Fairy Tales, Poetry, Immigrants, and Feminism: Theodora Goss – Snow White Learns Witchcraft

I’ve been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing ever since I picked up her gorgeous collection In the Forest of Forgetting. The author showed that she’s also really good at novels (which reminds me, I have to read the sequels to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter!), and then she came back again with a mix of short fiction and poetry which promptly won her a Mythopoeic Award.

SNOW WHITE LEARNS WITCHCRAFT
by Theodora Goss

Published: Mythic Delirium Books, 2019
ebook:
276 pages
Short fiction collection
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: One day she looked into her mother’s mirror,
The face looing back was unavoidably old,
with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.

A young woman hunts for her wayward shadow at the school where she first learned magic—while another faces a test she never studied for as ice envelopes the world. The tasks assigned a bookish boy lead him to fateful encounters with lizards, owls, trolls and a feisty, sarcastic cat. A bear wedding is cause for celebration, the spinning wheel and the tower in the briar hedge get to tell their own stories, and a kitchenmaid finds out that a lost princess is more than she seems. The sea witch reveals what she hoped to gain when she took the mermaid’s voice. A wiser Snow White sets out to craft herself a new tale.

In these eight stories and twenty-three poems, World Fantasy Award winner Theodora Goss retells and recasts fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, always lyrical, the works gathered in Snow White Learns Witchcraft re-center and empower the women at the heart of these timeless narratives.

As someone who doesn’t easily like poetry, not even from my most favorite of authors, I will be focusing much more on the prose stories found in this collection. But I do want to say that most poems aren’t the rhyming type anyway and can be read like very, very short stories. For that reason, I quite enjoyed many of them, even though they are usually over too quickly for me to have any deep feelings about them. But the stories… The stories, I tell you!

Goss tackles many of the most well-known fairy tales such as Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Snow Queen. But she also picks up some lesser known ones, like Frau Holle (known as Mother Holle in English, I think) or The White Cat. So whether you’re a veteran of fairy tales and retellings or coming to this pretty new, there will be elements you recognize and there will be things that are few and fresh to you. In those cases where very well-known tales are respun, we usually get an interesting shift in perspective. And by “interesting”, I mean something more than just the villain’s POV – although there is that, too.

So what makes Goss’s way of twisting and retelling fairy tales any different or better than the myriad other versions out there? It’s a question of taste, certainly, but I loved how I thought I mostly knew where the story was going twist-wise and then things happened a little differently, after all. It’s not like the tales are filled with shocking twists or surprise moments, not at all. It’s just that the little tweaks work really well and it is precisely their subtlety that makes them shine.

I also liked how migration is a quiet thread that runs through the collection and it makes sense given the author’s Hungarian roots. Some stories focus more on giving an actual immigrant’s perspective, others just mention it briefly, yet others don’t touch on the topic at all. But it was nice reading about Baba Yaga as well as Snow White’s evil stepmother (who’s not really evil and doesn’t care that much about beauty in the first place).
It’s also quite wonderful how the female characters in this collection manage to be feminist without having to make any overly grand gestures. Sometimes it’s as simple as not being hateful to another woman, sometimes it’s realizing that letting your beauty be judged by men and yourself be put into competition with people who should be your allies (read: other women) is stupid and you’re just not going to play along! (After having just read Iron Widow which showed the complete opposite, this was a refreshing and delightful contrast for me.)

This book was also one of those rare occasions when I get to read a fairy tale that is completely new to me. “Blanchefleur” is a retelling of “The White Cat”, a fairy tale I had heard of but never actually read myself. So it was extra nice to discover, recognizing all the usual fairy tale trappings (rule of three, penniless boy rising up to great heights, etc.) but in a new and interesting way. I also love how, in fairy tales, we don’t question when cats speak to us or do the laundry. And suddenly just aren’t cats at all, but human-looking women.

This collection isn’t one that makes a big bang. Its strength is in its simplicity, its subtle twists, its loving care for the characters that we otherwise know to be rather shallow and one-dimensional. Goss stayed true to herself and still manages to create atmosphere using very few words, but she has also grown so much! Her stories read like fairy tales that have grown up a bit, fairy tales that know what they are and that are questioning themselves and their purpose. And that, without epic battles or shocking twists, makes for a delightful reading experience.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Nothing New At The Scholomance: Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate

Publisher-generated hype can be very detrimental to a book’s success, especially when it builds up the wrong expectations. A generally very good book can end up disappointing its readers, simply because they were led to believe that it would tell a different kind of story. In the case of the Scholomance, this curse follows Novik even to her second book, which is fun to read but has very little to offer in terms of what was promised.

THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2021
ebook:
389 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 26 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Keep far away from Orion Lake.

The specter of graduation looms large as Naomi Novik’s trilogy continues in the sequel to A Deadly Education.

In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant.
Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive.
Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely.
But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do.

I was skeptical from the beginning when I started reading Naomi Novik’s first Scholomance book but reviews had warned me of the info-dumping beginning, unlikable protagonist, and cultural insensitivities. I ended up really enjoying the first book but only once Novik started showing us the dangers of the school first-hand and put the characters in truly dangerous situations. I honestly didn’t feel like the information we got in the first book was “dumped” so much as delivered by El but the focus of the book was never pure action.

Now this second book had it a bit harder. With the Scholomance set up (although many, many parts of it make no sense at all and I still don’t understand how this world is supposed to work), the stakes needed to be repositioned. El and her friends are in their final year with graduation looming above everyone’s head like a big sword dripping blood. El’s former plan – make it out of the Scholomance alive and don’t become an evil Maleficer in the process – has changed a lot. Now she intends to be a Big Damn Hero and save everyone.

The bulk of the book is – yet again – not school life, lessons, not even really exciting fights against monsters, but rather lots of talk and politics and making alliances. Now I personally actually like that kind of stuff, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected from this “adult magic school series”. The politicking and planning and making plans on how to graduate were fun to read and I mostly looked forward to getting back to the book whenever I took a break. But it felt like a broken promise, nonetheless.

I had also hoped that the world building and magic system would be described in more detail in this book, that we’d learn more things about how this secret magic society works. Rudimentary information would have sufficed, to be honest, because I still don’t understand how everyday life outside the Scholomance works for witches and wizards.
We got some insight into how the school works and also about what drives the mals but I wouldn’t say that I have a good idea of the world this series takes place in, nor its magical society. Originally, I thought thi would be a longer series (yes, I admit, that assumption was influenced by that most famous wizard boy and his seven book series) but the trilogy will be concluded with The Golden Enclaves, which comes out this September. So it’s not like there’s a lot of pages left to do some proper world building. And if this is all we get, I am far from impressed!

As fun as the plot of the book was to read, the characters were treated with even less love than in the first novel. I’m not going to comment on the diversity aspect much, other than that I enjoy reading about well-written diverse characters, but no matter their heritage, skin color, cultural background, or native language, the side characters all remained incredibly pale (no pun intended). Only at the end of the book do we get a little bit more from a couple of side characters than just them existing alongside El. Even Orion, the main love interest, feels like a parody of himself. He, too, only gets to be a proper person when the book is almost over and El finally talks to him like she’s taking him seriously, like he’s a full human being with his own hopes and dreams.

Novik has apparently also lost her ability to write good romantic scenes. Not one single kiss made me feel anything at all and the sex scene was just meh from beginning to end. As this is only a small part of the novel, normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but I have swooned over Novik’s romantic scenes in Uprooted and Spinning Silver and was thus expecting her to keep up that level of quality, if not raise it.
El’s interactions with Orion, although she clearly feels something for him, still read like she’s always annoyed with him. If she’s in love with him, she’s treating him terribly and I don’t appreciate how she is constantly making hurtful comments, acting like he’s beneath her, or like he’s an idiot. If she’s not in love with him, why the hell play with his feelings like that? Either way, it makes me dislike El on a whole new level, no matter how many lives she intends to save. If that’s how she treats her closest friends/potential boyfriend, then I’d rather not know her at all…

The ending wasn’t really surprising. Many reviews warned of the “shocking cliffhanger” but really, I found it quite obvious what was going to happen, at least after a certain point in the novel that offered such on-the-nose foreshadowing it was hard to miss. Had I been more invested in the characters and their relationships, it still might have shocked me but as Novik kept them all at arm’s lenght, I didn’t much care either way. Plus, I’m sure the next novel is going to fix everything and wrap things up extra tidily.

To sum up my feelings: I enjoyed the reading (or rather: listening) experience but it didn’t offer anything new in terms of worldbuilding or character development, so I don’t see how this instalment helps the series progress in any meaningful way. I am also still not convinced that this is a YA novel/series. If anything, this second book has less crossover appeal than the first. As for my Lodestar ballot, despite me having enjoyed the book, I will once again leave it off completely as, in my opinion, it shouldn’t win an award in a category it does not belong in.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Orilium Magical Readathon: Spring Equinox 2022 – Wrap-Up

I’m a bit late to the wrap-up party (okay, very late!) but better now then never, right? Here’s how the Orilium Magical Readathon in April went for me and my character.

Like every one of G’s readathons, this was a brilliant, fun event that had so much more to offer than just a list of reading prompts. The entire community is lovely, there were side quests and Twitter adventures, Instagram challenges, and the feeling of building a character and giving them a story to live – all by doing what we love to do anyway: reading books.


The Spring Equinox Syllabus + Guild Points

Our first semester at Orilium Academy felt both familiar and fresh at the same time. I really enjoyed following the syllabus for my chosen calling of Scribe, but when I saw I was doing quite well and could fit in a couple more books, I got swept up by the side quests. I wasn’t a fan of the ones you had to claim quickly because, inevitably, other people are always faster on Twitter than I am, and time zone differences can make it hard to even be online when quests are published, but G offered up a few quests that were open to everyone throughout the month and that is where I pounced. Gotta get me some Guild points, after all.

Classes for my Calling

The first five are classes were the ones I needed to take for my chosen calling of Scribe, the rest is extra credit work. It’s just so have I have some options should I change my mind next semester about what my calling should be. I’m mostly set on becoming a Scribe but that Rogue Illusionist does tickle my fancy…

BOOK TITLECLASSREADING PROMPT
V.E. Schwab – GallantInscriptionan intimidating read
Theodora Goss – Snow White Learns WitchcraftSpells & Incantationsa collection
Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen Loremythology-based
Jessica Townsend – Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan CrowRestorationincludes healers
Fran Wilde – Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.Elemental Studiesunder 100 pages
Charlie Jane Anders – Victories Greater Than DeathPsionics & Divinationset in the future
Oghenehevwe Donald Ekpeki – O2 ArenaArt of Illusiona trope you like
Tamsyn Muir – Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Towerclaws on cover
Suzanne Palmer – Bots of the Lost ArkAnimal Studiesa quick read

Side Quests for Guild Points

QUEST TITLEREADING PROMPTBOOK TITLE
Scroll of Standstillread a 5 star predictionXiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow
Fire Weasel in Dangerread a book by a new-to-you authorAdrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Race
Rare Ingredientread a book with the letter D in the titleSeanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields
Ammelorite Samplepurple coverAmie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Memento

The side quests were fun and I only read one truly short work for these prompts. The rest were a novel and two novellas (and for novellas, they were on the bigger side).

I did quite well when it comes to the amount of books (I was generous and counted novelettes as books) but most of them were rather short because I’m still a little preoccupied with, you know, carrying a baby inside of me, and reading time isn’t as easy to come by as it used to. But I am proud of what I did achieve.

Books read: 13

Pages read: 2990

Tallying those Guild Points:

  • Finishing the Novice Path: 50 pts
  • Finishing the Spring Equinox: 50 pts
  • Fire Weasel Quest: 10 pts
  • Rare Ingredient Quest: 10 pts
  • Scroll of Standstill Quest: 10 pts
  • Ammelorite Sample Quest: 10 pts
  • TOTAL: 140 pts

My Character

Sistani has passed all obstacles so far and is well on her way to pursue her calling of Scribe. She finished all the necessary classes and, in true Archivist Guild fashion, added some more coursework because studying is fun. But she also likes to spend time with friends, meet new people, and explore places, so she didn’t manage to do the entire syllabus (secretly, she really wanted to, though).

  • Name: Sistani
  • Background: Urban
  • Heritage: Half-Iltirian, Half-Elf
  • Province: Kerador
  • Guild: The Archivists
    • Guild Legacy: Ausra, Goddess of Dawn and New Beginnings
    • Conduit: Staff
    • Tier: Assistant
  • Calling: Scribe

Within her Guild – The Archivists – she has become a little better known, although she is by no means a household name. She did a fair job going questing, mostly because the quests were fun little adventures that could be taken on with other students. For the next semester, she has gained some small perks that will make life at Orilium Academy just a little bit easier.

Sistani also participated in the Twitter quiz and she even got many questions right, but – alas – was usually too slow for them to count. Our Guild tied in third place during that Twitter battle and while that’s a bit sad, it was also super fun and exciting! Better train those typing fingers until next semester.


The Books (the long part)

For Elemental Studies, I technically read several stories. The prompt was to read a book under 100 pages and since I was unsure of what counted as a book in this case, I read some short stories before I officially picked a novelette. Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde is a “book” on Goodreads so it should have me covered for this prompt. I enjoyed this novelette about a young fashion designer getting the chance to make dresses for the magically appearing designers Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. She uncovers some secrets from the past and forges her own future. It wasn’t wildly original but fun to read, nonetheless. (40 pages)

For my Inscription course, I picked up Gallant by V.E.Schwab and was disappointed pretty much all the way. This book had no substance and would have been served better as a short story. It was blown out of proportion by the (beautiful!) artwork, endless repetitions of the same few lines – journal entries that sometimes took up entire pages – and didn’t take any time setting up a proper premise, conflict, its characters and their relationships to each other, or indeed a satisfying ending. Everything about this was botched (except the art) and it felt like Schwab just desperately wanted to publish something, no matter what, and threw this together without love or care.
(310 pages)

Jessica Townsend’s third Nevermoor adventure Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow was my read for the class of Restoration for which the book needed to include healers. A story about a mysterious disease turned out to be the right choice. I also listened to the audiobook version of a Nevermoor book for the first time and was quite taken with the voices and accents narrator Gemma Whelan does. I still love this series even if I felt this volume took a while to get going and was a bit unfocused at times. It’s great fun and I will continue reading this middle grade series. (I had a typo here, calling it “middle great” and that actually sums the book up pretty well.)
(560 pages)

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi was a huge disappointment. Very much a beginner’s effort with almost no plot, terribly shallow characters, little to no world-building, but all the more cheesy purple prose. The insta-lovers tell each other so many sappy things and declare their undying love in such roundabout, wannabe-poetic ways, I mostly just found it ridiculous. The story makes no sense, female characters shame and hurt each other, and it’s all about the hot magical guy wanting the girl for no discernible reason. I did like the horse character, though.
(352 pages)

Next up was Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss. I had read collections from this author before (In the Forest of Forgetting is a big recommendation!) and since she won the Mythopoeic Award for this one, I was very excited to fill my Spells & Incantations prompt with this book. An author I like doing twisted fairy tales?I mean, this basically screamed 5-star-prediction at me! It turned out pretty damn great as well. I didn’t like all the poetry (poetry is so hard to get right) but I loved the stories all the more. Feminist, thoughtful, and modern in ways you don’t see coming.
(276 pages)

For some extra credit work, I combined my Hugo/Lodestar reading with the Spring Equinox. Psionics and Divination was fulfilled by reading Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders. This fast-paced YA debut was definitely worth the audiobook because the narration is great. The story itself felt surprisingly black and white for someone of Anders’ skill and I got the feeling she didn’t quite feel at home writing for this new audience. It was exciting and had some neat ideas, but overall I’d call it only good but not great.
(300 pages)

I hadn’t intended to take the Animal Studies class but Hugo Award reading made it so easy. Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer is another novelette and this one was about the AI and robots currently steering a space ship whose human crew is in cryo sleep after an attack. I loved the portrayal of the bots as well as the central conflict, but the writing was a bit hard to get into. This was a lot of fun and currently resides near the top of my Hugo ballot. It also makes me want to read Palmer’s longer work!
(35 pages)

I threw in another last minute novelette, O2 Arena by Oghenechevwe Donald Ekpeki in order to take my Art of Illusion class. I liked the writing in this climate fiction novelette but I honestly didn’t find any of the ideas or the plot to be original or fresh. Oxygen is a commodity and people have to sacrifice all else just for the right to keep breathing, and there are arenas where you can actually fight someone to the death for a chance to win a lifetime supply of O2 – which is also used as a currency for everyday transactions. I did like the world building and writing style but otherwise, this was only an okay read.
(18 pages)

For the Shapeshifting class, I picked another fairy tale with a twist, Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir. This was very different from Gideon and Harrow the Ninth but I loved the way our princess protagonist is forced to change from wilting flower waiting for a prince to save her into a woman who takes matters into her own hands. Her hate/love relationship with the fairy Cobweb was also delightful. As fairy tale twists go, it wasn’t my top favorite but I had a lot of fun exploring forty flights of monsters alongside Floralinada and I’d definitely recommend it.
(209 pages)


QUESTS

Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky was my first foray into this author’s fiction and my book pick for the Guild Quest Fire Weasel in Danger. It had a few really cool ideas but, given the hype surrounding this author, I had expected a lot more when it comes to the characters. They mostly remained flat and one-dimensional, except for the male protagonist, who I felt for deeply. But storywise, this wasn’t super impressive and will end up on the lower half of my Hugo Awards ballot.
(204 pages)

For my second Guild Quest Rare Ingredient, I went with another Hugo finalists, Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields. And this one surprised me in all the best ways. It’s probably my favorite novella in this series so far! Protagonist Regan was easy to love, the way McGuire describes the cruelty of young girls was utterly heartbreaking, and the home Regan finds in her portal world, the Hooflands, was warm and lovely. If only it weren’t for those treacherous doors…
(208 pages)

For the Scroll of Standstill Quest, I had to pick a five star prediction and I couldn’t have gone more wrong than choosing Iron Widow by YouTuber Xiran Jay Zhao. I honestly thought this Pacific Rim story about a girl smashing the patriarchy would be great but it had no plot to speak of, very little character development, the twists were obvious, and the polyamorous romance wasn’t really one. Plus, the feminist message is loud but only in the telling. We are shown women who tear each other down, insult and hate each other, and only one of them gets to shine – our special snowflake protagonist who is better than everyone else (literally). Fun to read because of cool battles and romantic kisses and such but ultimately not a good book.
(394 pages)

The Ammelorite Sample Quest was a pure gift. I had to read a book with a purple cover, so I finally went with Memento by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, a prequel to the Illuminae Files Trilogy. It was short, it was snappy, it was great! AIDAN is always a win, there were even a few shocking moments here, and I just loved the way this story was told through scripts and chat protocols just like the big novels in the series. It made me want to re-read the entire triogy all over again.
(84 pages)


So this was it, my Spring Equinox 2022. Would I have liked to read more and/or bigger books? Sure. Am I proud that I accomplished as much as I did? Hell, yeah!

I can’t wait for August 2022 at the Orilium Academy! Ambitions are high, the TBR is gigantic, let’s see if I can get my grades to soar equally. I will also be fully at home by them (in Austria, you are not allowed to work starting two months prior to the expected date of your child’s birth) so time shouldn’t be a problem and I also won’t have a newborn to take care of just yet. The question is how I’ll be feeling physically and if I’ll be up for a big readathon. For now, I’m excited and optimistic that I’ll smash all my goals.

I look forward to seeing you all at Orilium Academy during the Fall Equinox. 🙂

Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

I fully expected to adore this book. I mean Pacific Rim, as silly as the premise may be, is just pure fun. Mixing that with feminist themes, a protagonist who dismantles the patriarchy, and has a poly romance as well – it almost sounded too good to be true. And it turns out, it was. There were aspects of this book I enjoyed, but others (important ones!) were terribly flawed or underdeveloped. Which leads me to one of those unpopular opinion ratings. I feel like I’m not allowed to have disliked this book because the internet seems to love it on principle, but I want to be honest here and it just didn’t deliver what it promised.

IRON WIDOW
by Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: Rock the Boat, 2021
Hardcover: 394 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 14 minutes
Series: Iron Widow #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

A story such as this, which is meant to show a strong girl protagonist smashing the patriarchy and disrupting existing power structures, needs a solid basis. We need to know how this world works first, in order for us to watch Zetian take it apart in a satisfying manner. That is unfortunately the first problem this book has, although it tries to distract us from this fact with lots of shiny things that grab our attention briefly. What little we know about the world and the ongoing war is this:
Humans are battling the alien mecha Hunduns using Chrysalises (Pacific Rim robots) that are steered by a man/woman team, whereas the man is usually in controll and the woman frequently dies because the mental connection between them is too much to bear. They use qi powers, although I still don’t understand how or what the different sub-types of qi really mean, even after finishing this book. It felt like a Pokémon style addition but without making much sense. There’s wood qi and water qi and one is good against fire and one against air and so on, but I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried.
The fact that women pilots are used mostly as cannon fodder is accepted by the entire society because family get some money for sending their daughters to become pilots and male pilots need the women’s qi power in order to complement their own – much stronger – powers when driving the Chrysalises. Nobody except for our tenacious heroine (who has grown up in exactly the same society as everyone else in this book) questions this or finds anything with the tradition of sending your daughters and sisters to their sudden death.

But the very fact that Zetian is not like other girls (oh please, I thought we were past that!) kicks off the plot. She is fine with going to her own certain death, as long as she can avenge her sister who was killed by one of the most famous pilots in the land. Her plan is to become his female pilot, kill him and then die in the process or get executed afterward. Of course it then turns out she is MOAR POWERFUL THAN ANYONE because although she does succeed in killing the guy, she herself survives and becomes a Chrysalis pilot herself, an Iron Widow.
She is then paired with the single most powerful pilot currently living, Li Shimin. They measure this stuff in qi points or something – but this guy also happens to be forced to wear a muzzle and have a serious drinking problem. But right from the start you can tell that he is just a tortured superhero who is wrongfully seen as dangerous. I don’t have a problem with this trope, in fact I enjoyed this part of the book, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly subtle or surprising. And it’s a little cheap that it turns out everything bad about this characters (or indeed, our protagonist) is totally not their fault. They’re perfect really. Any perceived flaws are soneone else’s fault…

Zetian also still has her old love interest Yizhi who follows her into the pilots’ program and sort of helps from the sidelines while swooning over her. One major marketing aspect of this book is the polyamory relationship but, honestly, I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t really anything there. Zetian kisses one guy, then the other, then they talk about it openly – which, granted, is very nice and mature and happens way too rarely in books or on TV – and everyone’s like “guess I’m okay with it then”. But plot convenience takes over immediately because this threeway relationship is never actually tested and can’t be appreciated at all. There are no actual romantic scenes with all three of them, there’s no chance for any of them to even get jealous, there’s simply romantic scenes with Zetian and Yizhi, and there’s romantic scenes with Zetian and Shimin. I’m not the expert on poly relationships, but this depiction felt disingenuous, like the author just didn’t want a love triangel (given how many other tired tropes they used) and so decided to just roll with both M/F relationships and have the guys sort of agree to this arrangement. I don’t want to spoil things but the ending makes it feel even cheaper.

Another thing that made me sad was how this supposedly feminist book handles its female characters. And I don’t mean the obviously terrible sacrifice of young girls that nobody seems to object to. I mean how Zetian thinks and talks about other girls, how they are shown – as conniving, idiotic bitches, as girls too stupid to understand anything, or too blinded and too conformist to use their brain. Only Zetian is smart, only she sees through the VERY OBVIOUS rigging of the entire system. I’m all for romance in my SFF, but I’ll take a good female friendship or at the very least some good female characters over a shallow poly relationships any day. I found this actually the most devestating thing in a book that is sold as “feminist”.
Zetian could have been such a great character. I mean, she’s pretty ruthless, she needs a cane and later a wheelchair because her family broke and bound her feet (beauty standards and all that) and she isn’t swayed easily by nice words. In short: She is damn interesting! I may not have wanted to be her friend, but I appreciated her strong will and her determination. Except she frequently turns on her fellow women – the ones she is supposedly trying to save – thinking of them as sluts or morons. And then toward the end of the book, she does several 180-turns in a row, one to do with her family, one to do with her general view of the world and whether she cares about what others think about her. It felt like a betrayal. By that point, I was already annoyed at the way she is depicted as oh so special and the only girl worth anything in this world, but that was just inconsistent and unnecessary.

So what did I like then, you might ask yourself? Well, as with most stories about gigantic magical mecha monsters fighting mecha aliens, this one had pretty cool battle scenes. It does rely heavily on Pacific Rim, even with the “drift compatibility” being represented as the mind connection between pilots and a sort of balance of Yin and Yang, but that doesn’t make the idea and the battles any less cool.
The writing was compelling, things happen quickly, and the author creates a sense of urgency in any given scene that makes it hard to put the book down. It may turn out the scene you just read is pretty meaningless overall, but books are allowed to be just fun. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I also really enjoyed how the romantic scenes were written. I can get annoyed pretty quickly when characters throw cheesy lines at each other with no basis, just to sound dramatic and meaningful. So it was refreshing to have such no-nonsense people (although the boys are very one-dimensional) simply go for it without any fuss. And I liked the kissing. 🙂

As for the plot… it’s a bit of a mess. First of all, the big twist from the epilogue can be guessed way ahead of time and isn’t exactly an original or fresh idea. But that isn’t even all that important for this volume, it’s only set up for the second book. This book deals with Zetian discovering some similarly obvious things that are not only hard to believe but also shouldn’t have to be uncovered by an 18-year-old girl. Well, if everyone else is utterly stupid, then that makes sense, I suppose. You see, the battles and the dialogues between characters don’t really advance anything. They are fun to read, as I said above, but ultimately meaningless for the plot. When Zetian does find out some devastating truth, it’s simply presented or rather dumped on the reader. As all of these revelations can be guessed beforehand, this didn’t bother me that much. After all, I was just getting confirmation for what I had suspected all along. And I’m not trying to make myself sound clever here, it really is that on the nose!
But as the world building doesn’t really advance and we don’t learn new things about the Hunduns, qi magic, or how the Chrysalises came to be, that’s all the plot there is.

Sooooo, I read this for a readathon prompt that asks you to read a “five star prediction” and I think I don’t have to say more about that. I doubt I will read the sequel to this, even if the cover is pretty and reviews throw around buzz words. As I’ve learned yet again, just because a book wants to be something (feminist, original, featuring a poly relationship) doesn’t mean it actually succeeds. I didn’t hate reading this. It was quite a bit of light fun that smashes you across the head with ostentatiously feminist messages every other chapter, but as for rating it, especially as a Lodestar Award finalist, this sits firmly at the bottom of my ballot for now.

Because I want to end this review on a more positive note: For a good poly romance and female characters who don’t tear each other down in the name of “raising each other up”, check out the underknown but totally worthwile sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi! Or, in fact, that one part of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that I can’t explain in more detail for fear of spoilers. But reading that book is a good idea anyway, for whatever reason you choose. 🙂

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Lots of Telling, no Showing: Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen

I had high hopes for this YA adventure. I was promised a loose Hades and Persephone retelling, I was promised Indian mythology inspired stuff, fairy tale vibes, and a romance. What I got was a trip to YA trope land with bad writing and lots of plot problems. But also with some potential. Even for a debut novel, this wasn’t very good, but it also wasn’t bad enough for me to write off the author completely.

THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN
by Roshani Chokshi

Published: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016
eBook: 352 pages
Series: The Star-Touched Queen #1
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret.

Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Things start out well enough. Maya is a Princess who is cursed with a really, really bad horoscope in a world and culture where people put stock into such things. When the stars promise that you’ll be married to Death, suitors don’t exactly come knocking by the dozens, the other girls in the Raja’s harem don’t want to be your friends, and even servants may avoid you whenever possible. So Maya’s life is somewhat lonely, except for her young sister Gauri who loves hearing Maya tell stories. Fairy tales and myths and legends – oh how I would have loved to share in that pastime with them. Unfortunately, us real-world readers get almost no legends or myths or fairy tales. We’re just told that they exist and are great.

When the Raja decides to marry Maya off for political reasons, things don’t exactly go as planned. Instead of the sacrifice she is supposed to make for her people and her home, a man named Amar spirits her off to Akaran where she is to be his wife, horoscope be damned. And that’s where the really boring part starts and the tropes go completely overboard.
Because – of course – Amar can’t really tell Maya anything important for magical reasons. Once the moon has turned, she’ll learn everything there is to know. Until then, she should just be meek and shut up and not explore her new castle too much. Which is a rather empty place, by the way. Except for her, Amar, and his assistant Gupta (who disappears whenever it’s convenient for the plot and only reappers at the very end when the author seems to have remembered that he exists), there is nobody there. So Maya explores the castle, which leads to some very, very boring chapters where nothing happens, we learn nothing new, and where even wonders that shouldn’t be possible (because magic) are taken for granted. Like, girl, you lived in the real world, aren’t you at least a little surprised to have mirrors in your new home that work like portals and let you look into other places?

Also, this is the part where the “romance” happens. If by romance you mean that two people exist in the same room together, find each other pretty and then randomly kiss someday. Also, Amar keeps the upper part of his face hidden to be extra mysterious and sexy, but when he finally reveals himself, there’s nothing special about it. Like, he’s handsome and all but there’s no reason for him to have kept his eyes hidden before. I still don’t get what that was about. But then I also didn’t get the attraction between them because we are only ever told things and never, ever, shown them. Their supposed undying love is ridiculous so I also didn’t care when it was threatened.

After a series of maybe not so smart, but to my happy surprise understandable, decisions, a plot of sorts finally kicks off. We’re talking the half-way mark of the book here, so don’t get too excited. Maya has done something stupid which has dire consequences and so now she has to try and fix things. This led me to hope once more that the book would tell a story that’s more than two people saying incredibly sappy things to each other for no reason whatsoever. I mean, this is the sort of writing you can expect:

His stare slipped beneath my skin. And when he saw my eyes widen, he smiled. And in that moment, his smile banished my loneliness and limned the hollows of my anima with starlight, pure and bright.

There are myriad instances of descriptions or dialogue where I simply asked myself what that’s even supposed to mean. The prose is so purple, even I though it was too much, and I’m a fan of Cat Valente and China Miéville, two writers who know a bazillion words and aren’t afraid to show them off.

As for the Indian-inspired mythology and setting, I would really have liked to get a bit more of that. Because what the author did was throw in lots of words without explanation or description, expecting that to do all the legwork for he world building. But when you don’t know there’s a glossary at the end of the book, you can get frustrated really quickly by the amount of names for mythological creatures that are just thrown in there without ever explaining what they are, what they look like, etc.
I generally like when an author expects something from their readers, like looking up things for themselves or understanding stuff by context. But if you give me literally nothing but a word, and then throw in three other words in the same paragraph, do you really think I’m going to stop reading to look each of them up on the internet so Google can do your author work for you and let me know who and what these creatures are? That can’t be in the author’s interest either, as it would totally disrupt the reading flow. But oh well, I still don’t know what a bhut is or a raksha or a timingala. One of them has fins I guess…

One of the few redeeming qualities of this book is (wait for it) the horse character! Not only is it the only positive female friendship in this book that has any meaning (Gauri’s name may be dropped but as we didn’t get any shared memories or development of that relationship, it’s totally meaningless), but Kamala the horse may also be the single most fleshed-out character in this entire book. She has her own way of speaking which may be a little creepy at times – she threatens to eat people a lot – but my god was it refreshing to read about her! Other than that, every single character might as well have been a shadow wearing a name tag. Amar’s name tag must also read “smoldering and full of cheesy one-liners” but that’s it.

There is no proper plot to follow, the world and characters change as needed for the author to reach her super cheesy conclusion. She wanted so badly to write impactful scenes but apparently forgot that, in order to make readers feel stuff, she has do to the build-up for that. Make us know and like the characters, show us why they belong together, put them in danger, make us fear for them, make us feel literally anything! Only then can big words have actual meaning, only then can the touch of a hand send electric sparks up our readerly spines, only then is it meaningful when lips touch, when friends are reunited.
This was just boring with occasional hints of promising ideas, but in order to be a good book, it would have needed to do a whole lot of growing up. Much like its protagonist Maya who is the same person at the end of this book despite all the supposedly life-shattering things she learns.

As bad as that sounds, I’m not willing to give up on Roshani Chokshi! I have Gilded Wolves on my TBR and I’m hoping that with a heist novel, there is no way she can make the same mistakes again. I mean, a heist novel needs a plot that makes sense and it also more than two recurring characters. My hope is that Chokshi developed and grew as an author in between these books. My expectations are definitely lower than they were, though.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

Performing Girlhood Incorrectly: Seanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields

McGuire’s Wayward Children series is so hit or miss for me that, with almost comical certainty, I will like and dislike alternating titles. That meant this one was supposed to be a good one and the rule still holds up. It was not only a good one but I’d say one of my top two favorites of the series so far.

ACROSS THE GREEN GRASS FIELDS
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
208 pages
Series:
Wayward Children #6
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: At seven, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Damn, the beginning of this novella hits hard! It’s about young Regan Lewis, a girl as average as they come. She loves running around, riding horses, and playing with her two best friends, Heather and Laurel. But when one day, Heather brings a snake to school and clearly adores it rather than be scared or disgusted by it, Regan learns that there are apparently rules on how to be a girl and those rules are set by society. In their little circle of friends society is represented by Laurel – who will not accept any aberrations from what she considers the norm.

She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.

This broke my heart in so many ways, not only because it is told excellently but also because McGuire either remembers her own childhood days or takes seriously the problems and feuds and intricacies of girl friendships at that age. When bringing the wrong kind of candy can make you ostracized, when liking football instead of dolls turns you into a pariah. Heather is out of the group but Regan has learned to keep things to herself until she is sure that Laurel approves.

When puberty starts hitting and Regan seems to be the last one left out, no hint of boobs or a period in sight, she talks to her parents about it and learns something about herself that, generally, isn’t a problem for her. The problems appear only once she confides in Laurel because it turns out, Regan is performing girlhood even more “incorrectly” than Heather ever did and also never should have trusted someone like Laurel, who is unaccepting of anyone the slightest bit different than herself. So ten-year-old Regan runs away and promptly stumbles through a door that asks her to “Be sure”.

What follows is the portal fantasy we all signed up for when pickin gup this book but I must say, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Regan is found by a centaur who takes her home to the herd with her where Regan makes friends with a young centaur named Chicory and is taken in as if she were family. She also learns a thing or two about the Hooflands and its hinhabitants. I absolutely adored the idea of unicorns – that revered species of mythical being – turning out to be beautiful, sure, but also completely dumb! Seriously, this made me giggle so hard, I’m still not over it.

Take unicorns. They’re as beautiful as it gets, and they don’t have the brains to come in out of the rain. They’ll just stand there trying to figure out why they’re getting wet and wait for someone to come along and fix it for them.

I mean:

More of Regan’s awe died during the first storm. It was hard to be dazzled by a wet, muddy unicorn that was attempting to eat your mattress.

But even though Regan’s time in the Hooflands is mostly harmonious and gives her the freedom of just being who she is without any strict rules on how to be a girl the right way, there is conflict on the horizon. Because humans come to the Hooflands only when something big is about to happen. Humans are heroes and have to do some heroing eventually and Regan kknows she will have to present herself to the queen someday.
I won’t spoil any of it but I really enjoyed that part. Both the fact that we get to go along on Regan’s quest and not just witness the aftermath, and the way McGuire even adds a twist at the end.

The world building for the Hooflands may not be stellar but it has everything that’s needed to tell this story and make me feel like I’m in a believable world filled with sympathetic characters. Just like all the Wayward Children stories, we know how this one will end ahead of time but that doesn’t mean it’s always impactful. This time, it absolutely was, and I’m counting this instalment among my top two (In an Absent Dream is the seocond).

I don’t know why bigger fans of McGuire and the Wayward Children series seem to not have liked this volume as much. It has the lowest rating of all the volumes on Goodreads (not that that’s saying much, really) so I feel like I have to come to its defense. I’m also grateful that this year’s Hugo nominated McGuire work truly deserves its spot on the ballot, even if it makes ranking my ballot that much harder.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!

Sci-Fi Disguised as Fantasy: Adrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Rade

The (to me) most unexpected entry on theis year’s Hugo Award Best Novella Finalists list was this book by prolific and well-loved author Adrian Tchaikovsky. I had never read anything by him, atlhough I’ve heart plenty of recommendations for his Shadows of the Apt series as well as the newer Children of Time Duology, which I’m very much looking forward to. My high expectations weren’t met with this novella but I also didn’t dislike it.

ELDER RACE
by Adrian Tchakovsky

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 204 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

This is one of those neat books that are really science fiction but, to some of its characters, work like a fantasy novel. The story is told through dual perspectives, that of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the headstrong fourth princess of Lannesite, and Nyr Illim Tevitch, a human anthropoligist who spends most of his time in a sort of cryo-sleep, only waking up to write down whatever cultural changes of note the inhabitants have to offer for his reasearch. His colleagues have long left the planet, leaving him all alone to complete this mission of knowledge. When a “demon” is threatening some villages on the planet, Lynesse takes matters into her own hand and decides to climb up the mountain to the tower of the Elder Nyrgoth and ask for his help. As he has once helped her ancestor in a battle against an evil sorcerer many years ago…

The idea behind this set-up is not new, by any means, but that doesn’t have to automatically make this a boring story. In fact, Tchaikovsky offers plenty of cool aspects that make reading this worthwhile. My favorite part was probably the DCS – Dissociative Cognition System – which is built into Nyr (who has many augments, not least amon them a pair of horns!) and which lets him block all emotions in order to make the most rational decision for whatever situation he is in. Except those emotions don’t evaporate, he can only hold them back for a while, but needs to eventually let them out. As you can imagine, collecting a bunch of (usually negative) feelings, only to feel them all at once, is not very pleasant. Especially considering how incredibly depressed Nyr is and how little purpose he sees in this strange half-life he leads.

In order for there to be a story at all, he of course agrees to accompany Lyn and her companion Esha, to confront this “demon” of hers, fully suspecting either a natural disease or some old tech that was left over from when humans colonized the planet in the first place. He is ignoring the Prime Directive (it has a different name here) because, hey, if he’s the loneliest anthropoligst in the world, why not also be the worst? And so off they go, stopping in this village or that, collecting info on the demon, and going to kill it once and for all.

What didn’t work for me, or rather what I found surprising and disappointing alike, was the shallow characterization. Except for Nyr, who gets a personality (albeit a sad and depressed one), there wasn’t any effort put into anyone else’s character. Lyn’s one characteristic is that she has defied her mother in order to go on this quest and that’s it. Esha is the wise-ish companion but we never get to know her. And later on, another man joins the cast, who at least gets an interesting backstory but no more.

The same lack of focus can be found in the world buliding for the “fantasy” side of this story. Lannesite could have been described a little more, or any part of this world really, in order to make us care about what happens to its people. The way it is, it’s just generic fantasy land without any depth or lore or cool mythology. There are a few moments where Nyr explains something, telling the locals how it’s not magic, but science, and because of language barriers and translation problems, all they hear is “magic” and “sorcery” after all. I found that part really neat but it doesn’t make up for the lack of proper wold building. The sci-fi half of the novel fared much better, with a little info on how Nyr came to be here, what his job was meant to be, and what happened to Earth and us humans. I have no gripes there, except that it makes the fantasy part feel all the more like an unloved stepchild.

A question of taste, surely, but another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the writing style. Whether we were in Lyn or Nyr’s narrative, apart from the change in POV (Lyn is third person, Nyr first person), there wasn’t much difference in how events were described. Sure, Nyr uses words that Lyn doesn’t know, such as “anthropoligist” or “drone” but I think the contrast between the sci-fi and the fantasy sides of this tale should have been more visible, also in the writing. I never felt like the story was truly flowing, although I can’t put my finger on why. The style and I just didn’t gel.

The plot is, unfortunately, quite thin. Very little happens and despite a pretty cool ending, most of it was predictable. The book’s strongest aspect is surely the character of Nyr, how he handles his complicated emotions, the loneliness, the lack of purpose, the not knowing of what’s to come. Otherwise, there wasn’t much here to keep my interest and I’ll probably have forgotten most of this story in a copule of weeks. But I also didn’t actively dislike it. It was fine.
I certainly hope Tchaikovsky’s novel-length works do better in terms of characters (especailly female ones, come on!) and world building.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Meandering, But Still Charming: Jessica Townsend – Hollowpox

The world of Nevermoor is such a comforting place. First of all, Middle Grade can be a source of strength during reading slumps or after reading about heavy or dark themes. Secondly, Jessica Townsend is still full of creative ideas and shows us new bits of her lovely world with every book. 500 pages feel like nothing when they’re about Nevermoor.

HOLLOWPOX
by Jessica Townsend

Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020
eBook: 560 pages
Audiobook: 14 hours 27 minutes
Series: Nevermoor #3
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On a glossy black door inside a well-lit wardrobe, a tiny circle of gold pulsed with light, and at its centre was a small, glowing W.

The captivating and heart-pounding third book in the instant New York Times bestselling Nevermoor series, as heroine Morrigan battles a new evil.Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

Meanwhile, a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. There are whispers – growing louder every day – that this catastrophe can only be the work of the Wundersmith, Ezra Squall.

But inside the walls of Wunsoc, everyone knows there is a new Wundersmith – one who’s much closer to home. With Nevermoor in a state of fear and the truth about Morrigan threatening to get out, the city she loves becomes the most perilous place in the world. Morrigan must try to find a cure for the Hollowpox, but it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she could have imagined.

Morrigan Crow is back and we get to follow her during her third year in Nevermoor, meet old friends and make new ones, explore interesting new corners of the Wundrous Society, and learn a bit of Wundersmithing with our young heroine.

Going back to Nevermoor is just lovely. There’s all the (by now) known little wonders of this world, there’s Morrigan’s established group of friends and the little found family at the Hotel Deucalion, but there is, of course, also new conflict and danger. The biggest threat to Nevermoor is surely the disease called Hollowpox which affects Wunimals, turning them into seemingly mindless beasts before they fall into a coma. The second, and far less severe, conflict is that Morrigan has gained access to a new type of lesson at Wunsoc, one that takes her away from her classmates and turns her into a little bit of an outsider.

I’ll be honest, this book took a while before it found its footing. It felt somewhat overloaded and didn’t focus enough on its individual aspects, like Townsend tried to cram just a bit too much into its pages. Generally, I love stories with several subplots going on at the same time as the main plot, and this is definitely the case here, but the pacing and the way the puzzle pieces fit together didn’t feel quite right. We get to spend time with most of the important side characters, such as Hawthorn and Jack, Jupiter and Fenestra, Cadence and – as evil as he may be – Ezra Squall, but most of these episodes felt like quick pit stops, just so we could check “funny banter with Hawthorn” off the list of things to do while in Nevermoor. This is a small quibble, but to me, the presence of those side characters wasn’t felt enough during scenes when they weren’t center stage.

As for the plot, that also needs time to find its path. At first, it seems like there’s no one plot to follow at all, just random Nevermoor things like celebrations, school classes, and so on. But as soon as the Hollowpox becomes the clear threat of this story, the plot gets streamlined as well. It’s not like Morrigan has any idea how to stop the spread of this terrifying disease but for some reason, that’s when the book flowed more easily for me and I felt like I was truly in it. There are still frequent side adventures, taking up open questions from previous books or advancing the world building, but it felt like at least we had a goal to work toward. Save the Wunimals, cure the Hollowpox. Also, don’t let Ezra Squall manipulate us emotionally into doing something stupid…

Apart from Townsend’s continuing originality and her wild ideas about all the things that make Nevermoor, Nevermoor, there isn’t all that much that’s new to this instalment. It’s “a Morrigan Crow adventure” and that’s a perfectly fine thing for a book to be. Except toward the end, when during one scene I was reminded that it’s not just a cute Middle Grade book but that I actually care a lot for the characters in it. No spoilers here, but as you can imagine, some characters are in danger at certain times during this book, and some other characters find it worthwile to try and save them. And even though I complained about the side characters not getting enough page time, this moment worked so very well emotionally that Townsend must have done something right.

The ending has one more surprise in store that will make the next book in the series very interesting indeed! Morrigan has grown during her adventures and it shows in her more mature behaviour, her careful handling of difficult situations, but she’s still only thirteen years old. I am super curious to see where her journey will take her and what consequences she’ll have to bear for her decisions…
The audibook narrator, Gemma Whelan, does a great job reading the story and giving the characters distinct voices and/or accents. I wasn’t too happy about Cadence’s way of speaking (she sounds like she’s talking through a pillow, mumbling, mouth full of marbles…) but in general, the audiobook experience was lovely and I think I might go this way with the next book as well. Silverborn: The Mystery of Morrigan Crow is supposed to come out in October 2022 but I guess I’ll save it up again for a time when I need a book that is guaranteed to be a quick read that gives me all sorts of happy feelings.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Additional Thoughts on the 2022 Hugo Award Finalists

I was pretty damn excited about this year’s Hugo finalists and so, of course, I had to get my initial reaction out there as fast as possible. Now that I’ve had some time to think about certain aspects of the ballot, read other people’s reactions, and do a bit more research on those Best Series candidates, I have additional thoughts. I didn’t want to add them to my existing post because that beast is already way too long, but I do want to throw this out there anyway.

Works I Missed Among the Finalists

The finalists are really nothing to complain about and because of that, I didn’t even think about some of the works I nominated which didn’t make it. I am mostly happy about the finalists this year but I do want to mention a few books I think would have been equally as deserving.

Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife was one of my top reads of 2021 and Gailey is not unpopular with Hugo voters. I would be surprised if they didn’t show up on the longlist!
I believe (honestly can’t remember right now) that I also nominated A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, plus Freya Marske for the Astounding Award, because that book surprised me in all the best ways. It is more of a romance than a fantasy – although there’s plenty of magic in it – so I’m not very surprised it didn’t make Best Novel but I also think I wasn’t alone in nominating it and the series as well as the author might make an appearance on future ballots with one of the sequels.
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor came out in November and there wasn’t a lot of buzz surrounding that book. What little I heard from other people led me to believe that most of them weren’t as impressed as I was. But I don’t care, I adored that short novel.

For the Lodestar I would have loved, loved, loved to see Little Thieves by Margaret Owen among the finalists, but that book came out rather late in 2021 (October) so it makes sense that, even though it’s well liked, not enough people read it before the nomination period was over. And Owen isn’t exactly a household name for the Hugos like, say, Charlie Jane Anders.
Another YA book I would have loved to be a finalist is The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. I think it garnered a lot of cover love when it came out but I guess many of the people who read and loved it aren’t Hugo voters. Joan He is one of the most exciting YA authors I’ve discovered in recent years so I hope she keeps up the brilliant work and if so, I’ll keep nominating her.

What I found a little surprising – although good surprising – was that it wasn’t Catherynne M. Valente’s Comfort Me With Apples that became a finalist but rather The Past is Red. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them both, but I much preferred The Past is Red. But from what I saw on the interwebs, I felt that more people flocked to her wonderfully creepy novella about the perfect neighborhood rather than her futuristic post-climate apocalypse one. I fully expect to see Apples on the nominations list, and not too far underneath the cutoff point. September will tell.

About the Best Novella category

In all my joy about Cat Valente’s brilliant novella being on this list, I missed that the entire category is dominated by Tordotcom yet again. And I also have to be honest with myself and admit that I am once more part of that problem. I nominated three novellas, all from Tordotcom, all on the final ballot.

It’s still quite rare that other publishers put out novellas, at least in the quality and quantity that the people at Tordotcom do. You’ll get a prequel novella to a successful YA trilogy or series every once in a while but I don’t think those are the usual Hugo candidates.

There are great publishers, like Subterranean Press, who sometimes do novellas, but their limited releases make it hard for a big enough audience to consume what they publish and thus for enough people to nominate it for a Hugo. I remember Tamsyn Muir published a fairy tale novella a few years ago and one would think that during the height of the Gideon the Ninth hype, she would have had an easy time getting nominated for Best Novella as well. But the overlap in Subterranean readers and Hugo voters seems to be just a bit smaller.

In my search for other publishers, I came across Neon Hemlock Press. Two of their 2021 novellas are nominated for a Nebula Award, so I am now vowing to read at least one of their novella publications of 2022 in order to make my own pool for nominating next year a little bit bigger. And if I pick a good book, I can just throw in a second one. 🙂

About that Naomi Novik Lodestar nomination (again!?)

When I wrote my initial reaction to the finalists, I must have been in a particularly gracious mood, giving Novik the benefit of the (still very much existing) doubt and just accepting that the Scholomance series is, apparently, YA. But the more I think about it, the more my original anger at last year’s finalist, A Deadly Education, and Novik’s handling of these nominations is coming back.

But before I start ranting, what we must all remember is that YA is not tangible, not objective, not something that can be classified easily. That’s why we keep returning to the same stupid discussions over and over again. A young protagonist doesn’t guarantee a book is YA (see The Poppy War), a school setting doesn’t mean it’s automatically YA (see Ninth House), even coming of age as a theme doesn’t mean it’s YA (see Mexican Gothic). So there is no real right or wrong when it comes to what falls under the mantle of YA fiction. With some books, you just know, with others, you rely on the only information you have which is one or more of the following:

  • the author says it’s YA
  • the publisher says it’s YA
  • booksellser and libraries say it’s YA
  • the marketing campaign tells us it’s YA
  • the book isn’t an Alex Award nominee

Here is the definition of books eligible for the Alex Award:

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year’s publishing. 

Alex Award

Naomi Novik accepted the nomination for that award in 2021 and, by doing so, classified her book as written for adults. If it weren’t, she couldn’t have, in good conscience, accepted the Alex Award nomination, right? Right!
So what other info do we have that helps us classify whether A Deadly Education and the entire Scholomance series is YA or not?

  • To repeat the most important point: Naomi Novik, the author herself, agreed that it’s an adult novel by accepting an award nomination for adult novels
  • The publisher, Del Rey, marketed this series as adult from the very start
  • Booksellers list it as adult Fantasy/Horror/Genre Fiction
    • To be fair, the one single mention of “Childrens & YA” I have found was for the German edition of the audiobook, so German publishers are going a different way, it seems.

Okay, so even though this research isn’t super scientific and the results are not 100% conclusive, it still paints a rather clear picture of the Scholomance Trilogy having been written and intended for adults. The fact that they can be enjoyed by younger readers is meaningless when it comes to the Lodestar Award. The Lord of the Rings is also read and loved by teenagers all over the world, but that doesn’t make it a YA book by any means!

The Lodestar Award is meant specifically for Young Adult SFF books. Not adult books that young people enjoy, not non-SFF books that mention a UFO sighting once, not novelettes, not TV shows. It’s really very simple. If all things point to a book being YA and enough people nominate it, it should become a finalist. If people nominated a book that doesn’t qualify, it should not become a finalist. Would a YA movie have made the ballot if it had gotten enough votes? I should hope not! So why does an adult novel?

The problem, in my opinion, is threefold.

Number one: Nominators seem to be confused or not to care whether it’s YA or not. As a quick Google search will tell you, it was never meant to be YA but, having read the first book, I can see where the confusion comes from. It ticks a lot of the usual YA boxes. So I’ll assume most people nominated in good faith and chose the category they thought the book belonged in.

Number two: The Hugo administrators, both for 2021 and 2022, did not disqualify a book that was nominated in the wrong category. Please, future Hugo administrations, do better! Mistakes can happen and that’s okay, but making the same mistake a previous administration has already made is embarrassing. Doing it three times in a row is just incompetent.
Disqualify works if they are in the wrong category and – because the fans’ votes should still count, obviously! – count them in the correct category. So The Last Gradute should have its nominations transferred to the Best Novel category and if it manages to get among the top six choices, then it’s a well-deserved finalist in that category.

Number three: The failsafe for the previous two problems, and an option any author can take any time should they deem it advisable, is the fact that you do not have to accept a nomination. You can decline, for whatever reason. Many authors and creators do so after winning an award, recusing themselves in order to let other people shine next year (I don’t think anybody ever thought that this wasn’t a classy move). Others decline their earned spot on the finalist ballot for various reasons (Terry Pratchett said that he really doesn’t need a Hugo, he’s quite famous enough and wanted someone else to have a chance (man, I miss that man!). Ann Leckie declined for The Raven Tower after having garnered tons of nominations for her Imperial Radch books.)
Naomi Novik, now two years in a row, actively accepted nominations for the Lodestar award. Let’s not forget, she also accepted the Alex Award nomination last year. So no matter how you turn it, she is trying to have it both ways and wants to maximize her chances of winning an award, any award.
And even if she can’t bring herself to decline a nomination meant for other works, she should at least have the decency to clarify whether this series she’s writing is YA or adult. Her utter silence on the topic since ever last year’s nomination and the controversy that came with it has been pretty telling.

Look, none of us can see inside Naomi Novik’s head or heart, so we’ll never know her true reasons. But her behaviour does paint a certain picture and it is not exactly flattering. I have copious amounts of love for her novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver but my respect for her as a person has shrunk significantly since last year. This year just makes things worse. It’s no longer just in bad taste, it appears desperate and ruthless.

A fair and gracious person would have declined either the nomination for the Alex Award or the one for the Lodestar. Novik wanted to have both, no matter that her book is taking up a spot on the ballot meant for a qualified work of fiction.
Last year, it was Sarah Gailey‘s actual, meant-for-younger-audiences YA debut, When We Were Magic about queer teenage witches. I wonder whose book it will turn out to be this year? A newer, more unknow author whose career could change entirely due to a Lodestar nomination? A BIPOC author? We’ll find out in September but I fully expect to be outraged.

About the Charles Stross Best Series Finalist

I was super confused when I saw a series name I had never even heard of on the final ballot. Charlie Stross is a name I’m familiar with, I read his novella Equoid years ago and found it delightfully creepy. Never got into the Laundry Files, though. But his nomination for Best Series still came out of nowhere for me when I googled it, and now, after some additional research, I realize why.

The Hugo administration was a bit unclear when it comes to the exact series title. Because the series Merchant Princes (Goodreads) actually contains only six works, the latest of which came out in 2010.

I should have realized I was missing something when there was no recent work listed in that series. What is, in fact, nominated this year, is the Merchant Princes Universe (Goodreads) which contains the above mentioned series as well as a newer series, called Empire Games.

Once you’ve found the right series, familiar looking covers start popping up and the nomination doesn’t feel quite so out of the blue as it did. The newer sub-series which qualified the larger fictional universe, contains only three novels (so far):

Judging only from the covers, I’d say this will be quite different in setting from the older Merchant Princes series. I am a little bit torn on where to start reading the series now. As I doubt I’ll make it through all nine (!) volumes, I’ll probably go only with the newer trilogy because (a) fewer books to read and (b) I get the stuff that made people nominate the series, not books from almost 20 years ago. I also think my chances of liking this series/universe are much higher if I stick to the newer ones.

I still find it a very strange choice as there was very little buzz around these books in the last years and Stross is much more well-known for his Laundry Files series. It could either be his fans doing a Seanan McGuire (nominating whatever is eligible by their favorite author) or this series really is a hidden gem that deserves more recognition. I am curious and will, of course, report back once I’ve read the first, or technically seventh, book.

I Want All The Alien Hugs: Becky Chambers – The Galaxy And the Ground Within

I read the Wayfarers series completely out of order and after my second book (and the third in the series), I thought that maybe they weren’t for me after all. Then A Closed and Common Orbit completely messed with my emotions and I just needed to read this final instalment in a series that has changed Science Fiction forever. It has cemented my love for these books and I’m sad this loosely connecte series is now over.

THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021
eBook:
336 pages
Audiobook:
9 hours 55 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #4
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: In the Linkings, the system was listed as Tren.

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other. 

Ah, the balm for the soul that is a Becky Chambers novel! Don’t expect epic battles or life-shattering discoveries. Come instead for the exploration of differences and similarities between people of different cultures, species, and origins, and then stay for the warmhearted friendships, the obstacles that are overcome, the feeling of belonging somewhere even though you might look and feel different from everyone else. The magic that Chambers creates is its very own kind and whether you call it hopepunk, social science fiction, or something else entirely, it’s something I don’t want to miss from my reading ever again.

This story takes place on the planet Gora which has very little to offer, as it is only a stop between bigger, more important planets. However, when several strangers get stranded on the planet, even though very little happens in terms of big events, things get decidedly interesting as cultures and opinions clash.

Ouloo and her child Tupo run the Five-Hop One-Stop and they take that job seriously! It becomes clear only over the course of the book how much care Ouloo puts into her place, how proud she is of accommodating all species and taking care of their special needs and requirements. It seems like a small thing and it may sound like it’s not exciting to read about but it absolutely is! I can’t explain it to you, I just adored learning every new little tidbit that Ouloo had thought up to make what is essentially a quick stop between destinations into a welcoming, loving place for everyone. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. She’s the kind of character that reminds you that purpose can be found in seemingly little things, that it is you who decide whether your job is worthwile and whether you are happy with it.
Ouloo’s child Tupo has not decided on xyr gender yet, as is customary for their species once a certain age is reached. That just goes to show how effortlessly diversity of gender can be incorporated into a story without making a big fuss. I personally don’t mind (in fact, I quite enjoy) reading about characters with all sorts of pronouns and genders, but I know some people can be put off by the idea of having to “learn” pronouns. Tupo goes by xe/xyr and is deserving of all the hugs. That’s all you need to know. Pretty easy, right?

As for the strangers that get stuck on Gora, they are a diverse and intriguing lot and it takes a while before they warm to each other – if indeed they do so at all… Roveg has been exiled from his home but he’s pressed for time a nd getting stuck makes him really nervous and unhappy. Pei technically isn’t all that bothered by the delay but she’s pondering prombels that have been with her for a while – she is also the one that connects this book very loosely to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And then there’s Speaker, possibly my favorite, who came to Gora with her sister Tracker who stayed behind on the ship when Speaker gets stranded planetside. They are each different alien species, not just with different physiological requirements (Speaker can’t be in the planet’s atmosphere without her suit) but also from different cultures and with very different plans.

Strangers forced into proximity is a great trope but Becky Chambers makes something truly special out of it. Most of her characters are respectful of each other, some even become friends easily, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying tension between others. Again, there are no big battles of fisticuffs but opinions clash on occasion and, honestly, that was enough tension for me.
At first, it’s just fun getting to know these characters, finding out their backstories, where they were headed when they got stuck on Gora, and what their lives are like. Then it became lovely to watch them grow into a sort of force-upon-each-other found family, at least for alittle while. Chambers shows us new and interesting aspects of the universe she has invented, all without stepping off this one lousy planet.

I’m quite sad that this series is now over because it is truly special, but my heart leaps at the thought of Becky Chambers being as beloved and successful as she is. Because that means she can write many more stories filled with loving characters who show us that diversity is something to be celebrated, that kindness is a strength, and that family doesn’t have to be connected by blood. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo Award. This book is at the top of my ballot for now.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!