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Tag: Books I Loved

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: 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.

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: 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..

Spoiler-Free Review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young adult
Series?: The Star-Touched Queen Duology

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: GracelingThe Library of FatesRaybearer, enemies to lovers, high stakes fantasy games and tournaments, talking monster companions

A Crown of Wishes is lush, colorful, and delicious. It’s a fast-paced adventure with such rich sensory detail that I feel like I dreamed it, and I want to go back tonight. Plus, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary while also delivering heaps of my favorite tropes:

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Spooky animal companions
  • Found family
  • Capricious gods
  • Monsters with hearts of gold
  • Soft boys who love prickly girls
  • Healing, um … kisses

It’s the story of heirs to rival kingdoms, who have not yet met when are chosen by the Lord of Wealth to compete as partners in the Tournament of Wishes. If they can find a way into the Otherworld of magic and monsters and survive two challenges and a sacrifice, there’s still no guarantee they’ll both be allowed to leave with their lives. But for a chance at a Wish, they’ll have to risk it.

Princess Gauri is the angry girl of my dreams: “A beast. A monster. A myth. A girl. What was the difference?” She’s a princess without a country, desperate to return. To protect her people, she trained as a soldier to fight in her cruel brother’s armies, and eventually to overthrow him. However, her need to protect has made her paranoid and afraid of being vulnerable. Her coup failed, and her brother dropped her over the border in an enemy kingdom with orders for her execution.

On paper, Prince Vikram is the heir to that enemy kingdom, but his father’s council knows he is adopted and has no intention of letting him wield real power when he takes the throne. He’s a good match for Princess Gauri, first as a reluctant ally and eventually as a love interest. Despite her martial prowess, Gauri doesn’t frighten the comparatively peaceful Vikram, who accepts her initial distrust with cockiness that isn’t hiding anything.

Vikram is genuinely confident that their quest is going to make him into a true ruler. As a result, he is almost recklessly kind and trusting with the people they meet on their journey in a way Gauri can’t allow herself to be, yet.

Despite the protagonists’ tragic backstories and desperate circumstances, this is a cheerful book. It was such a relief after–you know, everything, that I almost wish it weren’t such a quick, breezy read. I’m definitely going to pick up the other books in this series as soon as I shrink my TBR pile a bit.

Asian Readathon

This is the third book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 2.

Roshani Chokshi’s mother is Filipino and her father is Indian.

More Info

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Hardback Page Count: 384

Roshani Chokshi is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying A Crown of Wishes on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

5 Personal Essays to Read if You Liked The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

I have a migraine and no idea how to review a book like this, so I’m not going to, except to say that I liked it. A lot of disability memoirs read like the writer is an astronaut all alone in the dark void of Illness, which is probably why they appeal more to readers who don’t think of themselves as sick or disabled. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are all in conversation with people and communities. They feel like they were written for us.

Instead of a review, I’m going to give you a list of other personal essays I think you’d like if you liked The Collected Schizophrenias. Which is a sneaky way of saying that if you like these essays, you’ll probably like The Collected Schizophrenias.

Also, my favorite quote, which comes late enough in the book that it would probably be considered a spoiler if you could spoil people’s real lives:

Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough,” which has not been my experience. After all, prolonged and chronic illness stitches itself into life in a different way than acute illness does … The absolution from doing more and dreaming big that I experience during surgeries and hospitalization is absent during chronic illness.

The Essays

“Lyme Disease Changed My Relationship with the Outdoors” by Blair Braverman (Outdoors)

After all, until then, my health had always made sense to me. It didn’t occur to me that might change—that my ability to move and work and be outdoors, to live the life I’d built, could dissolve in a week.

“What Did My Mother the Chemist See in Betty Crocker?” by Celeste Ng (The New York Times)

Then, as an adult, I actually read the text and discovered that woven into the recipes were tidbits of advice for the 1960s homemaker: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways.

“What It’s Like Having PPD As A Black Woman” by Tyrese Coleman (Buzzfeed)

When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry.

“After Years of Writing Anonymously About Fatness, I’m Telling the World Who I Am” by Your Fat Friend/Aubrey Gordon (Self)

As I wrote, my perception of the life I’d lived began to shift. I had long thought of myself as living a charmed life, and for the most part, I did. But that perception was contingent on continuing to ignore experiences that were the direct result of anti-fat bias.

“We Don’t Talk About Mental Illness In My Family” by Larissa Pham (Buzzfeed)

We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned?

Bonus

One of the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Who Gets To Be The “Good Schizophrenic”?,” was originally published on Buzzfeed. Read it for a sample of Weijun Wang’s writing. Send it to your friends.

Then, if you haven’t already, buy the book on Bookshop.org or Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Cover of The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

The Unbroken is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the ribs for 500 pages, and I loved it. Mostly.

Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of two women trying to quash an uprising in the Balladairan colony of Qazāl. Touraine is a soldier, Qazāli by birth but conscripted into the colonial army as a toddler, who trusts only her fellow conscripts and the strength of her body. Luca is the future Balladairan queen, an idealistic and book-smart but unproven leader, whose rank and disability estranges her from everyone but her personal guard. When Touraine saves Lucca from an assassination attempt, Lucca sees an opportunity to recruit an ambassador the Qazāli might trust enough to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.

Clark’s world building is immaculate. Both French-inspired Balladaire and Arab-inspired Qazāl feel like real, living countries, with their own geography, culture, history, and approach to magic and religion. Their writing is intense and cinematic. Despite the violence and despair that permeates much of the book, I found myself staying up too late to finish “just one more” chapter and daydreaming about the characters when I was supposed to be working. And I loved the layered, flawed characters, even though most of them only make good decisions by accident.

I only have one critique, and it’s that I found the sexual violence subplot almost unbearable. If I were to describe exactly what happens, on paper, it would seem fairly unremarkable. It’s nowhere near what happens in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are hundreds of YA novels with more detailed depictions of sexual violence that go on for much longer than what happens in The Unbroken, and none of them have gotten under my skin in quite the same way.

To be clear, I don’t think Clark’s use of sexual violence is inappropriate. It’s a way of emphasizing how powerless even respectable, comparatively high ranking Qazāli are against Balladairans. It raises the stakes and underscores the novel’s themes, and it’s treated with the gravity it deserves. I just think there was probably a way to do all of that without exposing what I imagine is an audience of primarily queer women and/or women of color to yet more depictions of sexual violence against queer women of color.

That said, I have recommended The Unbroken to several friends and will continue to do so, with the necessary caveats.

I think it will especially appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, but anyone who loves political fantasy with meticulous world building should give it a try. It’s ambitious and textured and spectacularly well written. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m just going to make sure I have something fluffy to chase it with.

Content Warnings

I’m always torn on whether or not I want to provide detailed content warnings for the books I review. Some people consider them spoilers, some people consider them essential. More importantly, I don’t want anyone who depends on my list to come across an unexpected trigger because I failed to remember or mention it.

Fortunately, C. L. Clark has a list on their website, so I’m just going to quote that here:

depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 544

C. L. Clark does a terrifying number of things all around the world. On top of writing novels and short stories, they’re the co-editor of Podcastle, an academic, an English teacher, and a personal trainer. Follow them on Twitter.

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

Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Minor spoilers for the first half of Gods and Jade and Shadow here. I’m not ruining any reveals, but if you’re touchy about spoilers, come back when you’ve read it.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is the first book I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and when I said I “read” it, what I mean is that I inhaled it. You know how sometimes you’re in a slump, you have no motivation to read anything, and you can’t seem to even find any books to try to read that you don’t instantly hate? Then you get a book kind of at random, and it takes your breath away and makes you want to stop sleeping and bathing so you can spend more time reading?

Gods of Jade and Shadow was that book for me. It strikes the perfect balance between fairytale and coming-of-age romance, darkness and optimism, quick pacing and deliberateness. Everything about this book feels thoughtful and controlled, but it’s still fun and even pretty light-hearted, which I desperately needed between reading Passing Strange and The Unbroken.

The story is a Mayan-inspired fantasy about Casiopea Tun, a seventeen-year-old with “a knack for quiet insurrection,” who lives as a servant in her maternal grandfather’s home. Although she lives in the largest house in their small town, Casiopea is an outsider, walled off from her neighbors by her family’s wealth but simultaneously abused and neglected by her family for her father’s indigenous heritage.

She hopes to someday return to the city where she lived with her father. She wants to swim in the ocean at night, to dance to fast music, and to learn to drive a car. Until then, she lives in fear of her cruel older cousin, Martin, and of the Catholic priest, who:

… eyed every woman in town with suspicion. Each diminutive infraction to decency and virtue was catalogued. Women were meant to bear the brunt of inquiries because they descended from Eve, who had been weak and sinned, eating from the juicy, forbidden apple.

Then she accidentally frees the death god Hun-Kame from a box in her grandfather’s bedroom. A bone-shard lodges in her finger, binding her to the god, who draws life from her blood. The connection is dangerous to them both. With every moment he remains dependent upon her, Hun-Kame becomes more mortal, and Casiopea comes closer to death. She must join him on a journey to recover the parts of his body his twin has stolen in order to regain his full power and his godhood.

Casiopea is a delight, well rounded and flawed and just incredibly charming. If you’re tired of Strong Female Character who have to constantly wield their anger as a weapon but don’t long for a return to the Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Snow White mold, you’ll love Casiopea. She’s practical but hopeful, kind but with a backbone.

And she has no particular special powers! She’s just curious enough to get herself in trouble and brave enough to get herself back out again.

I loved Moreno-Garcia’s narration. Sometimes, with fairytale retellings that strive to capture a fairytale style, I have a hard time connecting to the characters and the stakes. That was a problem for me with Malinda Lo’s Ash, but it didn’t come up for me here. I think Moreno-Garcia strikes a good balance between didactic asides (“Martin, who had a rather atrophied imagination, incapable of considering for long periods of time anything that was not directly in front of him as worthy of imagination …”) with intensely personal, heartfelt moments and exciting conflicts.

There are a lot of fantasy and fairytale tropes at work here, but Moreno-Garcia uses them with such care that they feel original to Casiopea’s story. Two examples that stand out to me:

  1. Casiopea is Obliviously Beautiful in a way that both makes sense and ties into the themes of the story: colonialism, cultural changes, abuse, trauma, etc. Of course a Mayan death god would see more beauty in her indigenous features than she does, initially.
  2. There’s a pretty extreme Age-Gap Romance going on here between Casiopea, who is seventeen, and Hun-Kame, who is … several thousand years old, probably? I know I literally just said the only way to make this okay would be for the elder to have been in a coma for most of his life, but I take it back. I think Gods of Jade and Shadow pulls it off without that, though you’ll have to read to see if you agree. It isn’t one particular event or explanation, it’s the book as a whole that made me okay with it.

This book is getting a lot of comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I think that only holds up if you’re comparing premises. Gods of Jade and Shadow is both more hopeful and more fun.

I think a better comparison is Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic trilogy. You have a brave, strong girl going to right generational wrongs in the company of a powerful, grumpy man who’s made better, braver, and kinder by knowing her. However, Gods of Jade and Shadow is less focused on romance than Cold Magic, and Hun-Kame is less of an ass than Andevai.

I also wanted to compare it to A Wrinkle in Time, in that Casiopea is an ordinary girl who triumphs over extraordinary obstacles, and her flaws are ultimately her strengths. Then I googled Kamazotz (giant Mayan bat monster) because the name sounded familiar, and it turns out that’s where L’Engle got the name of her dystopian planet, which made me feel a little icky. So, um, forget that comparison, I guess, although I would still recommend this book to anyone who liked A Wrinkle in Time.

Or, honestly, anyone. I can’t think of a single person I would want to recommend books to who wouldn’t like this one. Go read it and then come back and talk to me about it. It’s all I want to talk about.

More Info

Publisher: Del Rey
Hardcover Page Count: 334

You can find Silvia Moreno-Garcia on Twitter or her website. Buy the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop, or get it on Amazon.