Tansy Rayner Roberts – Glass Slipper Scandal

I found this book by accident. Tansy Rayner Roberts had offered a free copy of one of her books (Musketeer Space) so I browsed through her books on Goodreads a bit, discovered this one’s awesome cover, looked up what it was about and immediately got it. Turns out, Roberts (of whom I’ve only read Love and Romanpunk before) is writing a sort of fairy tale series which you can listen to for free. As I’m writing this, the ebook version is also free on Smashwords. So go get your copy now!

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2016
Ebook:  50 pages
Series: Castle Charming #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “The best thing about magical ink,” said Amira, “is that it smells different to everyone.

Charming is a kingdom where fairy tales come true, which has been bad news for its troubled royal family, but good news for the gutter press that thrives on the scandals and gossip provided by their teenage Princes Gone Wild. Kai is a rookie reporter at the Charming Herald. Dennis is a new Royal Hound, charged with protecting the self-destructive princes from disaster.
Disaster arrives in a pumpkin coach… The story of the century will be wearing glass slippers… and Castle Charming will never be the same again.

As you may guess from the wonderful cover and title, this novella (novelette?) takes the piss of fairy tales as well as newspapers. There are several main characters, but the first we meet is Kai, a brand new journalist who’s looking for the story of the century. And that story will quite naturally involve the royal twin brothers, who are always good for a riveting headline and a front page picture. With the Autumnal Fling coming up – an occasian that is sure to leave at least one of the princes engaged to an eligible princess – you don’t have to wait long for the first news-worthy scandal.

But the story also follows Dennis, who is assigned to Royal Prince Guarding Duty with his stone-faced (and hilarious) partner Corporal Jack. And we get to see the upcoming social event of the year through the eyes of one of the many princesses, Ziyi of Xix, who hopes to break free of her life through marriage. The story flows quite naturally from there. With two princes who like to get drunk and party, an ambitious princess, an equally ambitious young journalist, and a royal guard, you know hilarity will ensue.

I loved the writing so much. It’s quirky and fun and super quick to read. The world building is done effortlessly through dialogue, the chapter headings are all newspaper headlines, and the characters – while not super three-dimensional – are nice and varied. Both Dennis and Kai are gay and seem to develop a thing for each other, Corporal Jack is pure excellence, and Ziyi is far more than just another princess trying to snag a rich prince.

The plot moves fast, maybe a bit too fast. I would love a longer version of this story (and whatever sequeles Tansy Rayner Roberts decides to write), but as a nice comfort read for an afternoon at home, this was perfect. There’s an interesting back story that builds on familiar fairy tales, and Castle Charming is a place where magic is bound to happen and where fairy tale tropes have become a thing you expect. Plus, the world holds many more things to discover. The magical ink mentioned in the very first sentence is just one of them. Through Kai and Ziyi, it becomes obvious that, although this takes place around Castle Charming, the world is a big place and there are other countries and cultures yet to discover.

Tansy Rayner Roberts has written a lovely spin on fairy tales, peopled with her own characters in her own world, and I for one can’t wait to discover what the second volume, Dance, Princes, Dance holds in store. And then I’d like at least ten more tales in this universe, please.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Second opinions:

#ReadDiverse2017 – An Update and a TBR Pile

I am so happy I found the Read Diverse 2017 Challenge! I have been reading and reviewing books for this challenge since January and have discovered so many new authors, books, and bloggers.

Normally, I am super motivated to read all the books for a challenge right away but then I lose interest. Not so with this challenge! Because the goal isn’t to read one type of book or genre but simply to take a closer look at the authors and books you want to read anyway.  Turns out – and I’m sure this is true for most people with a big TBR – I didn’t even have to buy new books for this challenge (although I did anyway) because many of my unread books were written by marginalised authors and featured diverse characters. And because the experience has been so much fun, I wanted to share the books I’ve read for the challenge and the books I have lined up for the next few months with you guys. May your wishlists grow.

What I’ve read so far

I have read a total of 16 books in 2017 so far, five of which were written by LGBTQI authors and/or featured LGBTQI characters. Five books were written by Authors of Color and/or featured POC main characters. Two books had protagonists with a disability, and five were #ownvoices books.
There was oviously quite a bit of overlap and in reality, I read only 10 books for this challenge so far. But 10 out of 16 is a pretty amazing ratio if you ask me.

And for anyone who believes that I am changing my reading habits or forcing myself to read certain books for the sake of diversity, I can only say that all of these books (except for Peter Darling which I discovered through the challenge) were already on my TBR and I would have read them anyway. The Read Diverse 2017 challenge only pushed them a bit further up on my TBR pile, that’s all.

Here are my diverse reads so far, all of which I would recommend. My full reviews can be found behind the links.

  • Emma Donoghue – Kissing the Witch
    A short story collection retelling fairy tales, most of which feature lesbian protagonists, and all of which focus on women.
  • Zoraida Córdova – Labyrinth Lost
    This book is a wonderful story about a young girl, dealing with her cultural heritage, her place in her family and witchcraft. After messing things up she tries to fix her dire situation. Incudes a trip to the underworld with a fantastic bisexual protagonist.
  • Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows
    Not so much a heist story as a character study of six amazing, diverse, and absolutely lovable protagonists. Kaz is disabled and walks with a cane, Inej is dark-skinned, and I suspect (though don’t know yet) that at least one character is gay. I loved all of them!
  • Mishell Baker – Borderline
    This is such an amazing book. Millie is a double amputee after her attempted suicide who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. She also starts to work for the secret Arcadia Project which polices the traffic between our world and Fairyland. And it’s set in Hollywood. Everything about this book was perfect.
  • S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist
    A retelling of The Little Mermaid that gets really dark and broke my heart into a million pieces. The protagonist is a lesbian who falls in love with a “mermaid” and trades her voice for fins. But trust me, it’s much better and more sinister than I make it sound.
  • Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours
    A story collection by the brilliant Helen Oyeyemi that features a diverse cast of characters, most of all highlighting women. I didn’t love all the stories but the collection overall was solid.
  • Marissa Meyer – Wires and Nerve
    Meyer’s first graphic novel, set after the Lunar Chronicles, finally gives Iko her own story. The protagonist android loves her body (which is a Woman of Color) and she deals with questions of identity, feelings, and friendship. It’s a lovely, quick comfort read and I need the sequel now!
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest
    Valente’s characters in this book may not all be bisexual, but pretty much everyone sleeps with everyone in this luscious tale of a sexually transmitted city. There are no graphic or particularly steamy sex scenes here, but instead there are breathtaking descriptions of Palimpsest. The language and imagery are stunning, but you should like flowery prose if you pick this up.
  • Austin Chant – Peter Darling
    What if Peter Pan grew up as Wendy Darling? In this very short novel, Peter is a transgender man who comes back to Neverland as an adult. To my utter delight, he and Hook fall in love. I had some problems with this book (there was just not enough of it) but overall, I enjoyed it.
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home
    I adored Okorafor’s Binti and couldn’t wait for this sequel. Binti, who has run away from home to study at a university far away from her home planet, has returned. She has to deal with her own identity, her past, her family’s culture and the life she wants for herself. The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it ends on a pretty mean cliffhanger. Review to come.

What’s on my TBR

I have SO MANY BOOKS! Seriously, there is no shortage of diverse books in my home, but I do have a few lined up that I want to read very soon.

  • Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit
    I’m already reading this and as much as the beginning tried to break my brain, I am completely in love with it now and can’t wait to find out how the story continues. If you start reading this, please don’t give up. Push through the first chapters and you will be rewarded!
  • S. Jae-Jones – Wintersong
    I am not sure if I will finish this book. I read half of it and it’s a huge disappointment. A whiny heroine who wallows in self-pity, a bland “romance”, and no plot to speak of. Maybe I’ll write something even if I DNF this book… we’ll see. For now, it’s on hiatus.
  • Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere
    This book just sounds soooo good. Time travel, maps, a biracial protagonist, a romance, and ships! Plus, the sequel is out already (I think), so if I love it I won’t have to wait for the next book.
  • N. K. Jemisin – The Obelisk Gate
    I actually saved this book up because I know it will ruin any book that is unfortunate enough to follow it. Jemisin is a phenomenal writer and this world is her most complex and ambitious yet. The cast ist effortlessly diverse and Jemisin’s writing is always stunning.
  • Rhoda Belleza – Empress of a Thousand Skies
    I’m a bit on the fence about this but people have said it has lots of diverse characters and a fast-moving plot. So I hope this book leaves away all the YA tropes and delivers an exciting space adventure.
  • Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles
    I’ve wanted to read this for ages but somehow, every time I choose a new book to read this one slips my mind. Must remember this time.
  • Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett – Dragon Soul
    I love this series so much! The first book told (among other plot lines) a beautiful romance between two very different men, and all the characters are superb. Can’t wait to continue reading about this world of steampunk dragons, and the crazy people who fly them.
  • Caitlín R. Kiernan – Agents of Dreamland
    I love everything Kiernan writes and most things Tor.com publishes, so this is a book that is practically a guaranteed hit.
  • Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
    I am SO behind on this series. The first book was my favorite the year it came out but then I never caught up with the sequels. It’s time to rectify that situation! If you don’t know this series, it’s about a former space ship AI, now existing in one human body, who uses all-female pronouns because it’s an AI and doesn’t know or care about gender. Also, it’s a super exciting space adventure with amazing characters.

The way I know myself, this reading plan will probably be thrown away pretty fast, especially with the amount of exciting recommendations this reading challenge produces. But then, I read for fun. So I’ll do my best to stick by this TBR but if I stray, so be it. 🙂

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Austin Chant – Peter Darling

I stumbled across this book via the Read Diverse Books challenge and because it’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan with a grown-up Peter who falls for Hook, I had to read it. While I thought the story had several problems with plot, pacing, and the ending, there were some truly enjoyable parts. Plus, it’s a really quick read if you’re looking for a short retelling of a beloved children’s classic.

peter-darlingPETER DARLING
by Austin Chant

Published by: Less Than Three Press, 2017
Ebook: 164 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: James Hook was bored.

Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

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This book is both a sequel and a sort of retelling of the original Peter Pan. Peter is returning to Neverland after spending ten years in the real world. He is grown-up, he wishes to forget everything that happened in London, and simply wants to return to being the proud and insolent youth we all know. But Neverland has changed, as have the Lost Boys, as has Captain Hook.

The first few chapters deal with Peter finding the Lost Boys at peace with the pirates, and with their new leader Ernest, a quiet and thoughtful young man. He also finds Hook, bored out of his mind, and ready to rekindle the war between them. This part of the story was my least favorite. It felt like the story didn’t know what it wanted to accomplish, the pacing was incredibly off, switching between not-so-well written action scenes and boring moments without any impact on the overall story arc. Additionally, we are told Peter is ten years older, but he still acts exactly like the original Peter Pan, the child who would not grow up. So the dialogue felt jarring at times and I had trouble imagining a 20-something man (or even a 16-year-old) saying the things he says and behaving the way he does. But what has always made Peter into who he is was his power to forget. The fairies take care of that and give him back his memories – and that’s when the Peter of this book began to feel like a proper character.

With Peter’s reemerging memories come a few flashbacks to what happened during his ten years at home. Peter grew up as Wendy Darling, making up stories of who he really is, the magical boy Peter Pan. The flashbacks were so short and far between that I wasn’t sure why they were included at all. Each scene was over before it could begin properly and, yes, the gist of it (Peter Pan being a transgender man) gets through, but there was no time to really understand what Peter’s life was like. It felt very superficial – maybe parts of those scenes were cut during editing for whatever reason, but all the flashbacks felt like they were cut in half. Either make them proper scenes or even full chapters, or leave them away completely. Personally, I would have liked to find out more about Peter’s life in London.

peter-darling

The Neverland plot also takes a considerable time to get rolling. At first, it’s all exposition and fighting Hook, running away, fighting Hook again, talking to the Lost Boys, and getting to know Ernest, their new leader. I was also quite confused about Ernest as a character. I immediately liked him and felt he had a lot of potential, especially in balancing impulsive and battle-eager Pan. But he was only really present for the beginning of the story (and shortly at the end), but had no actual role to play. Again, either use the character or leave him out completely. The way it is, a great character was wasted… unless there’s a sequel planned which will feature him more prominently. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

The real heart of this story, for me, was the romance between Hook and Pan. Once these two are stuck together and have to kind of get along to survive, that’s when I got really interested. Their relationship was intriguing and tense and need I mention how much I love Hook?  It was especially his humor and his confidence that made him shine as a character. Peter also got a chance to grow as a person and understand his own feelings a bit better, but Hook stole the show on every page. Their romance was really well done and I loved reading about these two people realising how they felt about each other.

The writing was competent, but there were moments when it drifted and got really bad. The best written scenes were the ones filled with sexual tension between Hook and Pan. The battle scenes were boring to read and felt more like a transcript of a movie scene. Some of Peter’s moments of introspection made me cringe. They read like a child’s journal entry rather than a proper narration. As for the descriptions of Neverland and Peter’s surroundings, I felt like the author was trying to be poetic but the effort showed too much, so most metaphors fall falt for me. On the other hand, the dialogue was fun to read, and each character had their own distinct voice. Hook was definitely the shining star, in every possible aspect.

Another interesting thing that didn’t get nearly enough time to be explored was Neverland itself as well as its inhabitants. Austin Chant turned the Neverland fairies into insect-like creatures, although they are never fully described. But add a few too many eyes here, a couple of antennae there, a creature with lots of legs, and you get the idea. I loved that he came up with something new to make Neverland feel interesting, instead of just going with the world created by J. M. Barrie. But the fairies and a story about an old pirate captain are the only original additions to the world building. And, much like the flashbacks, they weren’t present nearly enough for my taste. See, there’s good stuff here, just never enough of it, which makes me kind of happy (because yay, good stuff) but also disappointed (what, that was it?).

Without spoiling anything, I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt rushed and didn’t adress some open questions that are really important to both protagonists. With a story that actually took care to show things aren’t black and white, that explores complicated relationships and features a protagonist still so unsure about himself, the ending felt like a cop-out, a happy end for the sake of a happy end, but without showing us how things work out. Maybe Chant is leaving room for a sequel, in which case I’d be more forgiving for ending Peter Darling this half-heartedly.

Because of the romance, the amazing James Hook, and the bits of original worldbuilding, I quite enjoyed this read. But I don’t feel the urge to pick up any of the author’s other books. If he writes something longer, where he takes more time to explore his characters and scenes, and where the pacing is a bit more balanced, then you can count me in.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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My First Favorite of the Year: Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.

bear-and-the-nightingaleTHE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

palimpsest-origPALIMPSEST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

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Cute but unoriginal: Alethea Kontis – Trixter

I have many feelings about Alethea Kontis’ Woodcutter Sisters series. The first two books were adorable, enchanting, and just total feel-good reads. The third book was a big mess. Which is probably why the author’s contract for the rest of the series didn’t get renewed and she started writing spin-off adventures about the Woodcutter’s young brother Trix. This book is a cute middle grade adventure that didn’t offer many new things and is rather weak, but still kind of nice. You know… for a lazy afternoon when you don’t know what else to read.

trixterTRIXTER
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Alethea Kontis, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Trix Adventures #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Trix Woodcutter ignored the twinges in his belly and the ache in his heart as he raced across the meadow.

Trix Woodcutter is the long prophesied Boy Who Talks to Animals. He’s also a foundling prankster scamp who places his family under a sleeping spell so that he can run away from home. Compelled by a vision of his dead birthmother, Trix departs on the eve of a Great Catastrophe, only to find himself caught in the maelstrom. Armed with little more than his wits and the wisdom inherent in all fey-blooded youth, Trix confronts a legendary Animal King, faces off against a ghostly feline, rescues a damsel in distress, and discovers more about himself than he ever wished to know.

And this adventure is only the beginning.

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Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

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Overhyped and disappointing: Stephanie Garber – Caraval

See, the thing about books that are as overhyped as this one is that the disappointment when it’s not a great book (or not even a good one) is felt all the more keenly. This may have been a neat idea in the author’s head, but the execution is a disaster. This is a book just like its protagonist: pretty on the outside, absolutely vapid and without personality on the inside.

caravalCARAVAL
by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
Hardback: 402 pages
Series: Caraval #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: It took seven years to get the letter right.
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S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

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There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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