their body count. She does care about the impact of her actions on other people. She does want to do the right thing. Not because anything happened or she had a change of heart; it’s just presented as though this is the character Agnes has been the entire time. I wish it were.

I think readers who are primarily interested in historical fiction for the details of the setting will love Lying with Lions. I also think it could be adapted into an incredible movie or mini-series. The right actors, with the right on-screen chemistry, could make the relationship between Agnes and Helen really compelling. However, readers seeking a historical lesbian romance are likely to be disappointed by the novel.

Disclaimer

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 233

Annabel Fielding blogs about history and historical fiction at History Geek in Town. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can preorder Lying with Lions (out June 20th) on Amazon.