#WyrdandWonder Review: Heather Fawcett – Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries

Ah, those cozy fantasies, how I do love them. This one was a particular favorite and one of the few cases where I jumped with joy upon learning that it is only the first in a series. Give me more Emily Wilde, more Wendell, more found families, exploring cultures and their view on faeries. I hope we’ll get at least ten volumes.

by Heather Fawcett

Published: Orbit, 2023
Hardback: 336 pages
Series: Emily Wilde #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Shadow is not at all happy with me. 

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love in the start of a heartwarming and enchanting new fantasy series.

Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

Written as a journal by the eponymous Emily Wilde, this story begins with her journey to Hrafnsvik, a very northern village that has some interesting tales and locations to offer when it comes to studying faeries. And that’s just what Emily is here to do. She is creating the first Encyclopaedia of Faeries, writing down in a scholarly fashion, all that there is to know about the various kinds of fae, how to interact with them, what tricks they may play on nearby villagers, what gifts the villagers leave for the folk, and so on. Emily is thus working on establishing herself as the brilliant scholar that she is in the minds of her colleagues – who don’t all love her personality. Along this trip that is to last several months she brings her loyal dog, Shadow, and all she needs to do her work.

I immediately adored the writing style of this story because not only is Emily a somewhat unusual woman for the time period, but she is also so clearly enamoured with her work that she forgets all social niceties. Or, indeed, how one interacts with humans at all, rather than fae and/or books. It felt a bit like an inversion of a trope, having the female character be a little gruff and not caring about her hair, while the male counterpart is all about proper attire and charming the people around him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So… Emily arrives, manages to do some studying and stake out the area, looking for faerie activity, but she has trouble getting along with the locals. Something or other she has done or said must have made her into a pariah of sorts, but she cannot for the life of her figure out what is wrong or how to fix it.

Wendell Bambleby to the rescue! Her colleague and suspected fae (although she has never told him of this suspicion) is her exact opposite in many ways. Charming, quick with the banter, sensitive to others’ feelings, he complements Emily perfectly. When it comes to their scholarly efforts, he happens to be a little less meticulous, not to say lazy… Can you see why I love these two? It may be another trope (the messy roommate and the clean one) but, boy, does it work ever so well. Together, Emily and Wendell navigate life in a very frosty village (both when it comes to the climate and its inhabitants), try to learn about the local faeries, listen to legends, and, almost by accident, solve some ancient problems. To tell you the details of their adventures would be spoiling the fun, so you’ll just have to trust me that there are several kinds of faeries and other mythological folk, encounters with neighbors and mayors and shop keepers, and of course: science!

The plot offers many lovely twists and turns, but although I enjoyed them, it was a variety of other little things that lifted this book above similar cozy fantasies. First, I love the liberties Heather Fawcett has taken with the setting and time period. Women scholars may have it harder than their male colleagues, but they are not unheard of; queer folk are simply there and accepted, and I can not stress enough what a difference that makes. Imagine a Jane Austen novel, but the neighbors are a lesbian couple. It’s so refreshing and makes me want to spend a lot more time in this world.
Then there is the faerie lore, of which we get just enough to keep this book interesting and new, but also to whet my appetite for more. The legends and local stories are intriguing, especially the ones Emily follows up in more detail, and I can’t remember a single dull moment in this book. Plus, all the plot strings come together really nicely at the end.

And lastly, let’s not forget the relationship between Emily and Wendell. It feels kind of romancy early on, but again, the author takes it in unexpected directions. Most remarkable is probably that we learn about Emily’s suspicion about Wendell being a secret Fae in one of the first chapters. The author could have tried to milk this “revelation” and turn it into a cheap twist, but Emily is really rather good at what she does, and spotting Fae is one of those things. Wendell indeed being a Faerie, it wouldn’t have fit to have Emily ignorant of the fact when she spends so much time with him (because she has no other friends and most other people would rather spend time away from her).
No spoilers about any potential romance subplots, but I’ll just say I loved the character development, the pacing, and the conclusion reached – or not reached – at the end of this first book. More than anything it made me want to go back and follow these two scatterbrains on many more trips. What a wonderful, at times thrilling, tale of a woman who just wants to study in peace.
I hear the next book, Emily Wilde’s Map of the Underwolds, takes place in Austria (that’s where I live, yay!), and now I only have to wait for my pre-order to be delivered.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Really excellent

The Horror of Book Twitter: R. F. Kuang – Yellowface

It’s rare that I read a book immediately when it comes out. For super anticipated releases I’m either lucky enough to snag an ARC and thus read the book before publication, or when I don’t, I immediately buy the book but usually end up reading it some weeks or even months after it first came out. But with Yellowface, the first non-genre work by R. F. Kuang, I just couldn’t stay away. I thought I might not like it as much because it’s a contemporary novel with no SFF elements whatsoever, but I needn’t have worried. What a wild ride it was!

by R. F. Kuang

Published: William Morrow, 2023
Hardback: 323 pages
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.

What’s the harm in a pseudonym? New York Times bestselling sensation Juniper Song is not who she says she is, she didn’t write the book she claims she wrote, and she is most certainly not Asian American–in this chilling and hilariously cutting novel from R. F. Kuang.

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song–complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.

With all the promotions, early reviews, sneak peeks, and what have you, I somehow still didn’t know what to expect from this first non-genre book by one of my favorite authors. I thought I’d read a little bit, just to get a taste, and when I looked up the next time, four chapters later, I knew that I had yet another favorite on my hands.

The story begins with a bang. After briefly introducing first-person narrator Juniper Song Hayward and her sort-of-but-not-really-friend Athena Liu, we immediately get to witness Athena’s gruesome death. Kuang doesn’t mess around. Although the book may not be about Athena dying, that scene was so well described that it followed me into my dreams far longer than it bothered June, who witnessed it firsthand. What also happens is that, while June is waiting for the EMTs to arrive, she steals Athena’s unpublished (and very secret) manuscript. Because you see, Athena has everything June wants. She is publishing’s darling, she gets great reviews, sells tons of books, and receives award nominations and recognition wherever she goes. Oh, and let’s not forget the Netflix deal! It’s not fair, is it? Especially because Athena has her flaws, too, and June is a good writer. It’s just that publishing doesn’t want to promote a boring young white cis woman from Philly. Or so June believes.

What follows is several layers of greatness. On the surface, you get the thrilling story of Juniper Hayward’s rise and fall in publishing, due to having stolen her friend’s work and selling it as her own. With that come the guilt (at least she knows what she’s doing isn’t right!), a fair amount of paranoia, and an ever-growing ruthlessness at the thought of getting caught. Honestly, the first person narration made this such an exciting read, because being right there in June’s mind lets us see not only how she tries to justify her misdeeds to herself, but also that she’s not the Pure Evil that Twitter makes her out to be. She’s petty and jealous, yes, but she’s also willing to work hard, and she’s not without talent. Did I condone what she did at any point? Hell, no. Was it fun to watch her succeed (for a while) – absolutely.
There’s also interesting and sometimes disturbing insight into the workings of publishing. Not that it’s a huge surprise, but having certain things spelled out clearly goes to show that publishing works just like the rest of the world. If it makes the people on top more money, then it’s good. If it loses them money, it’s bad. And that mindset trickles down all the way.

The probably most important and prominent layer of the book is the exploration of race and of who gets to tell which stories. It’s one thing that June’s publisher for her (stolen) book, The Last Front, decides to put a pseudonym on the cover that gives the impression of June being Asian when she’s clearly not. It leaves June plausible deniability because “Song” is her middle name and she wanted to have a fresh start with this book that is not only much better, but also very different in tone and subject matter, than her failed debut. But it’s another matter entirely when June gets invited to events meant to lift up and celebrate Asian voices, with mostly Asian people present. June has the decency to feel uncomfortable and misplaced, at least, and boy, was that cringey to read.
But Kuang doesn’t just present a simple answer to a very complex question. June, as wrong as it was to steal that manuscript, does put in the work. She researches the hell out of the novel’s themes, reads up on the period, goes through all of the sources that Athena has used, and clearly learns a lot through that. Now, ignoring that she edited an existing work, why should she not be allowed to write about Chinese people in WWI when she has studied hard and wants to tell about a forgotten chapter of history? Because she is not Chinese herself?
There is no quick and easy answer to this question in Yellowface, but through various characters, reviews, events, etc. we are presented a variety of opinions. Just like in real life, you’ll find people who are incredibly fixated that only #ownvoices stories should exist, and you have others who think that empathy and the willingness to learn should be enough to write about experiences different to your own. (In case you’re wondering, I belong in the second camp. Otherwise nobody would be allowed to write about anything other than themselves and that would not only be boring for us readers but also, I suspect, for the writers.)

Now to adress some of the concerns or points of critique I have come across in other reviews (yes, I did the “read only negative reviews” game with this book, too): it does feel a bit odd, reading about a character that sounds so much like Kuang herself. Athena Liu may be even more successful or have risen to great heights faster, but the parallels between the fictional Liu and the very real Kuang are… striking. Now, it’s up to us readers how to read and interpret that. Is Rebecca Kuang making fun of herself? Is she suggesting that she was simply one of the lucky “chosen ones” in publishing? That, though undoubtedly talented, her personal success story was due to similar reasons as Athena Liu’s, and she could have just as easily been stewing in obscurity? There’s no way to really know what the author intended, but I personally like the ambiguity and the fact that we, as the readers, have to make up our own minds about it.
If you decide to read Liu as a stand-in for Kuang, the descriptions of her physical perfection feel a bit weird (who would describe themselves as this gorgeous, after all, even if it’s true?), but in the end, no matter how I looked at it, Yellowface was still a highly entertaining, well-written book about topics that I find intriguing.

Another problem some readers seem to have had is the prominent feature of Twitter. I mean… it’s not like that’s particularly far-fetched, is it? Famous people of all professions have had their Twitter battles, been cancelled, doxxed, virtually beaten down by an angry mob, and so on. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on Book Twitter will know exactly how vicious people can get. It’s the internet, after all. Again, your mileage may vary, but I followed the Twitter conversations in this book as eagerly as Juniper does (maybe not with quite as much obsession). If you’re going to complain that a part of a novel “takes place” on Twitter, then maybe don’t pick up contemporary novels? It would have been weirder had this story pretended Twitter didn’t exist, not only because June gets harrassed there but also because authors simply do (or at least used to) a lot of promotional work on social media. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Goodreads, TikTok – sure, some of those may be on their way out while others are still going strong, but the fact that they are inextricable parts of our, and authors’ lives, is undeniable. To sum up: I liked how social media was incorporated in the story and found it quite believable.

There came a point when I got worried about the ending. How could this be resolved? June had to be caught, right? I mean, things have to be made right in the end, and June has to carry the consequences. But does that really have to happen? What if she just gets away with it? Will her guilt eat her up inside? Will somebody figure out her lies years later? Has she forgotten an important clue somewhere that could lead to the end of her publishing career? It’s another point for Kuang that she kept me guessing until the end. And even more points for me not knowing quite what I was hoping for. There is no way June’s behaviour can be excused, but she’s not an unlikeable protagonist. I did find myself wanting her to succeed in publishing, to fulfil her dreams, but on her own merit, not on a dead woman’s coattails. I found the ending that R. F. Kuang went with to be satisfying and the one that felt the most realistic.

One thing that Yellowface proved to me unequivocally is that Rebecca Kuang is a brilliant writer and I won’t have to think twice about picking up whatever she publishes next. A historical rom com? Gimme. A spy thriller? Alright. More fantasy? Space ships and aliens? I’ll take it all.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

#WyrdAndWonder: Bite-Size Fantasy (Some Recent Favorites)

Today’s Wyrd and Wonder prompt comes just at the right time, as I have amassed a list of as yet unreviewed books that come in small packages. Here are some novellas and one novelette that I read and loved lately.

Five Star Reads

Moses Ose Utomi – The Lies of the Ajungo

Having picked this up mostly on the basis of its gorgeous cover (and of course the description), I wasn’t expecting anything in particular from this very short book by Moses Ose Utomi. At barely 100 pages, it would at best give me a couple of hours of entertainment, right? Well… yes, but it also made me cry.

They say there is no water in the City of Lies. They say there are no heroes in the City of Lies. They say there are no friends beyond the City of Lies. But would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?

In the City of Lies, they cut out people’s tongues when they turn thirteen. Just before his thirteenth birthday, Tutu decides to save his city and his mother by going out into the desert and doing what nobody has managed before him: find water! What he finds instead is the answer to a lot of questions, he uncovers truths that have been hidden, and he makes friends along the way.
This book reads like a fairytale but it manages to pack so much emotion that it overwhelmed me with how much I cared. I loved everything about it, the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, event he heartbreak. And I cannot wait for the next one in the series and whatever else Utomi writes after that!

Alix E. Harrow – The Six Deaths of the Saint (novelette)

Harrow strikes again, this time with the tale of a young girl who becomes the king’s most valuable knight, at quite the cost. To say very much about this story is to take away from its gut-punch quality, so I’ll have to remain rather vague. But it’s Alix E. Harrow, so if you’ve read her before, you know you can trust her capable writerly hands.

I fully expected to love this story but I didn’t expect it to go the way it did. Set in a medieval-ish world, with kings and knights in armor and all that, the first twist came as a surprise and made me quite happy with how well it worked. But then Harrow keeps them coming, right until the end, and even manages to sneak in a tender, heartbreaking side plot. With a cast of just a handful of characters, she paints a picture so vivid that it aches when you close the book. I felt like I was there with the lady knight and the saint that keeps her going.

Four Star Reads

Kelly Barnhill – The Crane Husband

I finally read my first Kelly Barnhill book and it’s one loosely based on a fairy tale called The Crane Wife. In this sinister novella, Barnhill explores a world mostly like ours, but just far enough removed that a mother can bring home a crane one day, whom she treads as a husband, and nobody finding this particularly odd. We see this story unfold through the eyes of the older daughter, who not only takes care of her young brother, but also of her artist mother’s finances, her sales, and the household.
With the arrival of the titular crane husband, their already difficult life, is turned upside down. Barnhill explores dark themes in her novella, ranging from domestic abuse to depression, absentee parents, and much more.

I can’t say this was a particularly enjoyable story in terms of content, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t deeply engaging. The protagonist is such a strong person in her own right but she also sees the strenght in her seemily weak mother. And she’ll do anything to keep her little brother safe, so you can’t help but root for her. But happy, this story is not.

Seanan McGuire – (Where the Drowned Girls Go) and Lost in the Moment and Found

The latest Wayward Children was a good one again, but for completion’s sake, I’ll briefly talk about the one I didn’t like that much. Where the Drowned Girls Go was about Cora who lived in a mermaid world prior to coming back to our world, and she hasn’t been my favorite character to put it mildly. The good news is that I found her perfectly likeable in this novella, the bad news is that nothing about the story is particularly surprising, entertaining, or doing anything to push the series as such forward. Cora goes to the “other” school for Wayward Children, where the children are taught to suppress/deny their journey to whichever Otherland they went to. From there, everything evolves exactly the way you’d expect. End novella.

Much better – and even a contender for my favorite Wayward Child, alongside Across the Green Grass Fields – was Lost in the Moment and Found, in which a young girl loses her father, gains a stepfather and, with him, a lot of serious problems. The emotional manipulation and abuse Antsy has to endure hit me right in the heart and so her escape felt very much like a relief. The old curiosity shop where she ends up holds secrets of its own, though, and they make this instalment in the series especially heartbreaking.

P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums

And I finally caught up on my P. Djèlí Clark stuff. I enjoyed this novella as an audiobook and I think that greatly enhanced the experience, what with the accents and all. Set in a steampunky version of New Orleans, we follow Creeper, a teenager living in the streets but dreaming of becoming an airship pirate. Oh and she also has a secret that could come in handy with that plan.

As always, I love Clark’s writing, the way he sets a scene and brings it to life so easily. Creeper is a great protagonist and discovering this world and the secrets it holds through her eyes was a pleasure. The plot did get a bit convoluted for a novella, or maybe I had trouble concentrating well enough with the audio version, but I felt like I lost track around the middle of who was looking for whom for what reason. At the end, everything came together really well and the book was well worth the listen. But compared to the masterwork that is Ring Shout, I had to take off one star.

Nghi Vo – When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Chih and Almost Brilliant are at it again. “It” being the discovery of interesting and beautiful stories that their land has to offer, that is. This time, there are tigers involved, and it’s every bit as magical as you expect.
I adored The Empress of Salt and Fortune and I am so happy that Nghi Vo continued this series of novellas (Her novel Siren Queen and I didn’t get along quite as well, I’m sad to say). But these stories are as gorgeous as their Alissa Wynans covers, filled with mythology and magic and women that can also be tigers. Entering these novellas is like jumping into a new world, one with wonders to discover on every page, and stories to unfold. Stories that are slightly different, it turns out, depending on who tells them.
I don’t have much more to say than this is another excellent story in the Singing Hills Cycle and I look forward to the next one.

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Women of Tooth and Claw: Kelly Barnhill – When Women Were Dragons (#WyrdandWonder)

This is the second time this year (and ever) that Kelly Barnhill managed to blow me away. I have only discovered her recently through her novella The Crane Husband, and while it seems like she’s working through some of the same things in this novel, I felt that it even surpassed the novella in skill. When you expect a certain thing from the synopsis and end up both getting what was promised but also so much more, that means the book is a winner. I won’t be able to get this out of my head for a long time and I wish I had read it in time for Hugo nominations. Because, boy, does this one deserve an award or three!

by Kelly Barnhill

Published: Hot Key Books, 2022
eBook: 430 pages
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I was four years old when I first met a dragon. 

Learn about the Mass Dragoning of 1955 in which 300,000 women spontaneously transform into dragons…and change the world.

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant event: The Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales and talons, left a trail of fiery destruction in their path, and took to the skies. Seemingly for good. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved Aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.

I sometimes find it entertaining to read only negative reviews of books that I really, really like. Not only because it’s interesting to see how people can receive one and the same thing in such different ways, but also to see if I’m perhaps wearing pink-tinted glasses and missing something about the novel that isn’t quite as perfect. When the book holds up, despite me reading what other people criticize, that is a clear indicator that I’ve got a new favorite on my hands. If I end up agreeing with the critiques or if I notice that I’ve glossed over some things I should have caught, I’ll obviously still like the book but my feelings will be more temperate. This book, dear readers, goes in the first category and here is why.

The main story follows a girl named Alex Green from a very early age, told in first person looking back at her life as a (presumably) adult or even old woman. It begins when she is four and has neither words nor concepts to understand or express the things she witnesses and feels. In between the Alex chapters, we get snippets of scientific papers, about this thing called dragoning, and the Mass Dragoning of 1955, in particular. Alex tells us her life story, leading up to the fateful events of that day in the mid-fifties, when all of a sudden, thousands and thousands of wives and mothers stopped whatever they were doing, shed their skin and turned into literal dragons. Some ate their husbands, some incinerated the building they were in, others just flew away. But what they all have in common is that they leave a gaping hole where a woman used to be, one that the remaining family and friends are ill-equipped to handle. Add to that the government’s efforts to suppress any mention of the Mass Dragoning. It becomes an unmentionable thing, something that makes people blush, something everyone would rather pretend didn’t happen.
And that’s how Alex ends up with a sister that used to be her cousing, but now has always been her sister. And what do you mean, her aunt? She’s never had an aunt, certainly not one called Aunt Marla, who fixes cars like a pro, flew planes during the War, and was a solid rock in Alex’s life when her own mother got very sick and went away for a while… No, no, there are no aunts and Beatrice has always been Alex’s little sister.

I love so many things about this book, it’s hard to choose where to start. But I suppose as it’s her story, I’ll begin with Alex Green, that wonderful, self-aware, and yet so flawed but loveable protagonist. Not only do we see her grow up during eventful times, but she manages to live through some serious hardships, and mostly without the help of others. The way she cares about her cousin/sister Beatrice and the unfair way the world (though mostly her father) treats them, was so well written that I felt every word viscerally. I admit this book made me cry on several occasions, but most of all when I thought about all the ways Alex wasn’t allowed to be a regular child, wasn’t allowed to be herself – re: her friendship with Sonja that she definitely wants to be more than just friendship – and was constantly told where people like her (women) belonged. Who cares that she’s a genius in school, like her mother was before her? A university degree isn’t going to help her get a husband, and what good does a maths degree do her when it comes to folding laundry and cooking dinners? Ah right, the good old 1950ies…

Which leads me to the next thing that was brilliantly done. Mind you, this is what several other readers didn’t like, as they found it over the top. To me, the descriptions of casual everyday sexism, both systemic and on a smaller scale social level, felt all too believable and realistic. There are several characters in this book that I read as lesbian and in all such cases, they were treated as abnormal and “why can’t you just marry a nice guy like everyone else” seemed to be the “solution” to their “problem”. But you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community to have a hard time in this story. Simply being a girl is enough too. Like when the teachers hide the fact that you scored highest in a school-wide test, in order not to dampen the boys’ spirits when they see they were beaten by a girl. That and myriad other ways of sexism, oppression, even phyiscal violance, made the setting and era of this book so compelling, but also so painful to read.
I also adored the scientific asides we get to read about dragonings, as they shed a light on what may have caused such a thing in all these women. I don’t want to give too much away, but there were a million little ways that made me love Kelly Barnhill’s writing here. Whether it’s the fact that not only AFAB people could dragon but also what is here called “women by choice”, very young girls, and post-menopausal women; or the fact that the longer we follow Alex, the more we learn about the biological and psychological backgrounds of dragoning; the way we learn that earlier knowledge was only partially correct or just plain wrong. It lends and air of realism to this frankly bizarre idea that makes it feel completely normal to imagine a prom where a girl just grows wings and scales and takes off into the freedome she would otherwise be denied.

What starts out as a bonkers idea, a thinly-veiled metaphor for female rage, turns into a quite beautiful story. The reviewers who complained that “they’re feminists but this is just too much” may have disliked how Kelly Barnhill (at first!) describes these women literally breaking free from the constraints of their lives. It’s not a coincidence that in the Mass Dragoning, many of the dead or left behind husbands had been cheating, physically violent, or both. But Barnhill also shows us that there’s much more to her metaphor than simple rage.

While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been.

The suppression of knowledge is another big theme in this book, because without it, the country wouldn’t have been in half as much trouble as it ended up in. Much like sex or anything to do with the menstrual cycle, people in this book would rather pretend that these things don’t exist or at least aren’t talked about. Which obviously leads to people being shocked and surprised by what their own bodies can (and will) do.
Later in the book comes a point where it becomes impossible to pretend dragonings don’t happen, and what the world does instead of pretending they don’t exist, is treat dragons as outcasts, as dirty, dangerous, sick or something to be endured but certainly not accepted. I don’t know if that was Kelly Barnhill’s intention, but I kept thinking of the queer community when I read certain scenes and how small-minded people talked about dragons. Lesson: knowledge is good. Let’s not suppress it.
My notes on this book also say Librarians are the best and I’ll just leave that here without further explanation. 🙂

It all comes together beautifully in the end, and it does so while endearing these characters to us in a slow burn way that I didn’t see coming. I cried at the end because, although it’s not sugarcoated in any way, it is the perfect way for this story to go. And although in our universe, people can’t turn into dragons, I would wish for us to learn a little bit from this one.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Bring On the Cozy Fantasies: Sangu Mandanna – The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

It comes as no surprise to anyone having lived through these last few years of pandemic madness that Cozy SFF (TM) seems to reign supreme at the moment. Books like Legends & Lattes would not have been as successful when Grimdark was all the rage, T. Kingfisher wasn’t well known then at all and some of us (cough, I might have been one of those “some”) would probably have complained about the slow plot or the lack of stakes. But it appears that the collective mood is asking for more fantasy with low stakes, more cozy mysteries set in space, more found families, more guaranteed happy endings. Sangu Mandanna has added her voice to the cozy cult and – boring as that sounds – I have to say I loved it.

by Sangu Mandanna

Published: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022
301 pages
10 hours, 5 minutes
My rating:

Opening Line: The Very Secret Society of Witches met on the third Thursday of every third month, but that was just about the only thing that never changed.

A warm and uplifting novel about an isolated witch whose opportunity to embrace a quirky new family—and a new love—changes the course of her life.

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos “pretending” to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.

But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn’t the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for….

I believe whether or not this book works for a reader is very much a question of expectations. As with the recent hit Legends & Lattes, the stakes are pretty low, or to put it better, you kind of know things are going to work out at the end. But isn’t that the same way with romance movies? You know from the start the couple will end up happily together and still you take pleasure in watching how they get there. This book was very much like that, except not quite as predictable and with a very nice slow burn romance that surprised me at times.

Mika Moon is a witch and, as such, lives a rather lonely life. Witches, you see, are not allowed to gather too much lest their powers go bananas and do harm. But in our modern world, it’s easy enough for a real witch to be a pretend-witch on YouTube and express herself that way. When Mika is hired by someone who saw her videos and kind of gathered her pretense wasn’t pretense at all, she takes on a job that is both dangerous, forbidden, and completely new to Mika. She is supposed to take care and teach three young girls how to control their wild magic. Never mind that three witches shouldn’t live together, let alone three untrained witches whose magic could burst out of them in a fit of emotion and do all sorts of damage. It turns out these three witches are lovely girls and Mika can’t helpt but accept the job. And so starts a tale of found family, sisterly love (and fights), and even a tender romance with the gruff librarian Jamie.

Sorry for making yet another comparison, but what follows is in the same vein – although quite its own thing – as The House In the Cerulean Sea. We follow Mika get to know the inhabitants of the aptly named (because warded like crazy) Nowhere House, learns what it is like to live with other people, people who take care of each other and, by extension, also take care of her. We the readers, in turn, learn about Mika’s past, a bit about how magic works, and we get to follow how Jamie and Mika get ever closer to each other, quite against their will.

I loved everything about this book and cozy is exactly the right word to describe it. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of danger or situations where I wondered how they would get out of trouble. But I was never truly worried that something irrevocably bad would happen. The fact that the journey to the happy end was exciting and fun and heartwarming just showcases Sangu Mandanna’s skill as a writer.
Speaking of skill: I listened to the audiobook version of this and I have to mention the masterful job Samara MacLaren did. I loved her calm, beautiful narration, the accents she did (never overdone, just right) and the different voices she gave the characters.

My flirtation with cozy fantasy is far from over and while my TBR is brimming with books that fit the subgenre, I do hope Sangu Mandanna will treat us to another one just like this.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

#WyrdandWonder Prompt: Witchy Cover Art

I love a good list, especially when I can use the prompt to push some of my favorite books on you guys.

Here are some great reads that also happen to have at least one edition with some gloriously witchy cover art.

Gideon/Harrow/Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Artwork by Tommy Arnold

A necromancer is a type of witch, right? So this totally counts! And while Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series really doesn’t need my recommendation, I wanted to mention it because of my journey with this series. See, I was one of the very few people who did not like Gideon the Ninth, who, in fact, thought it was messily plotted, too ambitious, didn’t spend enough time on the world building or developing the characters (other than Gideon herself), and so on. Then I read Harrow and, despite my prejduices, liked it. And Nona just completely swept me off my feet and turned me into a fan.
I am so, so glad about that because as much as I enjoy writing a ranty review, I would always much rather love a book than hate it. And it’s so much more fun being part of the fans than looking at them from the outside, not understanding what they see in a given book.

And because this is about cover art – props to Tommy Arnold who does a magnificent job on the covers. They are beautiful, they are funny, they depict the characters so well. I’d call them pretty much perfect.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Okay, one of these covers does not, technically, have witches on it, but I like both of them so much, I couldn’t choose. And it’s, yet again, a book I heartily recommend you read. What if the suffragist movement was made up of witches, what if witchcraft lived in women in secret, in all the little things we used to do that men considered beneath them? Alix Harrow asks these questions and then some in this beautiful tale of three sisters who are as different as can be, but who prove that family is family, always.

The covers were done by Lisa Marie Pompilio and the inimitable Rovina Cai, respectively.

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

Depending on how you see Vasya, the protagonist if this amazing trilogy, you could say there’s a witch on each of these stunning covers. Katherine Arden dives into medieval Russia where she follows a young girl who can see the spirits that people used to believe in, and befriends them. Meanwhile, Christianity is threatening to take over and push these household spirits and old deities to the sidelines. Vasya gets caught in a religious and a very real war in this atmospheric, magical series that I couldn’t put down. I love these books so much, I bought multiple editions of them.

The artist who created these beauties is Robert Hunt.

Tiffany Aching by Terry Pratchett

I adore the witches of Lancre and I adore the next generation of witches on the Discworld just as much. While Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg always make for eye-catching covers, I chose Tiffany Aching for this prompt because I not only like her covers as such, but also how she ages on them.

The art by Paul Kidby is much more my style than the older Discworld covers (iconic though they may be). Looking at these all lined up neatly makes me tear up a bit, to be honest. What a story, what a wonderful author, what a wonderful person. You know what, read the Terry Pratchett biography as well. I did a few months ago and cried my eyes out. Why shouldn’t you guys feel that same pain, after all?

Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

If we’re being nitpicky, only Agnieszka on the cover of Uprooted is really a witch, but I loved both books and I really like how the covers go together (even though I have the more simplistic UK covers myself). Both of these are fairytale-esque books, but with a flavor all their own. In Uprooted, Agnieszka is surprisingly chosen by the local dragon (who’s really a man) as his apprentice witch, and they have to fight a super sinister evil forest. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Also, although the romance might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I thought this had one of the best kiss scene I’ve ever read.
Spinning Silver starts out as a Rumpelstiltskin retelling (very loosely based on the fairy tale), but veers into epic fantasy territory. I had some quibbles about the use of POV but overall, I adored this and its romances as well.

Artist Scott McKowen did these lovely, scratchy illustrations that depict the characters and key elements of the stories so well.

And that’s it for my witchy cover art. I’m sure there are many more books that fit on my TBR, but I wanted to pick ones I’ve already read and could recommend wholeheartedly. Now. On to the next witchy prompt.

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Low Fantasy, High Yearning: Alexandra Rowland – A Taste of Gold and Iron (#WyrdAndWonder Review)

Recommendations are a difficult thing to trust because each of us readers finds different things interesting and while “slow burn romance” is generally understood to be a straightforward trope, there’s slow burn and there’s slow burn. I am a fan of the true slow burn, where characters not only wait until they kiss or get physical but fall in insta-love (or insta-lust), but actually get to know and like and love each other slowly. Alexandra Rowland has delivered exactly my kind of slow burn M/M romance with this book. It wasn’t the first of theirs I bought, but it is the first I finally read, and now I can’t wait to check out their back titles.

by Alexandra Rowland

Published: Tordotcom, 2022
Hardback: 512 pages
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Halfway through his twenty-fifth year, and to his acute relief, Prince Kadou became an uncle.

The Goblin Emperor meets “Magnificent Century” in Alexandra Rowland’s A Taste of Gold and Iron, where a queer central romance unfolds in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire.

Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen’s new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.

To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arasht, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom’s financial standing and bring about its ruin.

Prince Kadou is a shy, worried young man who couldn’t be happier that his place in line to the throne has gone down since the birth of his niece, Eyne. Not only doesn’t he want the responsibility of his princedom, but he most certainly doesn’t want the responsibility of becoming sultan one day. No, no, let his sister Zeliha have that dubious pleasure any day. Kadou has enough on his hands as is, what with a break-in at the shipbuilder’s guild that needs to be investigated, and his relationship to one of his kalyahar. And his niece’s body-father and current lover of his sister, Siranos, isn’t too fond of Kadou either…

Alexandra Rowland has created a very interesting world with just a hint of magic but a lot of intriguing social structures. If you’re looking for an intricate magic system, this is not the right book for you. Some people have the ability to sense the purity of metals, a skill that is mostly used to verify if coins are actually gold or mixed with other, lesser metals. And there are rare people with the ability to tell if someone is lying – highly useful, if you can find one of these satyota.

The book begins somewhat clumsily with a first chapter that feels much too filled with information to grasp it all, but Rowland finds their pace quickly and proceeds beautifully from there. The setup in chapter one does all the heavy lifting you need to understand the characters’ motivations better and leaves us all the more time to get to know them and watch them grow into themselves.
First and foremost, we meet Kadou, this prince who’d really much rather be just a regular guy. He weighs every decision heavily, constantly questions himself, worries that he is nothing but a burden on everyone else, and generally doesn’t enjoy being prince. Meet his newest kahya (close bodyguards/servants) Evemer, star pupil, just promoted into the core-guard of the palace. It is an honor to serve the prince, yet Evemer is not too pleased because it is just that prince who is responsible for the deaths of two kahyalar, and as far as Evemer has heard, it’s because the prince is careless and flighty. Their relationship does not start on the best of terms, to say the least, but this being a fantasy romance, we all know things are bound to change.

What follows may not be everyone’s cup of tea, depending on how you like your pacing. This isn’t just a slow burn romance, but it’s nto a book that is overly filled with action in general. I enjoyed every single chapter – the POV alternates between Kadou and Evemer – and simply discovering who these characters were and how this world worked. I have to say I didn’t expect to fall so hard for some side characters, but they really grow on you. Be it Zeliha, sultan and sister and lover, demonstrating strength and wisdom at every turn, yet remaining utterly human at the same time; or the commander of the kahyalar, Eozena, who is like a mother figure to Kadou and Zeliha, but at the same time serves them. And of course Tadek, Kadou’s former lover and core-guard, now demoted due to the happenings of that first chapter. I thought I had all of them figured out from the start, but each of them offers surprises along the way and shows more personality than expected.

The romance evolves beautifully and believably. It’s one thing to find someone attractive, and Evemer’s initial dislike for the prince keeps him even from admitting how gorgeous he finds him for a while. But it’s another to appreciate someone for who they are. Their relationship builds steadily, with each little adventure they survive together, some social situations that make clearer why they are the way they are, with shared moments and secrets – first they become friends, then they can’t deny that there’s more to it than that. So yes, it was the perfect slow burn romance for me and I could have watched these two dance around each other for another 100 pages, easily.

What makes this book special is that Rowland adresses something very real and important – the power dynamics between royalty and their servant! Kadou being incredibly aware of (and uncomfortable with) his power knows that the men and women sworn to him may feel obliged to do certain things to please him, against their own wishes. So starting a relationship with a subordinate will never feel real to him, because as much as they may tell him it’s their own will, he’ll never be certain. Rowland manages to deal with that problem beautifully.
Kadou also suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks and I found the representation very well done, although that is of course something everyone will have to judge for themselves. I am no stranger to anxiety and the kind of intrusive thoughts Kadou has to deal with, and I loved how he changes and grows over the course of the novel, but his anxiety doesn’t vanish simply because it would have made for a neat ending. Well done, Alexandra Rowland!

See, when a book has great characters and a well-done romance, there is no need for a lot of plot. I had so much fun reading this (the dialogue is also excellent, by the way) and wouldn’t mind a companion novel set in this world. Until the gods or Alexandra Rowland hear my wishes, I will just pick up their debut, A Conspiracy of Truths.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

ETA: Edited to reflect the author’s chosen pronouns.

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

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.

by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
208 pages
Wayward Children #6
My rating:

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!

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.

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

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.

by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021
336 pages
9 hours 55 minutes
Wayfarers #4
My rating:

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!