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Tag: Fantasy

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.

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: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

Cover of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Adult
Series?: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: The Farseer Trilogy, The Unbroken, Ursula Le Guin, family dramas, political fantasy, strong female characters, slow burn romance, Suffering

Asian Readathon is over, and I am only reading cute, fluffy books with lots of kissing and minimal dead cats from now on. I deserve it after The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.

K. S. Villoso’s Filipino-inspired family drama-cum-epic fantasy is narrated by Queen Talyien, possibly the only Strong Female Character to say, “I can take care of myself, thanks,” and then do so. Talyien is the first female ruler of Oren-yaro. She was betrothed at first to the last end of a rival faction in order to end her country’s brutal civil war. Then her worthless garbage truck of a husband fled on their coronation day, abandoning her with their two-year-old son to rule alone.

Talyien believes (and Goodreads reviewers seem to agree) that her primary flaw is continuing to love her husband through the five years of his absence. There’s some textual evidence for this: When her husband asks Talyien to meet him in a hostile and much more powerful neighboring country, she does, and almost everyone she trusts either dies or betrays her as a result.

I disagree. I think Talyien is so strong people fail to notice what’s actually going on with her: She’s traumatized. She’s trying to live up to not only the expectations of an entire fractious nation but also the idealized image of her dead father. Yes, it would be better for her to put her hope and faith in someone (anyone) who deserves it more than her absent husband, but this is what traumatized people often do. We love people who don’t deserve it.

This isn’t a story about a dysfunctional marriage so much as it is about a dysfunctional family, all three generations of it.

It’s also a character study. Yes, there’s (so much) violence and politics and forbidden magic, but all of those things serve to propel Talyien’s journey from queen who’s always been surrounded by servants to beggar wandering the slums in a hostile country to the person she becomes at the end of the series.

I say “series” rather than book because The Wolf of Oren-Yaro feels very much like the beginning of a trilogy rather than a standalone novel. Which makes sense: It was originally self published. K. S. Villoso knew she didn’t need a publisher’s permission to continue.

However, it makes this a difficult book to review. The character arcs are incomplete. The good guys are still in danger, and even the bad guys who have died feel like they might make a comeback. Talyien has seen some of the world outside her (comparatively) sheltered life as a queen and gained some surprising insights about the people she thought she knew best, but it remains to be seen what she’ll do with those insights. There’s no resolution, merely a pause.

I wanted to hold off on writing this review at all until I finished the series, but I decided to push ahead for two reasons. One: It’s hard to post a full-series review on Goodreads and Amazon, where authors need reviews the most. Two: I don’t know when I’ll feel up to returning to Talyien’s world.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is beautifully written, but it isn’t a pretty book. There’s very little hope or light. Even the settings are ugly: dank prison cells, barred windows, and slums filled with starving children and dead cats. Talyien is rarely free from threats of rape and murder. Even in her dreams, she’s reliving childhood traumas. She does get to spend a few sweet pages with a normal, loving family, but then she’s immediately back to fighting for her life.

Here’s what I can say at this point: K. S. Villoso is a strong, genre-savvy writer. Despite the sprawling world and the shifting politics, I never felt lost. There is no glossary or cast list at the end of the book because it’s unnecessary. I never needed to flip back to remind myself who a character was or what they wanted.

And they felt real. One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to read The Issekar Falcon right now is how much I cared for Talyien. She’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character. I want someone to come along, prove they’re worthy of her trust, and give her a hot meal and a nice long bath. I want her to learn to set boundaries and get comfortable with disappointing her father’s memory. I want her to be okay–and because she’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character, I know that won’t happen for at least another book and three quarters.

Asian Readathon

This is my final book for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 3 (favorite genre)

K. S. Villoso is Filipino Canadian.

Content Warnings

This book is heavy. I never want to try to provide a complete list of all triggers, for fear of missing one, but I didn’t see anyone else talking about the extent of sexual violence in this book. It’s a lot.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro contains frequent and often detailed threats of rape, human trafficking, verbal descriptions of past rape, and rape on the page.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 496

K. S. Villoso is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Wolf of Oren-Yaro on Bookshop.org, or grab it 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.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Early in Thorn, Intisar Khanani’s YA fantasy retelling of “Goose Girl,” the protagonist’s talking Horse advises her with the book’s central theme and conflict:

It is rare for someone who wants power to truly deserve it.

Princess Alyrra is patient, gentle, generous, curious, and honest to a fault. After years of abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, she’s almost relieved to have her identity stolen on the road to the neighboring kingdom, where she is to wed the prince. Alyrra has no desire to rule. If only she could be sure the imposter would not harm the prince, Alyrra would be content as a goose girl, trading hard physical labor for freedom from court politics.

Thorn is a deceptively heavy novel. Despite its colorful cover and accessible writing, themes of abuse, injustice, and revenge permeate almost every scene. Intisar Khanani handles these themes with consideration and respect not only for their weight but also for the reader. I particularly appreciated the nuanced discussion of defensive versus offensive violence. And amid the darkness, there are much-needed moments of humor and beauty, including stubborn horses, a sweet found family that loves Alyrra the way her family of origin couldn’t.

Of the retellings I’ve read, Thorn is among the most faithful to its original fairytale. The cast is broader and more developed, and there is a side plot about human trafficking and thieves guilds. However, the primary plot points largely mirror those of “Goose Girl.”

That isn’t necessarily a problem. Based on a quick skim of Goodreads, I’m one of many readers for whom this was our first exposure to “Goose Girl.” Khanani also worked in a few twists that would have surprised me even if I had been familiar with the inspiration. However, there is one event in the original fairytale that doesn’t make much sense to me in that context, and it made even less sense to me in Thorn. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I kept waiting for something important to happen as Alyrra passed through the gates, and it never did.

I also wish Khanani had done more to develop Alyrra’s world and to push back against the fairytale trope of characters that are either all good or all evil. The primary villain, who orchestrates the theft of Alyrra’s identity, is complicated and sympathetic, but no other antagonist gets the same treatment. However, I enjoyed the quieter, more contemplative scenes immensely, and I’m eager to see what Khanani writes next.

Thorn is most likely to appeal to fans of trauma narratives that are light on romance, like Raybearer and Deerskin. However, it’s also a beautiful found family story, and I think people who prefer the parts of Disney movies where princesses cheerfully clean the house with the help of their animal sidekicks would enjoy it immensely.

Asian Readathon

This is the first book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 1, though it could also fulfill challenge 2 or 3, or all 3 if I only wanted to read 3 books.

Intisar Khanani’s family is Pakistani.

Content Warnings

I’m still conflicted about listing these, but apparently it’s a thing I’m doing now.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani contains physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; violence against animals; torture; human trafficking of children; onscreen threats of sexual violence; offscreen sexual violence; and torture.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 528

Intisar Khanani is on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Content Notes: This review contains significant spoilers for the entirety of Passing Strange, including the ending. I don’t think knowing what happens ruins the book, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss my messy, complicated feelings about it without these spoilers.

Speaking of messy and complicated, I’m going to discuss Klages’s depictions of homophobia, anti-Asian racism, sexism, domestic violence, sexual violence, police brutality, and suicide. If you’d rather not read about these subjects, I’d recommend skipping both the review and the book.

The cover of Passing Strange depicts two women (one in a tuxedo, one in a backless jumpsuit that looks like a dress) in front of a large, moonlit window. The night skyline of San Francisco is sketchily visible in the background.

Passing Strange is a difficult-to-categorize novella . Google calls it an LGBT fantasy about five women’s interconnected lives in historical San Francisco, which I think is wrong on all counts except the setting, but definitely more marketably pithy than my description. I’m going to call it a lesbian time traveler’s guide to San Francisco in 1940. You, lesbian time traveler, will learn all the best places to eat, drink, and sightsee, along with some helpful tips for dealing with law enforcement.

You’ll also get a cute love story and some lengthy explanations of why two separate magic systems cannot be explained. Which won’t matter to you, as you presumably have your own magic system, unless you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler. If you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler, perhaps you’ll enjoy the late-nineteenth-century-sci-fi-story-style dinner parties in which scientists describe their research at unnecessary length.

I enjoyed the dinner parties, the cute love story, the sightseeing, and many other elements I’ll touch on later. That’s part of what made Passing Strange such a frustrating read.

The frame narrative takes place in 2014. In the beginning, the elderly Japanese-American lawyer Helen Young has just received confirmation that her unspecified illness is terminal, and we follow as she finalizes her estate, revisits her favorite places in the city, and takes her own life at home. Her primary errand is to retrieve a pastel painting from an underground Chinatown labyrinth and sell it to a rare bookstore owner for everything he has.

Strangely, this section of the book is the most fun. Helen clearly has a plan for her last days. She carries it out with self-satisfied precision and without explanation, similar to a criminal mastermind pulling off a heist. It’s not clear how the smug bookstore owner is going to regret his purchase, but it’s clear that Helen’s come out ahead in this transaction.

After Helen’s death, the book jumps back to 1940. Helen attends one of the aforementioned dinner parties with the artist of the pastel painting, a white woman named Haskel who primarily paints pulp magazine covers. Helen sometimes poses as an “inscrutable Asian villain” for Haskel’s covers. Neither woman seems particularly uncomfortable with this arrangement:

Helen let her arm drop to her side, the prop knife dangling. “I like playing dress-up, but Dr. Wu Yang needs some summer-weight clothes.”

[…]

“Next time you can be the terrified victim.” Haskel lit a cigarette and leaned against a worktable covered with pastel chalks, jars of paintbrushes and pencils. “But Oriental fiends are harder to find.”

“That’s a relief.”

Also at the dinner party is Emily, a young white woman who makes eyes at Haskel. Haskel brushes her off, but later they run into each other at Mona’s Club 440, where Emily sings in drag. They fall in love almost instantly and spend the rest of the book making love and exploring the city. Helen more-or-less ceases to exist until Haskel and Emily need her help after the climax.

Castiel from Supernatural says, “I’ll just … wait here then.”

This is my primary problem with Passing Strange: Klages clearly wants to tie the 1940s queer experience to the 1940s Asian-American experience, which makes sense both historically and thematically, but her only Asian-American character exists to facilitate the romance between the white leads.

Frieda Kahlo appears briefly to fulfill a role that is similar to Helen’s, but worse. Worse both because she was an actual, real person, and because at least Helen gets to win sometimes. Frieda just gets to be crazy and tragic and sexy in an exotic, crazy, tragic way. (Haskel slept with her, but only once. Her mustache tickled.)

Like Helen, Emily and Haskel both have to flatten and commodify their identities as marginalized people in order to survive. Emily has a beautiful voice, but as a lesbian, she can’t perform in any respectable club. Instead, she sings in a tux and a mustache as Mona’s, where:

Visitors who’d come to San Francisco for the world’s fair ventured nervously […] to gape at curiosities that would astound the guys at the office, the ladies in the bridge club back in Dubque or Chattanooga.

Haskel, a domestic violence survivor, fills her covers with scantily-clad women in terror, about to be devoured by monsters.

Unlike Helen, however Emily and Haskel actually get the room to have complicated emotions about their experiences. Emily bemoans the pressure to define herself as either and only a butch or a femme. After a confrontation with her husband, who’s been out of the country for “three or four years,” Haskel decides to stop painting images of violence. And in the end, Emily and Haskel get to opt out, escaping to a fantasy world of their own making.

Helen–who is, again, a Japanese-American woman living in San Francisco in 1940–has to stay behind and see to their affairs.

That makes it hard to recommend this book, even though there are parts I love. Klages’s prose is beautiful, detailed, and precise in a way that reminds me of DMing tabletop games. You could draw a map from her descriptions.

Haskel and Emily’s love story is genuinely sweet and swoony. Like, look at this:

“Not quite. A little more–” Haskel set the sketch pad down and knelt by the bed. “–like this.” With one hand, she turned Emily’s head slightly to the side, her fingers entwined, for a moment, in auburn curls. Emily felt her arms go all goosebumps. Their faces were inches apart. She could feel the warmth of Haskel’s breath on her cheek, smell coffee and a drift of smoke.

A moment passed. Neither of them moved. Then she heard Haskel sigh and felt a tickle of hair against her neck, lips brushing her own, lightly at first, and then, when she offered no resistance–none at all–with unmistakable desire.

“Golly,” Emily said, when there was air again.

I died. I died when I read it, and I died again when I sent it to all my friends, and I died a third time typing that up for you. In lieu of flowers, please send nail polish. I need a good green, but I’m not picky.

When Haskel and Emily get into trouble and it seems like there’s no escape, their found family of other lesbians step in to care for them in a way that feels both heartwarming and familiar. “People like us, we help each other,” Helen says. (This theme is part of why I find it so frustrating that they left Helen behind! In 1940!)

Jack from Titanic, handcuffed to the sinking ship, says, “I’ll just wait here.”

There’s so much sweetness and light, it’s not hard to see why people frequently recommend it as a cute, fluffy sapphic romance. Kind of like Passing Strange itself, I see where they’re coming from, and I’m also really frustrated by it.

Corey Alexander wrote a blog post back in 2018 called “On being careful what we call fluff,” which sums up my feelings about these recommendations well.

This is not a fluffy book. I’ve already touched on the racism, homophobia, sexism, and domestic violence, but I want to be clear that these are not just incidental as a result of the setting. They are pervasive and they hit hard. There’s a scene of homophobic violence and sexual assault against a side character that makes me so sick to remember that I can’t honestly say whether or not it furthered the plot or themes or whatever.

This is a heavy book with a cute romance and a more-or-less happy ending, closer to Keeping You a Secret than The Princess Affair.*

I think that if you’re the kind of person who generally enjoys 1990s lesbian fiction, or if you have an interest in queer history and a high tolerance for suffering, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re more than a year into a global pandemic and feeling helpless about police brutality and anti-Asian racism, maybe check out The Princess Affair instead.

More Info

Publisher: Tor.com
Paperback Page Count: 215

Ellen Klages is an American science, science fiction and historical fiction writer who lives in San Francisco. Her novelette “Basement Magic” won the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. You can follow her on Twitter and buy the book on Bookshop or Amazon.

Resources

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*I haven’t actually read The Princess Affair, but my friend assures me it’s for-real fluffy.

Ranking Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Apologetics: Tier List, Part I

Content note: This blog post discusses domestic violence and abuse, child abuse, grooming, the sexualization of minors, and hetero-allonormativity in the context of the Twilight series.

I finished the Midnight Sun audiobook a little after midnight last Saturday, and a little after midnight-thirty wrote a quickie Goodreads review that was basically:

Liked the narrator, hated the second half. Meyer’s defenses of Edward have gotten more sophisticated since Life and Death. Mostly.

But I’ve slept since then, and I’m not so sure anymore.

About the defenses, I mean. The narrator really committed to growling Edward’s lines. 10/10, I want him to star in the remake.

So I’m doing the YouTuber thing and making a tier list for the ways in which Stephenie Meyer has attempted to justify, excuse, and minimize Edward’s–well, really just his entire character. I’ll be ranking defenses from 3 different sources:

  • Life and Death
  • Midnight Sun (specifically the published version, not the leaked version)
  • Q&As on Meyer’s website and the Twilight Lexicon

I won’t be considering fanworks, film adaptations, or interviews. There’s too much Twilight content to examine it all.

In evaluating the defenses, I’ll only be considering 2 factors: Does it actually justify, excuse, or mitigate Edward’s actions? And if so, how well does it align with book canon?

I’ll describe the different tiers (S through F) in more detail in a second. First …

A gif of Edward carrying Bella on his back captioned, “You better hold on tight, spider monkey.”

Why does Edward need defending?

I could touch on the fraught issues of fandom and author-reader relationships here, but this isn’t a three-hour long YouTube video and I don’t enjoy suffering.

Let’s just agree to accept that Stephenie Meyer is really attached to one particular interpretation of her characters. She wants the Twilight series to be read as an epic, overcoming-all-odds, star-crossed love story, and she’s been fighting (on and off, with varying degrees of intensity) against alternate interpretations for the past ten years.

Or, really just one alternate interpretation: that the Twilight series is about a young girl (Bella) with low self esteem and the old man (Edward) who gaslights and abuses her into believing they’re in love.

Some evidence in favor of this second interpretation:

  • Edward is 104 when he begins a romantic relationship with Bella, who is seventeen.
  • He stalks her, before and during their relationship, using his ability to mind read in order to observe her when he is not physically able to see her and sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep.
  • He warns her that he (at least partially) wants to kill her, and he regularly reminds her how easy that would be for him, as a vampire.
  • He consistently demeans her and insists she doesn’t know what she truly wants or what’s best for her.
  • Edward threatens to leave Bella at regular intervals, keeping her on edge.
  • He is terrifying and unpredictable.
  • When Edward does lose control, he blames Bella: for making him want her, for being so fragile, for not following his orders.
  • He isolates Bella from her human friends. She stops sitting with them at lunch and hanging out with them outside of school in order to spend all of her time with Edward.
  • He attempts to isolate Bella from her werewolf friend, Jacob, going so far as to disable her truck so that she cannot visit Jacob without Edward’s permission.
  • Edward uses information and affection as “rewards” for Bella’s “good” behavior.
  • At other times, he withholds information in order to control Bella’s behavior.
  • In addition to the above, Edward attempts to control every aspect of Bella’s existence, from the vehicle she drives to her short- and long-term plans for the future.
  • He even attempts to force Bella to have an abortion against her will.

Interestingly, that last item on the list is the only one Meyer never attempts to defend. (She’s Mormon, and pro-life rhetoric permeates the books.)

A horrible Blingee disaster. The background is trees. In the middle left, there’s a gif of Edward and Bella climbing a tree. In the bottom right, there’s a still image of Edward and Bella kissing. There are hearts and roses and glitter. It’s captioned, “and so the lion fell in love with the lamb. what a stupid lamb/ what a sick masochistic lion / I <3 YOU.”

The Tiers

S Tier: “Do I dazzle you?”

I don't think I'm going to find anything in this tier, but if we come across any defenses that fully line up with the text and make me think Edward's actions were actually justified, they'll go here.

A Tier: “Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.”

For defenses that are textually supported and make me think yeah, what Edward did wasn't great, but it was necessary. 

B Tier: “I am not really breaking any rules.”

You know how sometimes people say things that are technically true but not at all true in spirit? Those kinds of defenses.

C Tier: “… love gave someone the power to break you.”

For defenses that only sort of do what they're supposed to. I'd guess 90% of these will not really match up with what's on the page.

D Tier: “What if I’m not a superhero. What if I’m the bad guy?”

Bad job, insufficient effort, are you referring to a different book?

F Tier: “… as long as I’m going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”

If any of Meyer's defenses actually make me think less of Edward, I'll put them here.
2 panel cartoon. In the first panel, a man in a tie crosses his arm, frowning. In the second panel, he throws up his arms and says, “I GUESS.”

Defense 1: Edward is actually 17.

Source: Midnight Sun, Twilight Lexicon. It’s actually in Twilight as well, which should tell you something about its effectiveness.

Effective?: Sure. If Edward had been cryo-frozen for 87 years, learning and experiencing nothing, his actual date of birth wouldn’t matter. But …

Canon?: This is super weird, because even though Edward claims to be seventeen “in every way that matters,” Meyer says herself:

 Edward is emotionally and intellectually more adult than a modern seventeen-year-old, due to the times in which he lived. In his world, he was old enough to be considered a man. People his age were getting married and beginning their lives. He was about to join the military and go fight in the Great War. Developmentally, he was an adult. So he is able to understand and absorb this century he’s lived through, to gain perspective from it.

This perspective is what makes him think of his classmates as children, coupled with the fact that they are so helpless in comparison with himself.

Personal Correspondence 9, Twilight Lexicon

Edward:

✔ Thinks of his classmates as children.
✔ Remembers at least 87 years of un-life, with some hazy memories of his life before he became a vampire.
✔ Has 2 medical degrees.
✔ Can read the minds of everyone around him, witnessing and learning from their thoughts and experiences.
✔ Has outlived all his human family and friends.
✔ Has a completely different physiology than when he was a human seventeen-year-old.
✔ Is generally very emotionally even keeled (except when it comes to Bella).

In what way, aside from his appearance, is he “really” seventeen, Stephenie?

However, Edward still is a teenage boy in many ways. This is his first experience with romantic love, his first kiss, just as it is for Bella.

Personal Correspondence 9, Twilight Lexicon

Cool, cool, cool. That’s not a fucked up or harmful thing to say at all.

I’m not going to dig into the implications of that statement because this was supposed to be a fun project, and I’m worried that explicitly saying that your maturity is commiserate with your sexual and romantic experience is both -phobic in like 87 ways and also exactly the kind of thing someone grooming a child would say will ruin it for everyone.

Verdict: Tier C

Gif of Rosalie (Edward’s vampire “sister”) shattering a glass salad bowl.

Defense 2: Bella’s really mature for her age.

Source: Twilight Lexicon. It’s part of the answer quoted above, and oh boy, you are not ready for it:

[Edward] thinks of Bella as just one of the “children” until he becomes interested in her. Then he begins to learn how mature she is for her age, just like him …

Personal Correspondence 9, Twilight Lexicon

Effective?: NOPE. This is what literally every predator tells the child he’s grooming.

Canon?: I mean, I don’t want to call a teenager immature for meeting a cute boy and instantly deciding she wants to literally give up her life to be with him forever, but I wouldn’t call that the height of emotional maturity either.

Bella does take on an unusual amount of responsibility at home – cooking, cleaning, protecting, and otherwise caring for her parents – but that isn’t maturity either. It’s parentification.

Verdict: Tier F

Gif of Robert Pattinson in a Breaking Dawn interview saying, “I would like to break the hands and mouth of the person who came up with it.”

Defense 3: Bella’s human friends suck (figuratively).

Source: Midnight Sun, Twilight Lexicon. It’s the part of the answer quoted above, and oh boy, you are not ready for it:

The other girls at school are fairly immature and petty. Their minds are a turn off … 🙂

Personal Correspondence 9, Twilight Lexicon

Effective?: I guess!

Canon?: Technically, almost. Edward can hear the thoughts of all his classmates, and the only person in the entire school who’s ever had a single kind, unselfish thought about Bella is Angela. Which is gross, Meyer’s misogyny is definitely showing, but I’m not ranking these based on if they’re effective and canon but I hate them.

Verdict: Tier B

Gif of Regina George Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls saying, “We want to invite you to have lunch with us.”

It’s once again midnight thirty, and this post is getting long, so in the tradition of Breaking Dawn, check back for an unnecessary but commercially lucrative part two.

I’ll go over the five blanket excuses Meyer tries to toss over all of Edward’s garbage fire decisions. If you’re good and don’t go anywhere or do anything without me, maybe I’ll also share my absolute favorite apologetic, for which Twilight fans had to wait fifteen years.