Shockingly Timely: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell – March Vol. 1-3

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction but I gave this graphic novel trilogy to my boyfriend last Christmas so it was at the house. The Black Lives Matter protests as well as John Lewis’ death in July of this year kept bringing me back to these books and so I finally picked them up myself and devoured them in just a couple of days.

MARCH VOL. 1-3
by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016
Paperback: 560 pages
Series: March #1-#3
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “Can you swim?” “No.” “Well. neither can I. But we might have to.”

March is the story of John Lewis. It is the story of the Civil Rights movement, of how Black people protested peacefully in order to gain basic human rights. As a reader of (mostly) fantasy, this is not the kind of story I usually pounce on, but the year 2020 has done a lot of things, one of which is me trying to read more diversely and educate myself on topics that I find important. And as these books were already in my home and my boyfriend said they were really good, I picked them up, thinking I’d know mostly what to expect.

I did not know what to expect. Sure, when you hear “Civil Rights Movement”, certain images come to mind. People marching in the street, King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and so on. But John Lewis did much more in this trilogy than rehash a history lesson we all had in school. He tells his story, beginning with his childhood and ending with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The frame story takes place just before and during Obama’s inauguration speech, but it’s the flashbacks that tell the real story.

We learn about segregation in the South, how John Lewis came to the SNCC, how people trained and practiced in order to stay peaceful even when faced with physical violence and to say that these scenes were harrowing is an understatement. Imagine letting a friend shout vile things at you, slap you, pour drinks over your head, and you have to stand there calmly, not even defending yourself… That’s just one of the things that got to me and, frankly. it’s the least terrifying one. Sit-in protests in Whites only establishments turn ugly pretty quickly but the protesters persevere and slowly – ever so slowly – gain a little bit of the rights that any human should have. There is paperwork, there are meetings with state officials, there are marches and the attempt to register to vote. There is a lot of jail time.

At one point, I actually laughed (in a desperate sort of way) when I read “This was the first time I was sent to prison in Selma. It would not be the last.” because John Lewis had said the same thing before about prison in general… He was arrested so often that he had to specify his first arrest in a certain place. And while reading about his time in various jails wasn’t exactly fun, it was still not the worst of what’s in this book.
No, what really stuck with me, was the violence with which all these peaceful protests were met. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, given what we now see on the internet all the time. But it goes to show how well this graphic novel is done. When every other page a church is blown up, or people are beaten bloody simply for standing in line, waiting to register to vote, or people are murdered by police… you don’t really know what to say to that. We all know these things happened and they still do (even if the racism isn’t quite as overt anymore) and yet I found it shocking and terrible and I cried more than once reading these books.

You can also expect a fair amount of politics in these comics. There are grand speeches, corrupt politicians, other politicians who give the people hope, even more paperwork, endless hours of travel between places, organizing protests, politics within the organizations fighting for Black people’s rights, and so on and so forth. Those parts should have been boring because, come on, paperwork as such is a tedious job, but reading about someone else doing paperwork should be mind-numbing, right? Well, John Lewis wasn’t just a man with a vision who dedicated his life to civil rights but he also was a damn good storyteller!

I admit I didn’t remember all the names of the people involved in the protests, who led which organization at what time, or who held what speech in which church, but that’s not important for the story to work. This book, although it is John Lewis’ story, also doesn’t present him to be the one true hero who saved his country by being the best – no, he’s part of something much bigger, of a group of people, most of whose names aren’t even mentioned because there were so many of them. I loved how he never lifts himself above his fellow Americans but stands side by side with them, sometimes in the face of great violence.

The book ends – beautifully – with Barack Obama officially becoming the President of the United States and thus fulfilling a dream many Black people didn’t think would ever become a reality. But despite this enormous achievement, March also makes it clear that the journey isn’t finished, that there’s a lot left to be done. But it’s a trilogy that leaves you with a sense of hope and a smile on your face.

It feels strange and even wrong to “rate” a book like this. After all, it’s someone’s life we’re talking about here and it’s not like I’m going to judge it by its plot. So I’d like to stress here that my rating is purely about how the story is told. The artwork, the pacing choices, etc. but not the actual events or the characters – because there is no way for me to judge any of that and I don’t feel that things like likability  (who are REAL PEOPLE in this case) should figure into it. But this also happens to be a very well told story, an important story, and one that’s more fitting our current times than it should be.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Sisterhood and the Fight for Freedom: Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

I was so worried I wouldn’t like this book. Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January was good, but not nearly as immersive or emotionally impactful as I had hoped. So I went into her second novel with a bit of scepticism. It took a little while to get going but then it turned into everything I had hoped and more.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 525 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Three sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – meet again after seven years of being apart, in the city of New Salem. Through coincidence, or maybe fate. Their relationship is fraught, each feeling the betrayal of the others as keenly as if it happened yesterday. In their past lies a childhood spent with a violent, abusive father and only a loving grandmother and each other for comfort. Juniper, the youngest, was the last to finally escape and is determined to make it on her own. Her sisters, the ones who left her all alone with their father, don’t have to be in her life. After all, they left, didn’t they? And if the three Eastwoods are thrown together again through the suffragist movement, that doesn’t mean they have to love each other, right?

For a long time, maybe a third of the book, I felt that it would have been better served if we followed only one protagonist – June – instead of head hopping between the three Eastwood sisters. Because during the beginning of the novel, none of them ever got to shine fully due to the frequent switches between them. Whenever I’d feel like I was getting to know one sister, we’d jump to one of the others. Juniper was the only one who was intriguing from the start, but both Agnes and Bella stayed rather bland for quite some time. Bella, the mopey, quiet librarian who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way didn’t have much to interest me (except being a lesbian in a time when that was considered shameful). Whenever we’d see glimpses of her hopes and dreams and things got interesting, however, we’d promptly move on to Agnes. Her defining characterstic (at least at the beginning) is her pregnancy and the fact that she works in a mill under terribel conditions. She stays away from people and doesn’t want to bond with anyone because that means she could get hurt. Again, not much to aspire to and thus, not much of interest to me as the reader.

But things improve over the course of the novel, and they improve greatly! By the second half of the book, I felt like I knew the Eastwood sisters much better. It was mostly the bond between the three that helped them come to life. But their seperate story lines also started to shine. Bella’s infatuation with the Cleopatra Quinn leads her to discover a whole different part of New Salem, the Black community, which also has its own witchy ways and words and is fighting its own fight for freedom.
Agnes meets August Lee, a man who doesn’t just see her as a beautiful object but who acutally admires her spirit and capabilities. And Juniper grows up a whole lot throughout this novel. Her wild spirit doesn’t get dampened so much as she learns that her first impulse is not necessarily always the best course of action. Watching these three grow, each as her own person as well as in their role as sisters, was a thing of pure beauty!

Harrow also did a magificent job showing the utter unfairness of the time and setting. The Sisters of Avalon – an organisation of suffragist witches – want to gain voting rights for women with the help of a little witchcraft – which sounds nice and all, but becomes all the more tangible when you see what they’re up against. It’s not just that they have no rights currently, it’s how the system is rigged against them, how any grasp for the tiniest bit of power is immediately thwarted – and sometimes by the very people they are fighting for!
Gideon Hill is running for mayor of New Salem and while he is a bit of an overdrawn villain, his methods aren’t fantastical at all but all too realistic. Discrediting the opposition wherever possible, making them out to be sinful, evil, and deserving of severe punishment makes it harder for the Sisters to gain traction. They’re fighting for all women, yet women stand against them just the same as powerful men do. Out of fear, out of conviction… it doesn’t really matter. Hill’s blatant disregard for the law for his own personal gain reminded me a bit too much of our current situation. This book is set in the 1890s…

I also quite enjoyed the magic system if you want to call it that. In order to work a spell, you need the words and the ways (and the will but that one’s easy). The words could be a rhyme or a little song, the way may involve an item or a strong emotion – it may not be a strict magic system, but it felt real, and the words and ways always made sense and fit the respective spell.
What was so fascinating about it, though, was how these spells have been handed down through generations of women. Witch hunts happened and many of the spell books were burned alongside their witches, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft has died altogether. Women just had to become cleverer in the way they handed down their knowledge to the next generation. They hid it in plain sight. Discovering some of these witchy words and ways alongside the Eastwood sisters gave me so much joy!

One thing that could have been done better was the side characters. It was lovely to have a Black side character who shows us the time and setting from a different perspective – one even less privileged than our three white protagonists. But Cleopatra Quinn never quite makes it out of the sidelines, she’s always just hovering there in her function as love interest and as a mouthpiece for the Black community of New Salem.
What I found a real shame, however, was the last minute transgender character. That really felt like it was just thrown in for added diversity. And while I do appreciate that Harrow shows us all sorts of different women, this could have been done better or at least integrated into the story somehow. The way it was done is just that a character randomly announces that they’re a trans woman at the end of the book.

All that said, I love how diverse the cast of characters was. I did at times question that everyone is so immediately accepting of people who were not, at that time, generally accepted. Of course I want my protagonists to be good people without biases but I found it very strange that Bella was incredibly ashamed about her being a lesbian, yet had not a moment of doubt about falling for a Black woman. You could argue that the group of women thrown together in this story are all fighting for the same thing – for their rights and their freedom – and that racial differences, sexual preferences, or assigned genders don’t matter. Because they really don’t! But this book is set in 1893 and that made the unquestioning acceptance a little anachronistic to me.
The same goes for the gender swapping of famous story tellers and collectors. In this universe, it was the Sisters Grimm and Andrea Lang who are renowned collectors of stories. Which is cute and all but not really believable. Who would publish books by women in a time when women had next to no rights? I mean, the whole book is about this issue, yet we’re supposed to believe that women authors are just as respected as men and would even have been published? I don’t know…
But all of that said, in the end, I reminded myself that this was a fictional story that also hat magic in it, set in a made-up place with more than one liberty when it comes to actual history. So I rolled with it and simply enjoyed reading about these women all working together in a beautiful way.

The story itself takes a while to get going and at least in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Harrow sets up several plot strings right from the start but her focus shifts throughout the book. You have the difficult relationship between June, Bella, and Agnes and you have the suffragist movement – which teaches June that there’s a lot more paperwork involved than she would like. But then something weird is going on with people’s shadows, Agnes is pregnant and not sure if she wants to be, and Bella is falling in love with a Black woman who may not be completely trustworthy. It’s a lot!
Give the book some time, it finds its pace and it definitely finds its heart. It’s a pretty long book so I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but it wouldn’t have hurt if the first half of it had been even longer. Instead of rushing through the set-up for all those plot strings, we could have spent more time with the protagonists, getting to know them a bit earlier, and getting a feel for this world. But no harm done. As I said, after a while, I was completely in the story, feverishly turning the pages, needing to know what happened next and if things would turn out okay.

By the end, Alix E. Harrow had me near tears on several occasions. I can’t tell you any of the specific moments without spoiling them but I can explain why they gave me such warm feelings. You see all sorts of women working together as a group for the greater good, despite terrible odds, despite enormous danger to themselves and their loved ones. There are no petty fights, there’s no jealousy, there’s simply weighing the cost against the potential gains. There’s loyalty and friendship and love. And magic, of course!
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Eastwood sisters do resolve their problems and grow together more and more over the course of this story, and this was another thing that brought me to tears several times. Harrow describes their bond in such a beautiful way and she doesn’t need flowery declarations of sisters love to do it. She lets her characters’ actions speak for themselves and I think that’s what made this book so powerful.

I started out with trepidation, slowly found my way into this story, and by the end I was all aglow and want to push all of you guys to read it too. So although The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t work for me 100%, I’m glad to say that Alix E. Harrow is still one of my favorite authors and that I’ll be watching closely for her next book. She’s going to spiderverse a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty) with two Tordotcom novellas and I AM THERE FOR IT! But for now, I’ll simply enjoy that feeling after you’ve finished reading a truly great book that warms your heart and makes you feel like magic hasn’t completly gone from the world after all.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

 

Gloriously sinister and wonderful: Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching

This is one of those books that managed to keep showing up on social media  without a big marketing campaign. I didn’t see this advertised a lot but people kept talking about it and all of them seemed to love the book. So, in time for witchy season, I decided to pick this up as well. I tend to like books that generate their own buzz because of their quality rather than books that are talked about because the publishers shove them in your face wherever you go. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when this turned out to be a really good, witchy book that thoroughly entertained me.

THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING
by Alexis Henderson

Published: Ace, 2020
Hardcover: 368 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 37 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: She was born breech, in the deep of night. 

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Immanuelle lives in Bethel, a rigid society ruled by the Prophet. Being a mixed-raced illegitimate child, Immanuelle has learned to keep her head down, adhere to the rules, and not dream too big. Through her eyes, we are introduced to this rather dystopian place of strict religion and basically no rights for women. In fact, men can marry several women, yet for a woman the greatest achievement she can hope for is becoming the Prophet’s wife… or rather one of his wives. Immanuelle has no such dreams. She just wants to live quietly with her remaining family and take care of her sheep.

When one day, one of her sheep runs away, she finds herself in the Darkwood, face to face with what can only be a witch! The four fabled witches who were defeated by the very first Prophet give Immanuelle a gift – her mother’s journal, which tells of terrible curses. “Blood, Blight, Darkness, Slaughter” – a line so often repeated, yet so well used in this story that it still gives me goosebumps as I write this. I won’t spoil how these curses manifest or even if they do but if you’re a reluctant reader of horror, let me assure you that while bad things happen, the worst of it is not supernatural. There are no jump scares (yes, that is totally possible in a book) and what really shocked me were things done by humans to other humans, no witchcraft needed.

I’m always fascinated by the differences between books that are called (or marketed as) feminist and books (usually older ones) that put male characters front and center and can be called sexist (I don’t want a big discussion here. Product of their time, blahblah, such books exist and the reasons don’t matter). Because this is clearly a feminist work, the women in this story are their own people, some happy with their life of submission, others not so much. But that doesn’t mean that there are no male characters or, indeed, that all male characters are bad or only there to be handsome love interests. No, the men in this story come in equally varied shapes and sizes and not just because the plot demands it. They were who they were before this story started – it’s just that now Immanuelle interacts with them and we get to see these men for who they are. That’s not the experience I’ve had with those “classic” fantasy novels with hardly any female characters in them. Other than queen, wife, whore, or witch, there isn’t much for a woman to be in those tales. And so I enjoyed this book all the more because it has lots of fantastic female characters and it also gives the men distinct personalities without reducing them to the standards that female characters were held to for so long.

The reason I’m even pondering this is Ezra, the Prophet’s son and heir who will one day become the new Prophet of Bethel and hold all the power. I came into this story with my own biases and expectations, so I immediately thought Ezra would be a spoiled brat who thinks humans are disposable playthings, women especially. But from the very beginning, he is… not. It took only a few chapters for me to utterly love this boy and the way he treats Immanuelle – not as an outcast, not as someone else’s mistake, not as someone to be avoided or feared, but simply as another person who’s doing her best. Their friendship was by far my favorite thing in this whole book, and because this book has many great things to offer, that’s saying something.

Through Immanuelle’s mother Miriam’s journal, Immanuelle learns more and more about the past and accidentally also more about witchcraft and the dark powers at work in her world. I really enjoyed the magic system – if it can be called that – and the way Immanuelle researches how to lift the curses and save her home. I really shouldn’t call it magic system because although there are certain signs that can be used and words that can be spoken, magic in this book is a wild thing, something that can’t really be controlled, something that just is. Immanuelle is also deeply aware that by even researching these things, she is committing sins herself. But she’s willing to sacrifice her own soul for the good of her people because that’s just who Immanuelle is. The people who disregard her, look down on her for her skin color or things her mother did, for her father who was burned on the pyre… she wants to save them nonetheless because she knows they are as stuck in this society as she is.

I picked this book up because it goes well with the Halloween season and I wasn’t disappointed at all. But as mentioned above, the true horror does not lie in a curse where all water suddenly turns to blood, but rather in the people holding power and how they decide to use it. It won’t come as a surprise to learn certain truths about the Prophet, the witches, and the wider world that are unsettling to Immanuelle. But although some things are a bit predictable (don’t worry, others aren’t) I can’t recall a moment in this book when I didn’t feel completely entertained, happily reading along and hoping for Immanuelle and Ezra to not only find a way to lift this curse but also to find a place in this world where they can just be happy.

The Year of the Witching is Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, so I have to say a few words about how amazing that is. Not that debut novels are always bad or incompetent, but many debut novelists make rookie mistakes, like overdrawn characters, or plot threads that you know should be working but somehow don’t. Not so in this book. The villains shift around, you can never be quite sure whom to trust, there’s so much to explore and discover that the story never gets boring, and it’s all carried by an amazing protagonist who is a Good Person but also clearly tired of being treated the way she is and watching other women treated only slightly better.
I will be on the lookout for Henderson’s next book. If she manages to deliver another beautiful slow burn friendship/romance like she did here, I’ll already be happy. But I suspect, just like in this book, she’ll have way more than that in store for us.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Monster Hunters, Racism, and Humanity: P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout

What a ride! I am always amazed when an author manages to accomplish in a novella what others fail to do in a big, chunky novel. P. Djèlí Clark is definitely one to watch (if you’ve somehow missed him until now) and I can’t wait to gobble up whatever he decides to write next. I hear there’s a full length novel in the Djinn universe coming up…

RING SHOUT
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 192 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: You ever seen a Klan march?

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

I don’t even know where to start gushing about this book because it was so damn good! From the very first chapter I knew I would love it but then it kept getting better and better.
We follow a group of three women who hunt monsters. Maryse, our protagonist, Sadie (my favorite) and Chef – three badass Black women doing their best to rid the world of the monsters that invade it. The premise of the book and one of the coolest ideas ever is that the members of the Ku Klux Klan aren’t exactly all human. You wait long enough, and some of them start turning into what our heroines call Ku Kluxes – these monsters with the pointy heads need to be killed and that’s what Maryse and her friends do. But something big seems to be coming and it has to do with the planned showing of The Birth of a Nation on Stone Mountain…

I want to tell you as little about the plot as possible, not because there are many huge twists but simply because this novella is so well crafted that I think you should experience it for yourself in all its glory. But I can tell you why it worked so well for me, starting with the characters. In the very first chapter, Clark introduces us to our protagonist Maryse and her two friends Sadie and Chef while they’re on a job, and over the course of just those few pages, they each became real people with histories and hopes and dreams. It’s something that many full-length novels don’t manage to do in 500 pages and Clark just gives us a handful of lines, some banter, and – wham! – we have three women who are interesting and amazing and whom we immediately root for. I have a special soft spot for Sadie and her gun, Winnie. She is loud-mouthed and direct, loyal and funny, and I just wanted to be friends with her.

I may be a character focused reader but there’s plenty for people who enjoy a killer plot. Not only do Maryse and her friends hunt monsters which leads to crazy cool action sequences, but there’s a lot of world building going on as well. Again, no spoilers, but Maryse can summon a sword out of thin air (how cool is that?) and sort of dreamwalks into another world where she talks to three Aunties who help her along the way. We also get a sort of magic system when it comes to the Ku Kluxes and how the evolve (if you want to call it that) plus some folklore interwoven with science fictional ideas. It’s really awesome, you guys!

Another intriguing aspect of this book is, of course, the Ring Shouts. I had no idea what a ring shout even was before I picked this up but even without looking it up, you get the idea and the meaning behind it. These shouts are incorporated into the story, not just as window dressing or a world building vehicle, but as something important to the plot. Music plays a big role in general and I loved how the scenes with shouts were also used as a chance to give the side characters more depth. While Maryse is the character we follow most closely, this being a first person narrative, the other characters were all fleshed out, even if they only show up a few times and don’t get to say much. Clark paints a picture of an entire community, a close-knit group, a found family. I’m a sucker for found families, especially when they are done so well.

What else makes this book so great? Well, there’s the language. Almost all the  major characters are Black, the story takes place in 1920, and the language reflects all of that. I could totally hear Sadie’s voice in my head and while I had to read Nana Jean’s lines several times to make sure I understood (English being my second language does not exactly make it easier to read her dialect) but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The narration adds atmosphere to the story and gets us closer to Maryse and the demons she carries with her.
And she’s got some demons to deal with… Finding out just what exactly happened in Maryse’s past and led her to become a sword-fighting monster huntress was just another layer to an already great story. It’s clear from the start that she was orphaned a while ago and dealing with her grief makes her just as much who she is as the friendships she’s found along the way.

Most of all, I am impressed with how much Clark managed to put into this novella without ever making it feel overloaded. There’s explorations of trauma, racism, purpose, and friendship. But it’s also a great fantasy story with cool monsters and action  and a magic system. And to top it all of, it taught me things about the real world, things about history I didn’t know much about. I’m no editor and no writer, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a perfect example for a novella done right. Everything you could hope for is right there, it’s all delivered beautifully, and it leaves a lasting impression. This is definitely going on my favorites of the year list an onto next year’s Hugo ballot!

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

The Original Vampire Story: Bram Stoker – Dracula

I finally did it! I picked up this big old classic and read all the way through it and it was both more fun and more boring than expected. But all things considered, I’m happy I finally read this and it will certainly give me a new perspective on any vampire books or movies I read/watch in the future.

DRACULA
by Bram Stoker

Published: Penguin Classics, 1879
eBook: 454 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: 3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8.35 P.M. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late. 

Within the pages of this book can be found one of the most terrifying creatures in all of literature.

This classic of horror writing is composed of diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings that piece together the depraved story of the ultimate predator. A young lawyer on an assignment finds himself imprisoned in a Transylvanian castle by his mysterious host. Back at home his fiancée and friends are menaced by a malevolent force which seems intent on imposing suffering and destruction. Can the devil really have arrived on England’s shores? And what is it that he hungers for so desperately?

Whether you’ve read Dracula or not, there are certain things we all know about it, simply from picking up bits of knowledge from popular culture, works inspired by this book, or vampire movies. Everyone knows Dracula is a vampire who turns into a bat, who sucks the blood out of (preferably) young women, who sleeps in a coffin and is repelled by garlic. We also know how to kill a vampire – stake through the heart, cut off the head… seven seasons of Buffy give you pretty creative ideas on how to get the job done. So why even pick up this book, when I already knew the gist, the big reveal, and at least suspected the ending? Well… going back to the beginning is interesting, if nothing else. And while Dracula was certainly not the first story about vampires, it is the most famous one.

The book is told entirely thorugh journal entires, letters, telegrams and the occasional newspaper clipping. We start with Jonathan Harker’s journal as he travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who wishes to purchase a mansion in London. Things are fairly odd right from the start. On his journey to the castle, Harker meets several locals, all of whom seem terrified when they learn where he is travelling. They cross themselves, hand him a crucifix to carry with him, and mutter prayers under their breath.
Once Jonathan arrives at the castle, things only get stranger and stranger. Starting with the Count, an older gentleman with a white moustache – something that surprised me, as I’ve always imagined Dracula somewhat younger and definitely not with grey hair – plus the lack of servants, and the fact that many doors, including the main gate, are locked…

I read through this first part pretty quickly because it was nice and creepy, it had interesting bits of information about Dracula that I hadn’t expected (not just his looks) and because Jonathan Harker’s journal was simply exciting to read. But then we cut to Jonathan’s fiancée Mina Murray in London and her exchange of letters with her best friend Lucy. While I also quite enjoyed their letter writing and discussions of how wonderful it is to be engaged, I kept wondering what was happening with Jonathan in the meantime. As strange and unusual things start happening with Mina and Lucy as well, I was quickly distracted again.
Plus, the narrative adds Dr. Seward’s diary entries. The doctor himself is connected via Lucy (having been one of her suitors) but his work is much more interesting than his love life, if you ask me. He works at an “insane asylum” where he tracks the behaviour of Renfield, probably his most interesting patient. Even if there hadn’t been a connection the the main story (and for a long time, it feels like there isn’t), I really liked these parts and how Dr. Seward tries to help Renfield with science and (mostly) kindness.

You may guess that at least one more major character will add his accounts to this tale and that is, of course, Dr. Van Helsing. And here’s where I was a bit disappointed, if rather by the writing of his character than his character himself. Van Helsing is a very smart man who believes in science and goes about his business with method and brains. He figures out pretty early what’s going on, or at least suspects it, yet decides not to tell anyone because reasons, I guess. Other than that, the way his accent was written bothered me. Van Helsing is Dutch, so it felt fine to write his dialogue with a grammar mistake here or there, but the way he spoke didn’t feal in the least related to Dutch, nor was it consistent. He’d say things like “he like what he see” but in the next sentence he’d be perfectly capable of adding that “s” for third person singular… His tenses were all over the place, his syntax switched about happily, and it made him quite hard to read. To me, it had the effect of making him sound stupid, which he decidedly wasn’t. Oh well.

As for the story itself – it has great bones but takes entirely too long for everything. The beginning is the exception, because that slowish build-up with Jonathan visiting Castle Dracula worked quite well. But after that, after we already know something supernatural is going on and the Count is EVIL, there’s no more need to beat around the bush so much. More than that, anything that happens, happens so slowly. When Mina’s friend Lucy gets sick – pale, restless, sleeping badly, somehow lacking blood… – we spend sooooo many pages going over her symptoms of every single day. Van Helsing’s treatment of her is repeated several times and unfortunately, every one of those times is described in minute detail. Again, I didn’t dislike what happened or how the characters wrote these events down, I just didn’t need to read it in quite so much detail so many times over.

Around the middle of the book, Van Helsing finally reveals to his companions what it is they are fighting against. The stakes have grown higher and higher until then, so the newly formed group of friends makes a plan. We watch them make the plan, then execute the plan, then hear them tell about the plan and its execution to someone else. When I say “the plan” it sounds like this is about one great scheme, but it’s really a series of mini-plans and if you read about each of them before, during, and after the event, it takes a lot of tension out of it. I actually found myself hoping something would go wrong during the plan execution just so I could get interested again. Otherwise, I’d already know everything because I had read the entire plan before…
There is at least one wrench thrown into the cogs of Van Helsing’s great scheme to rid the world of Dracula but I can’t say that it was enough to create any real excitement in me at all.

This being a book of its time, I also didn’t expect women to play a major role in it and was surprised that both Lucy and Mina felt like real, fleshed out people. They are kept in the dark a lot, treated like helpless little flowers who should leave the real brain work to the men, but Mina especially saves the day several times by being smart and proactive. Look, she’s not exactly an example of a great female character but I had expected really, really bad things and was happy to find out that Bram Stoker gave his female characters some proper good qualities, even if they are also used as the convenient victims who make the men pick up their courage and fight the big baddie.

Overall, I don’t regret reading this book, even though its pacing was not great. It had nice and creepy parts, there were several things about Dracula that I hadn’t known beforehand, and I like epistolary novels in general. And while it makes me want to read some of the works that were inspired by it directly (like The Historian), I don’t think I’ll reread Dracula ever again. There’s no denying that it is a classic of horror literature and it does mention my home town right in the first line, so it’s got that going for it. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Horrors of Slavery Through Modern Eyes: Octavia E. Butler – Kindred

I’m participating in the Octavia Butler Slow Readalong, a two-year project where a group of people read thorugh the works of the late great Octavia E. Butler. Having read only one of her books before (Wild Seed), I had certain expectations for this one. I expected a tough, slow read with heavy topics and a focus on character development. And while the topics are definitely tough to read about – this is about slavery – I found myself flying thorugh the pages of this book in no time at all.

KINDRED
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Headline, 2014 (1979)
eBook: 306 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland—a very dangerous place for a black woman—the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.

This is such an amazing book! I don’t expect to be forming a lot of coherent sentences in this review, not least because my perspective is that of a White woman living in Europe and slavery, while taught at schools, has never been a topic that’s been much discussed in my life. We have our own dark history here in Austria that’s featured much more prominently in schools but this doesn’t keep me from wanting to educate myself and learn more about humanity’s past as a whole. And because fiction has always been my best teacher, I picked up Kindred.

Octavia Butler doesn’t waste much time before beginning with the story that’s promised in the synopsis. Dana, a young Black woman, lives in 1976 with her White husband Kevin, and is suddenly yanked back in time, only to find herself in an unknown place where a little White boy is in the process of drowning. Naturally, she helps him and saves his life. Then she just reappears in her own apartment where her husband says she vanished for a few seconds and randomly popped up in a different part of their home. Neither of them can quite believe what has happened, but these strange events are far from over. Dana jumps through time again, this time to meet a slightly older version of Rufus, the boy she saved. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that this boy is her own ancestor and while his father is a slave owner and exactly the kind of despicable you’d expect, Rufus is still young and can maybe be taught kindness yet. It is also his fault Dana is being drawn back in time whenever his life is in danger. Not that he knows how he’s doing it, but whenever his life is threatened, Dana appears and does her best to save him.

Things start going really wrong when Dana takes her husband Kevin with her on one of those time jumps. On the one hand, having a White man by her side to protect her from a decidedly hostile society is a good thing. On the other hand, her and Kevin have to integrate enough into that society so as not to be suspicious. So they pretend to be slave and slave owner and although it’s just make-believe, that doesn’t keep Dana from being treated like a slave, or Kevin from pretend-talking like a slave owner… And then there’s the problem that Dana never knows when (or if) she is going to return to her own time. All she knows is that she has to touch Kevin in order to take him back with her.

That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the plot, but there is much more to come after that. I found this book incredibly fascinating for many different reasons. The most obvious one is of course the way Butler talks about and has her characters deal with slavery. Dana is a modern woman who knows about slavery but of course, it’s quite different when you’re suddenly living it, seeing it firsthand, watching people you’ve come to befriend suffer terrible hardships without a chance at ever gaining their freedom. Which leads me to the other thing I found so impressive.
While you could call this an “issue book”, one that deals with Black pain, Butler’s use of language almost works against that classification. Neither the words she chooses to tell the story nor her protagonist ever feel like they’re falling down into a depressed spiral, lingering on the suffering of of the people in this book, or using the terrible things that happen for shock value. If you’re looking for torture porn, you’ll have to find a different book.

I loved Dana, who goes from knowing in theory what slavery was like to actually understanding it over the course of this book. Compared to the other slaves on the Weylin’s plantation, Dana has it pretty easy. With Kevin as her companion, she doesn’t have to do hard physical labor but is rather employed as a teacher for young Rufus. But that doesn’t keep her from seeing how the other slaves are treated, how they bear the scars of endless whippings and beatings, how they are hunched over from a lifetime of gruelling work. Again, Octavia Butler doesn’t deliver these facts with particularly shocking language. She just lets the story talk for itself and it is utterly heartbreaking. This book comes with trigger warnings for racism (many uses of the n-word), violence, and rape so it’s not exactly an easy book to read when it comes to its content.

But the language itself flows so beautifully that I couldn’t stop reading. Actually, I listened to the audiobook, but you know what I mean. Having read only one other of Butler’s books before, I had expected the language to be more difficult, the atmosphere to be more sinister, but somehow it wasn’t. It was Dana’s narration, her calmness throughout all the horror, that turned this into a book which only unfolds completely in your own mind. We may experience being whipped alongside Dana and while these descriptions are chilling and Dana’s in great pain, she doesn’t linger on it as an event. Instead, her experiences in the past slowly change Dana’s character from a rather carefree young woman to someone always on the lookout for someone who might mean her harm. She watches what she says, she doggedly does her work in order not to stand out, rather than risk another beating – and she comes to understand that it’s not as simple as “just band together and rise up against the White slavers”.

Another interesting aspect is Dana’s relationship with her husband. Due to the circumstances of their time travels, their marriage has to deal with way more than they had planned. Racism from their own families they can deal with, racism in the past they’ve expected. But how spending time in the past, living alongside its people, changes them is something they don’t know how to handle. And let’s not forget that these time jumps don’t happen parallel to the present. When Dana is in the past for a few hours, a few minutes may have passed in her time. She may spend months in the past, only to appear in 1976 again, just a day after she disappeared. This complicates matters even more when she and Kevin are separated, one waiting for the other, with no means of contact or knowing when (or if) they will ever be reunited.

I’ve rambled on about this book for a while now but I still don’t think I got across just what an emotional impact it had on me. I found myself crying quietly to myself several times, not even necessarily during the scenes that were the most brutal, but rather during the quiet conversations Dana has with other slaves, who tell her matter of fact that their children were sold away and they haven’t seen them since they were babies, or how two Black people in love can’t get married and if their master doesn’t like their love, they can just separate them and sell one of them off. These things are mentioned almost by the way but they have lingered in my mind, as much as the brutal phyiscal treatment of Dana and the other slaves.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed this book. But I did! I enjoyed how it made me think, how it showed a period of history through the eyes of a fictional heroine I can feel with, how it made history that much more real, even though the characters are all invented. I may not have enjoyed the plot because I came to care for the characters and wanted them all to be okay and happy, and of course that’s not a realistic hope for slaves during slavery. But I loved how Octavia Butler nudged my mind to look at this topic from different angles, how she included multi-layered White people, how she showed that slaves don’t all agree with each other, that there is envy among them as well as love. I wish I had the ability to express properly how amazing this book really is. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This one will stick with you!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Blurring Good and Evil: Kacen Callender – Queen of the Conquered

As I’ve been on holiday (thus the hiatus this past week), I had the pleasure of reading Kacen Callender’s adult fantasy debut by a lovely blue lake in between sessions of trekking up mountains, trying Stand Up Paddlel for the first time (it rocks!), and steaming in the sauna… That may have colored my experience a bit, but even if I’d read this at home during rainy days, this book would have left me deeply impressed.

Queen of the ConqueredQUEEN OF THE CONQUERED
by Kacen Callender

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 401 pages
Series: Islands of Blood and Storm #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams.

An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. We first meet Sigourney Rose as a young child on the night her entire family is murdered during a party by the White people inhabiting the islands of Hans Lollik because a dark-skinned prosperous family just doesn’t fit into their world view. Sigourney survives, however, and grows up with one thing on her mind: vengeance! She has a plan to take over the Caribbean-inspired islands as ruler, free all of her people, and kill everyone who had a hand in murdering her family.

Whew! That premise alone tells you that this is not a particularly enjoyable book, but there’s more. Kacen Callender added magic, and while it’s not the most original type of magic, it makes the story just so much cooler. Sigourney can read minds, kind of go into someone else’s brain and look at their memories, but she can also kind of possess someone else’s body and make them do things… Yeah, it’s exactly as terrifying as it sounds and the first few chapters illustrate this horrible power very well. Sigourney is dealing with a slave uprising by entering the minds of some of the rebels and making them kill themselves in brutal ways. She is not an easy character to like.

Which brings me to the aspect that most intrigued me. Sigourney is dark-skinned herself, she sees that her people are enslaved and she desperately wants to free them, to give them back a life of their own. She hates the kongelig (the ruling colonizers of her islands) deeply and has no qualms about killing them all to reach her goal. But at the same time, when we meet her, she herself is a slave owner who plays by the questionable rules of the White slave owners. We learn early on that she only does this to reach her ultimate goal – which is essentially good – but it constantly raises the question whether the means justify the end and whether doing “a few” bad things for the greater good is okay. Sigourney questions herself many times but even though she hates herself for executing her own, for making them work for her, for owning slaves, her mission remains her number one focus.

Through intrigue and by using her kraft of mind reading, she manages to marry into one of the ruling families, becoming a candidate for the next king of Hans Lollik. It is only when she meets a young slave whose mind she just can’t seem to enter that things stop going according to her plan. This slave Loren is biracial and easily the most interesting character in this book. Sigourney is equally intrigued by him and decides to keep him as her personal guard – despite the fact that he was sent to assassinate her.
Speaking of assassination. When all the kongelig are called to the island of Hans Lollik Helle where the king resides and plans to pick his successor, the death rate goes up rapidly. This is not surprising because apparently, it’s normal for potential successors to kill off the competition in order to give them a better shot at the throne. But to me, it felt like what Gideon the Ninth tried to do, but more successful, with a bigger impact when someone dies.

We get to know the other kongelig and while it’s easy to dismiss them all as villains who came to these islands, eslaved its people, and live in luxury while slaves work their plantations, there is more nuance to them. Sure, none of them grows particularly sympathetic, but some of them are definitely more evil than others and I even caught myself feeling sorry for some of them. Even as members of the ruling class, they deal with sexism and suffer under the rules of their own society and while that doesn’t make their actions any less terrible, it makes them feel like real people. A good villain should always act in a way that, while I wouldn’t condone it in any way, at least makes sense when you put yourself i their shoes. And Kacen Callender created a whole cast of such villains. Not all of them are bad people, they are simply caught in the world they were born into and they don’t have the courage or strength to do something about it. Other are just despicably but even they have something that humanises them to a degree.

I haven’t even touched upon the way race is dealt with in this book because it’s another complex topic that Callender tackles in amazing ways. Sigourney’s character is perfect for that because although she has dark skin and it’s her own people that have been enslaved by the colonizers, she herself is a noblewoman. The other (White) nobles don’t like her and what she represents – a dark-skinned woman rising up to power – but she is equally hated by the slaves of Hans Lollik. And that hate weighs heavily on Sigourney, not just because she wishes she could tell all the slaves that she’s only doing what she’s doing to free them but also because she is so utterly lonely. She has one friend (ironically the only one of her slaves that she actually freed but who stayed of her own volition) but is otherwise completely alone in this hostile world where most other people want to see her dead. This made it easier to like her but her actions throughout the story also never really let me connect with her emotionally.

When it comes to the writing style, I have some small nitpicks. Callender uses the phrase “skin as dark as mine” entirely too often. There are other ways to describe someone as dark-skinned. Simply call them dark-skinned or “with brown skin” or anything else. But the exact words “skin as dark as mine/ours” is thrown around way too often and actually took me out of the reading flow. It does get better as the novel progresses but at the beginning especially, you’ll see it on every page. Other than that, I quite liked the writing. Callender doesn’t shy away from describing terrible things but they never felt gratuitous. I particularly liked how quickly characters came to life and how the world building was down almost exclusively thorugh showing instead of telling. It does mean the book has a bit of a learning curve, especially if (like me) you didn’t know that the real Caribbean was colonized not just by the British and French, but also the Dutch and Danish – which explains all the very Danish sounding names. But a quick trip to Wikipedia will give you some context and even if you don’t feel like reading up on our own history, you can easily follow the events of this book. I just personally like a bit of context when a story I read is based or inspired by the real world.

It goes without saying that this is a rather dark book. The story takes place in a time and place where slavery existed, it has characters with incredible powers, it goes on to a “And Then There Were None” sub plot and there is quite a bit of violence and abuse, both physical and emotional. By a certain point, I kept asking myself how this book could possibly end. Even if Sigourney reached her goal and became the new Queen of the islands, would she really do what she set out to do? Would she free her people or would she find a new goal that made it “necessary” for her to keep slaves just a bit longer? Well, Kacen Callender surprised and delighted me with the ending they chose. It not only resolves Sigourney’s story in a satisfying, believable way, but it also adds a twist that hit me in the gut and made me re-examine my own way of thinking. That’s all I can say without spoiling but trust me on this: If you pick up this book, you will get a satisfying ending.

Although this could well stand on its own, I look forward to the sequel King of the Rising, which is set to come out in December 2020. Although with the Covid-19 pandemic still going strong in certain parts of the world, I don’t know if that date will be pushed back. Either way, when the book comes out and I have enough brain power and emotional strength I will definitely pick it up. Queen of the Conquered has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award – deservedly so – and it’s currently super cheap on Kobo. Just sayin’…
The only reason I’m not giving it 8/10 points is that while Sigourney was a super intriguing protagonist, I couldn’t fully root for her and always remained just a bit distant from her emotionally. And the way dark-skinned characters are constantly described the same way. But this was still a fantastic book, an important book, and one that was well worth the long time it took me to read.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

History Through the Eyes of Women of Color: Nalo Hopkinson – The Salt Roads

Have I mentioned how much I adore Nalo Hopkinson’s books? When I discovered her writing through Midnight Robber, it felt like a revelation. Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine didn’t work quite so well for me (but were still very good books!) but I knew right from the start that Hopkinson was a writer I would follow forever. It’s been a while since I picked up one of her books and maybe that’s why this one hit me so hard. I loved every single page, every character, every word of prose and I cannot recommend this highly enough.

THE SALT ROADS
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published: Grand Central Publishing, 2004
eBook: 410 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 14 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “It went in white, but it will come out a mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”

In 1804, shortly before the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue is renamed Haiti, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn baby. Led by a lesbian healer and midwife named Mer, the women’s lamentations inadvertently release the dead infant’s “unused vitality” to draw Ezili—the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love—into the physical world.
As Ezili explores her newfound powers, she travels across time and space to inhabit the midwife’s body—as well as those of Jeanne, a mixed-race dancer and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire living in 1880s Paris, and Meritet, an enslaved Greek-Nubian prostitute in ancient Alexandria.
Bound together by Ezili and “the salt road” of their sweat, blood, and tears, the three women struggle against a hostile world, unaware of the goddess’s presence in their lives. Despite her magic, Mer suffers as a slave on a sugar plantation until Ezili plants the seeds of uprising in her mind. Jeanne slowly succumbs to the ravages of age and syphilis when her lover is unable to escape his mother’s control. And Meritet, inspired by Ezili, flees her enslavement and makes a pilgrimage to Egypt, where she becomes known as Saint Mary.

If you’ve read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, you know she has a gift with language. And I don’t just mean in the sense that any writer has to be skilled in the ways of using words to create stories. It’s more than that. It’s using language not only for conveying information on a sentence level but for creating atmosphere, for making characters come to life, for building an entire world. In The Salt Roads, Hopkinson did all of this times three. We get to read three seperate (but connected) story lines involving three different female protagonists during three eras of history.

In 1804, we follow  Mer, a slave woman and healer, as she delivers a stillborn baby. When Mer, the baby’s mother Georgine, and Tipingee (whom Mer appears to be in love with) bury the child, they inadvertently release the goddess Ezili who “inhabits” Mer’s mind and so follows her story. One of the other Haitian slaves, Makandal, has a plan for an uprising, for defeating the White slave owners, for making the island their own and living in freedom. It is this story that unfolds through Mer’s eyes. But Ezili also spends time in the mind of Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s mistress and muse, as well as Saint Mary of Egypt. In the novel we get to see these three women during their daily lives and their three different periods of history, all through the eyes of Women of Color.

When I started reading this book, I wasn’t aware that Jeanne Duval was a real woman and that her relationship to Charles Baudelaire was based on facts. It’s not knowledge you need to enjoy this book but I was interested enough to at least look at the Wikipedia page and see how well Hopkinson wrapped real-life events into her fictional tale. She gave Jeanne a voice and mind of her own, she gave her agency, and she made everything feel so much more real than reading about someone in a text book could ever be. I found that I cared about this mixed-race dancer/prostitute more and more. Her story deals with racism but it also touches on other issues, such as class differences, disability, and romantic relationships.

Makandal is also based on a real man but I only learned that after I had finished the book. If you’re intersted to learn a little bit about the real life basis for this novel, you can look him up. But beware of “spoilers” – is it a spoiler if it’s based on history? Well, his and Jeanne’s Wikipedia page will definitely spoil some of the story, so be warned. I was equally unaware that St. Mary of Egypt was real, who is first introduced as Meritet in this book and whose story takes a while to get going. For a long time, we follow Jeanne and Mer in loosely alternating chapters and only get a few short glimpses into Meritet’s life. Later on, Meritet takes center stage. Meritet is a prostitue who enjoys her job but dreams of more. She wants to see the world, learn what else is out there, and if she can have lots of sex on the way, that’s even better. As a prostitute, her view of sex is both pragmatic and passionate. I also really enjoyed her friendship with a gay male prostitute.

With two out of three protagonists being prostitutes, you can imagine that there’s a lot of sex in this book but I found it was used in interesting ways. First of all, there’s quite a bit of detailed description of various sexual acts – so if that’s not for you, maybe skip those parts. Secondly, and this is the important part, every sex scene felt real and honest. These characters are real women with real desires. Sometimes they use sex to their advantage because that’s the only power they have to take control of their lives, sometimes they simply rejoice in the pleasure of it. But it never felt gratuitous or used for shock value like it happens in some other books. Since the protagonists sometimes share a body/mind with the goddess of sexual desire, it also makes perfect sense to show these aspects of their lives.
Although the stories take place in three very different time periods, in different places, and with varying degrees of racism/sexism present, each story felt incredibly sex positive and there is some LGBTQIA+ representation. But please don’t think this book is all sex all the time. There is plenty of story and many other themes but if reading about sex makes you uncomfortable, you will probably not be too happy with this book.

Now let’s not forget the fourth protagonist, the goddess Ezili. We see her point of view (if you can call it that) in between the main chapters. And just like her own aetherial state, these mini chapters read a bit like snippets from a dream, like floating through the aether. They gave this otherwise realistic novel a sense of magic and puts it firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. Ezili is mostly just along for the ride in whomever’s head she currently occupies but sometimes, she can take over the reigns and influence what happens in our world. Ezili is the glue that holds the book together.
I found that idea really striking because on the one hand, Ezili embodies the lack of control all these women feel to a certain degree. Mer is a slave, so she literally cannot control her life, Jeanne relies on Baudelaire for money that she needs to survive and keep her mother alive as well. And Meritet is a prostitute who, while enjoying sex, does not get to pick her own partners and cannot go out and travel as she would like to.
And yet, each of these women is proactive; they take ahold of their life to the extent that they are able and they grasp on to any joy they possibly can. Considering the terrible situations all three women are in, this was a surprisingly empowering story.

This book was enjoyable from the beginning, but it grew on me more and more. For a long time, I couldn’t have told you what the actual plot is about but with a little patience (and reading up on the historical figures present in the novel), things became clearer. But even if there hadn’t beena story to follow, even if all there had been was glimpses into these three women’s lives, that would have been enough. Because the writing is just so damn good! Nalo Hopkinson weaves mythology, history, and sexuality into something new and wonderful. All her characters are vibrant, and even side characters who don’t appear all that often feel like real, proper people. The fact that real historical events and people are mixed into this fantastic narrative just makes this an even greater achievement.

I listened to this on audiobook, so of course I have to say a bit about the wonderful narration done by Bahni Turpin. She gave each character their own voice but she also managed to give each story line its own atmosphere. Where Mer and Jeanne are most distinguishable by their accents (although I wasn’t a fan of Turpin’s French accent), there is also a difference in how she reads each chapter. The pronunciation of French words was not great but because everything else about the narration was so fantastic, I would definitely recommend the audiobook.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Short Story

It’s Hugo Awards reading season! To celebrate all the amazing finalists, I thought I would do a series of short reviews for each category as well as show you what my ballot will most likely look like. Ballots are definitely subject to change, especially in categories where I had several favorites.
Every Monday, we’ll look at a different category until I run out of time – or out of steam. I’m still catching up with the finalists, especially in the series category, but I hope I can keep up this schedule.

  • Best Short Story
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Novella
  • Lodestar
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Novel
  • Best Series

I’m not a big short story reader. In fact, I almost only read short stories that are Hugo finalists because there’s just too much out there and I mostly don’t get a lot out of it. I usually want my stories bigger and meatier but there is something to be said for an author who can evoke an emotional response in the span of only a few pages. Here are six of them on one of my favorite Hugo shortlists ever.

The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  • S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  • Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing
  • Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  • Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  • Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

This went differently than expected. I loved Alix E. Harrow’s winning short story last time, so I fully expected her story to be in my top spot again. But the competition is tough!

I didn’t like Fran Wilde’s YA novel Updraft at all, so I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters in A Catalog of Storms. The story is about the weather and yet it utterly engaged me! Sila, the youngest of three daughters, is the first person narrator who shows us how she and her family live. Storms have been ravaging their home, so much so that humans mostly stay inside and hide. That is, until the weathermen appeared. These people learned to name the terrible storms and thus control and fight them. To become a weatherman is a great honor, although they usually end up dissolving into weather themselves. When Sila’s sister shows signs of turning into a weatherman, the family has to deal with that loss.
I can’t believe how much Wilde packed into this short story! Not only did she make me care for all the characters but she also immersed me in a highly original world. I was deeply impressed!

Alix E. Harrow may not have written my favorite of the nominated stories, but Do Not Look Back, My Lion was still very good. It’s about a warrior people who brand their babies right after birth to become fierce warriors. Eefa, husband to the legendary warrior nicknamed the Lion, has had enough, though. She is a healer and as such has very low social status. But she doesn’t want to watch her children go off to war and come back injured. Or maybe not come back at all.
While I loved the central relationship and the character growth in this story, I felt the world building just didn’t work for me. There were nice touches, like the gods of Life and Death, but to me the question of why these people are eternally at war remained until the end. It’s not the point of the story at all but it kept nagging at the back of my mind.
But for the excellent character work and beautiful writing, I still loved this story.

I know S. L. Huang as the author of the Russell’s Attic series as well as the super-heartbreaking The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist. I never read her trilogy but I know she can get me all emotional with her stories. But As the Last I May Know does more than that. It’s set in a future where weapons of mass destruction can only be used with the proper codes (so far, so normal), except these codes are embedded in a child who the president personally has to kill in order to get the codes. This idea alone was so mind-blowing that I wouldn’t even have needed the characters to love this story. But we do follow the ten-year old protagonist who is chosen to carry those launch codes and we see her spend a few years close to the president. Because there is a serious war going on and he may have to kill her in order to save his country…
I cannot put into words the emotional roller coaster this tale put me on. It’s a brilliant idea but we see it through such wonderful characters that every little change in the war physically hurts. It poses questions about ethics, about the value of a human life, about the Greater Good, and it kept me thinking a long time after I finished reading it. This is what all the best stories should do.

I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella, The Deep, and I was almost as taken with their short story, Blood Is Another Word for Hunger. It has one of the best (and longest) opening lines I’ve ever read and the prose is just beautiful. It starts with Sully, a slave girl, slaughtering the entire family for whom she works, and then suddenly being struck pregnant and giving birth to a girl that grows up to be a teenager within minutes. The universe needs balance, after all, and with five people dead, it seems only fair that five others come back to life – in this case, via Sully’s womb. This way, a little family grows and they start to make a life for themselves.
While I enjoyed reading this story, I’m not quite sure what Solomon was trying to achieve with it. Obviously, a slave rising up to take control of her own life was satisfying enough to drive the plot, but the story as a whole and especially the ending left me a bit puzzled.

Shiv Ramdas’ story And Now His Lordship is Laughing is about an old woman in India who makes beautiful – and somewhat magical – dolls. When her craft attracts the attention of an English lord, she refuses to make a doll for his wife because that’s just not how things are done. You don’t demand a doll, you are given one as a gift if the maker so chooses. What follows is a period of poverty, terrible hunger (and death following that hunger) because the English take things from the people to supply their own armies. When eventually, the protagonist does agree to make a dool for His Lordship’s wife, it comes with a caveat. She wants to hand the doll over herself and show the English lady how to make the magical toy laugh.
I loved how this story managed to say so many things about colonialism, cultural differences and the ways we perceive them, and the cost of an empire. It’s a beautifully written story but, unfortunately, a rather predictable one. Satisfying as the ending was, it didn’t really surprise me. The one truly emotional moment for me happened much sooner and is the catalyst for what happens next. I enjoyed it and I want to read more by Ramdas but on this ballot, it will be ranked rather low.

The last story I read messed up my entire ranking up until that point. Ten Excerpts not only has important things to say but also does so by playing with its medium. Nibedita Sen presents her story just like the title suggests – as excerpts from a bibliography on the women of Ratnabar Island. Through these very (!) short snippets, we get a story that spans generations and continents! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write something like this. When colonists “discovered” the women of Ratnabar island, they took some of them with them to England for a “proper education”, starting something much bigger and more vicious than they probably knew.
I won’t say much about the plot, if you can call it that, but holy shit, this story was mind-blowing. It’s so easy to fill in the parts of this history without having to be explicitly told, and I loved how Sen presented excerpts from different sources that have varying opinions on Ratnabar Island and its inhabitants. Most striking were probably the excerpts from the now displaced second- or even third-generation Ratnabarian women living abroad. My gut reaction after reading this was: Yeah, this is my top spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  2. Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island
  3. Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  4. Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  5. Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  6. Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

You’ll see that the Nibedita Sen story is not in my top spot but that’s only because I have stewed over this ballot for quite a while. I may yet change the top two spots, depending on how I feel about these stories once a little time has passed after reading them. I am silmpy so very taken with Huang’s basic premise and her characters were the ones that felt most fleshed-out on this ballot that I don’t want to take it from my top spot at the moment.
I’m happy with Fran Wilde on my third spot, but after that, it gets difficult again.
I enjoyed all these stories and they all did interesting things, were written beautifully, and got some emotional reaction out of me.
The reason Shiv Ramdas’ story is currently at the bottom is simply because it was the most predictable one for me, so my pure enjoyment of it was just a tad less than with the other stories.
Rivers Solomon’s story was fantastic but I’m still not quite sure about the ending. And Alix E. Harrow’s story simply had standout character work. So nothing on this ballot is really secure, I may shift around a lot of things, but nothing will jump from the very top to the very bottom or vice versa.

Except for Wilde and Harrow’s tales, all the stories deal with issues of race, colonialism, or slavery and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories resonate so much with WorldCon members. These topics are more timely than ever and I am so grateful that I got to see them through the eyes of such brilliant, talented writers. There’s not a single bad story on here and I want to read more by each of these authors. So we’re off to a pretty amazing start when it comes to this year’s Hugo reading! And I believe can all use something to keep our hope and spirits up in these trying times.

Up next week: Best Novelette

Bolivian Myth and Magic: Isabel Ibañez – Woven in Moonlight

Sometimes, all it takes is a striking cover to catch my interest. Alright, I’ll admit it, a lot of times that’s all it takes. But if you then bait me with mythology and a fantasy-Bolivian setting, a spy at court who’s also a decoy condesa, plus magic to do with moonlight and weaving – I have literally no way to stay away from that book. I’m so glad that I ended up enjoying this as much as I did, even though it turned out to be less fantasy and more exploration of a people who has been through revolution and simply yearns for peace.

WOVEN IN MOONLIGHT
by Isabel Ibañez

Published: Page Street Books, 2020
Hardback: 384 pages
Series: Wovenin Moonlight #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: My banged-up spoon scrapes the bottom of a barrel that should’ve held enough dried beans to last for three more months.

A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.

Ximena has lived almost her whole life pretending to be someone she is not: the condesa Catalina, rightful heir to Inkasisa, and leader of the impending revolution to take back what’s hers. Although the real condesa is Ximena’s best friend, it is Ximena who carries all the burdens of tough decisions and the threat of being in the public eye. This becomes all the more dangerous when King Atoc, the usurper, decides he will marry to condesa in order to cement his claim to the throne.  Ximena goes to court, ostentatiously to follow the King’s order, but really looking for the Estrella, a secret weapon that may help her people rise up again and claim back what they have lost.

There were some things that Ibañez did really well in her story of revolution and romance and a people past war-time, and there are others that could have been done better. Because my overall enjoyment outweighed my nitpicks, I’ll start with the good stuff.
Ximena is a great protagonist. She may be somewhat impulsive and headstrong, but she is open minded, full of empathy, and willing to learn. She also has her heart in the right place and doesn’t shy away from rethinking things she’s been taught all her life were true. The side characters were all somewhat overdrawn, but they did a great job in showing that the two peoples in conflict aren’t actually all that different from one another. Everyone just wants to live a happy life, with food on their table and a roof over their head – whether it’s Ximena’s Illustrians or Atoc’s Llacsans.

I also really loved the magic in this book, although its execution was one of the weaker points. As the title suggests, moonlight and weaving both play a part. Ximena can use moondust as a sort of sleeping powder which comes in pretty handy when you have to knock out your guards in order to explore the castle. She is also a gifted weaver whose tapestries are… let’s say not quite ordinary. I don’t want to spoil what exactly the magic is here, but it’s a brilliant idea that simply wasn’t used or explored enough. If I were in Ximena’s position and had her magic, this story may have turned out very differently. Maybe the author thought that would be too much for what is essentially a YA fantasy romance, or maybe she never wanted the magic to be so dominant. The fact that the magic doesn’t do all that much doesn’t really hurt the story, but I can’t help but feel there was potential for more.

But the main themes of this book are clear from the start. How to get back (or even to find for the first time) a way of living that can work for all people, even the ones who seem irrevocably on opposing sides of a fight? And how to become who you truly are when you’ve been pretending to be someone else all your life? Ximena, young as she is, has to deal with both of these tough questions. Not too much is said about the revolution that happened when Ximena was little, except that it cost her her parents and her people their rule. But Ximena also discovers what it was like for the other side. Llacsans didn’t have a great life before the revolution. And while they also may not have a great life under Atoc’s rule, who can fault them for escaping what amounts to slavery? Ximena learns all these things throught the people she meets. She enters the Llacsan world filled with prejudice and her own firm ideas on what the world is like, so it comes as quite a shock to see that she likes some of these people who are supposed to be her sworn enemies!
There is also a masked vigilante, El Lobo, who poses something of a mystery. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor but he doesn’t seem to make a difference between Illustrian and Llacsan, and that doesn’t go with Ximena’s world view.

While both El Lobo’s identity and the love story were rather obvious and predictable from early on, I didn’t mind the lack of surprise at their eventual reveal. That’s not what this book is about. The heart of it is its people and the question of how a divided country can find a way to exist in peace together. It’s a very pertinent question in this day and age.

This may not be a great fantasy book but it is a great book, period. It’s about people coming together with open minds, being open to new world views, trying to do the right thing even if that means sacrificing something they personally love. It’s about a young girl finding her place in the world and figuring out who she is when she’s not pretending to be her best friend. And most importantly, while the ending comes to a satisfying conclusion for this story, things aren’t all happy and perfect! A divided people can’t simply be swayed to accept what they’d feared or hated for so many years. But you have to start somewhere and Ximena plans to do her best for her home, with old and new friends by her side. And that’s all anyone can really do.

Also, make sure you have snacks on hand when you read this. There is a lot of food porn that made me crave all the things! 🙂

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good