Eternally hopeful: Mishell Baker – Phantom Pains

It’s no secret that I usually steer away from Urban Fantasy. But that only means the type of Urban Fantasy with scantily clad women on the cover, usually looking over their shoulder, carrying some kind of weapon, and with the title written over their wrapped-in-leather butt. But Mishell Baker makes Urban Fantasy so much fun! Even with the most broken (literally) heroine you can imagine, The Arcadia Project series takes you on wild adventures and leaves you just hopeful of the future, whatever it may bring.

PHANTOM PAINS
by Mishell Baker

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Here’s the thing about PTSD: it doesn’t understand the rules.

Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.

Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Millie Roper has a job, regular therapy sessions, and her life mostly under control. After her adventures with the Arcadia Project, a bit of routine seems like just the thing to make her forget what she’s seen, and who she’s lost. But – as stories go – she is dragged back into Arcadia business soon enough where she has to fix a whole new mess. And of course she wouldn’t be Millie if she didn’t add an extra layer of messiness to an already difficult situation. But that’s exactly what makes these books so much fun.

Phantom Pains picks up only a few months after the end of Borderline and while Millie is still struggling with her old demons and disablities (prosthetic legs, BPD, plus the newly-added PTSD), she is still the Millie I fell in love with. The hopeful one who knows herself all too well and doubts her every emotion, but believes in herself when it counts. She combines intelligence, humor, and pragmatism in the most sympathetic way and I hope I’ll get to read many more books featuring her. If more Urban Fantasy progatonists were like Millie, I’d actually read the damn things.

But Millie’s life has changed in another major way since we last saw her. She knows and is in contact with her Echo, Claybriar, and as much as I love their relationship, it is super complicated! If, after her suicide attempt, Millie hadn’t been put together with metal screws and plates, she wouldn’t be Ironbones – basically poison to the fey but also WHAT A COOL NAME. Touching Claybriar, which she desperately wants to do, hurts him and also makes his facade disappear, showing him for the faun he really is. To say that their relationship is interesting is a huge understatement. Add to that the fact that they both sleep with other people (non-romantically), plus Millie’s complex relationship with Caryl, and you’ve got the makings of a thrilling story, even without the added crazy magic.

This book advances a lot more than just Millie as a character, though. The entire world of the Arcadia Project opens up, introducing us to the head of the Project herself, as well as some very high up people from Arcadia. I had a blast getting to know these new characters and learning more about the world Baker has created. It’s always appreciated when it’s not just vampires and werewolves but anything else. And if that anything is internally consistent and has some sort of magic-logic to it, all the better.  There are also some huge revelations to do with this particular magic that turn the entire world upside down but which I can’t go into detail because spoilers. But let me tell you, I had a really stupid look on my face when I read that chapter, and I felt about as confused and lost as Millie did.

One thing about side characters: I absolutely loved loved loved Brand! If this book went my way, there would have been an additional 50 chapters, all involving Brand, preferably in combination with Tjuan. He added a weird but delightful sense of humor to the horrible things that were going on. You know, fate of the world at stake and all that, but at least I can laugh about and with Brand. Tjuan was already there in the first book but I really liked how we finally learn a bit more about him and how his character gets more depth. The same goes for Claybriar and Caryl. I don’t want to spoil anything here but even characters that don’t show up a lot feel like real people.

The diversity in this series is amazing! There’s Millie to start with, but everyone working for the Arcadia Project usually has some sort of disability or disorder. In addition, there is an Indian woman and a trans man, and (because I know someone is going to say it) it’s not ticking off diversity points from a list. It feels organic and normal and wonderful simply because the characters are all different, and all in different ways. Whether it’s a schizophrenic POC, or an Indian straight woman, or a bisexual woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, these feel like real people to me and I want to get to know every single one of them better. Even the dicks.

The plot was – just as I expected – always entertaining, never shying away from unexpected twists and turns, maybe even more action-packed than in the previous book without sacrificing character development. Pretty amazing, right? The ending was both great and terrifying, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next book, and (if you couldn’t tell already) I’ve come to really care about these characters. However, I am now in for the long haul, and hope that Mishell Baker gets the chance to write at least 10 more Arcadia books. Buy this book, people! You know you want to.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 3)

Here it is, the third and final part of my recommendations for the Read Diverse 2017 challenge. As I mentioned in part 2, these are books and authors on my TBR, so I have no idea if they are any good. But I’ll tell you a little about the books and what made me decide to buy them. Whether it’s a particular buzz word or a setting or a character that drew me in, it may do the same for you.

(even more) diverse authors to read

SILVIA MORENO-GARCÍA

Every book Moreno-García has published so far immediately jumped at me and begged to be read. The reason I still haven’t is that same old tune – too many books, too little time. But I mean, who could resist Mexican noir vampires or a story set in 1980ies Mexico City, involving music and being sold “for fans of Stranger Things”.
Silvia Moreno-García is a Mexican-Canadian writer and she seems to be full of excellent ideas. I’ll definitely be reading Signal to Noise this year and watching out for any new books she publishes.

Books on my TBR: Signal to Noise (I’m including both covers, one of which definitely gives that Stranger Things vibe) and Certain Dark Things.

ROSHANI CHOKSHI

I won’t lie, it’s the covers that drew me in first. But, on closer inspection, it turns out that The Star-Touched Queen is a retelling of the Hades and Persephony myth with a fairy tale flavor. So how could I not buy it? The second book is a companion novel, rather than a sequel which gives Chokshi extra bonus points. Plus, there’s the Book Smugglers story “The Vishakanya’s Choice” which has an Indian setting. Seriously, everything Roshani Chokshi writes sounds up my alley, so I should really get started on reading.
Also, check out her blog – she does make-up based on book covers and characters and it is GORGEOUS!

Books on my TBR: The Star-Touched Queen, its companion A Crown of Wishes and “The Vishakanya’s Choice”.

MIYUKI MIYABE

Miyabe is a Japanese author who writes a lot. In a lot of different genres. And I have actually read one of her books, although it was a novelization of a video game (remember Ico in the Mist, anyone?). Since I really liked the stuff that Miyabe made up, but didn’t like the “retelling” of the game so much, I knew I’d have to try her original fiction. There are gargoyles, sisters saving brothers, and portal fantasies – all things I enjoy. Plus, put a girl with books on the cover and I’m guaranteed to want to read it. I hope that this reading challenge will give me the final nudge to finally pick up one of the books I own and properly discover this author.

Books on my TBR: Brave Story, The Book of Heroes and the recently released The Gate of Sorrows (which is a sequel of sorts so don’t start there).

CORINNE DUYVIS

Much like with Silvia Moreno-García, I have immediately bought Corinne Duyvis’ books when I first discovered them but haven’t read any yet. She is a Dutch author who co-founded and edits Disability in Kidlit (if you don’t know this, definitely check it out) and was herself diagnosed with autism. From what I know of her books, they all feature diverse characters with disabilities and some really original science-fiction/fantasy ideas.
In Otherbound, whenever the main character closes his eyes, he sees through a mute girl’s eyes (and vice versa, I think). On the Edge of Gone sounds darker and more adult with a full-blown apocalypse.

Books on my TBR: Otherbound which features a mute character, and On the Edge of Gone, a post-apocalyptic story with an autustic character.

NICOLA GRIFFITH

Here’s a more established author who I am ashamed to have never read. She has written highly acclaimed novels and a ton of short stories, some of which I own but never seem to get to… My plan is to read Hild this year which not only sounds amazing but also features a bisexual protagonist. Griffith is married to a woman and from the Goodreads tags, I have deduced that pretty much all of her novels feature queer characters.

Books on my TBR: Hild which – from cover to synopsis – pushes all my happy-buttons, Ammonite and Slow River. All standalones. Plus the short story “Cold Wind”.

KAMERON HURLEY

It’s strange because I’ve been reading Hurley’s non-fiction for years now, but I never actually read any of her novels. Most recently, I read her non-fiction collection The Geek Feminist Revolution which exceeded all my expectations and I highly recommend it! But since Hurley always writes interesting female characters, many of whom are queer or bisexual, it’s time I tried one of her novels. I’m unsure whether to start with God’s War, the first of a trilogy, The Mirror Empire (another trilogy starter), or The Stars are Legion, which is a standalone space opera from what Goodreads tells me.

Books on my TBR: The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy and The Mirror Empire.

And just because it’s always fun to have a list of books to look forward to (read: not yet published), here are some diverse titles on my wishlist that will be published later this year:

  • Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
    A bisexual young gentleman’s road trip in the 18th century? With magic? Sign me up!!
  • K. Arsenault Rivera – The Tiger’s Daughter
    Interesting setting, queer protagonist, and a seriously gorgeous cover – that’s all it takes to get me interested.
  • Jy Yang – The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
    Beautiful covers, non-binary author from Singapore, and published by Tor.com – these books are bound to be amazing!
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Wild Beauty
    I just have to read this book. It’s tagged as GLBT on Goodreads, but it was cover and synopsis that did it for me.
  • Julie C. Dao – Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
    East Asian setting, Vietnamese-American author, PLUS a retelling of The Evil Queen legend.
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Beasts Made of Night
    Nigerian-flavored fantasy featuring sin-eaters. Just take my money.
  • Melissa Basherdoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass
    An LGBT fairy tale retelling sold as “Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber” – that’s all I know but that’s totally enough.
  • Aditi Khorana – The Library of Fates
    An Indian author writing a coming-of-age story steeped in Indian folklore. Yes, please!
  • Leena Likitalo – The Five Daughters of the Moon and The Sisters of the Crescent Empire
    A Finnish author writing a Russian-inspired story about the Romanov sisters. Definitely sounds like not-your-average fantasy duology.

 

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 2)

I am so happy that my first recommendations post got such positive feedback. Thank you to everyone who commented – you have no idea how much joy it gives me when others pick up the books I love. I do a little happy dance every time somebody says they’re trying a new-to-them author because I recommended them. So because you guys seemed to like it and I have so many more diverse authors that I’d like to recommend, here is part 2 of my Read Diverse 2017 recommendations.

Note that I haven’t read as many books by most of these authors (one exception) which is the reason they didn’t make part 1 of my recommendations series. I’ll add covers to the most well known books by them but my recommended starting points are also based on what other people have recommended.

(More of) mY FAVORITE DIVERSE AUTHORS

SOFIA SAMATAR

I have only read one of Samatar’s short stories and the lovely A Stranger in Olondria which won a lot of awards and was nominated for more. It’s a book that I’d recommend also to people who don’t read or like fantasy all that much. While set in a fictional world, it has very few fantasy elements. Okay, there is a ghost, but the meat of the story is one man’s coming-of-age tale while discovering new places. The protagonist is also an avid reader and a lover of stories and history, so any book lover should feel right at home. Plus, the language is just beautiful and the story is very immersive.
Sofia Samatar has Somali and Swiss parents and taught in Sudan. I’ll try and find the interview where she talks about her travels and all the places she has lived but her interest in different cultures definitely shines through her fiction.

Recommended starting point: A Stranger in Olondria or, for the short story crowd, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (which you can read for free).

KAZUO ISHIGURO

Here’s another one for those of you who don’t read much fantasy or science fiction but wouldn’t mind a little taste of it. Ishiguro is definitely in the literary camp and of the books I’ve read, only one can be called sfnal in any way. But he is a skilled writer who will definitely make you cry. Just give him 200 pages and get the tissues ready. In The Remains of the Day, he tells the life of a super dedicated butler which sounds boring but – trust me – isn’t. There are revelations in that quite book that left me seriously emotional.
Similarly, in Never Let Me Go, the revelation is kind of obvious from the start but while reading you try and pretend it’s not true. This is the book with a sci-fi bend to it, although the characters are so much front and center that it doesn’t matter what genre you normally read.

Recommended starting pointNever Let Me Go because the slightly larger cast makes it a faster read than The Remains of the Day, although I do recommend reading both (and you can watch the movies afterward) . The Buried Giant is still on my reading list, but as Ishiguro writes only standalones, you can pretty much start anywhere.

ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA

I discovered Córdova because I was actively looking for diverse reads and her wonderful novel Labyrinth Lost didn’t disappoint. It’s about brujas and the underworld and lots of cool stuff, and it features a bisexual heroine. The author was born in Ecuador (as far as I could find out) but grew up in New York – her book is flavored with Latin American mythology which made me like it even more. I look forward to the next Brooklyn Brujas book very much.

Recommended starting point: Labyrinth Lost, or the first in Córdova’s mermaid trilogy, The Vicious Deep.

KARIN LOWACHEE

Lowachee should be way better known than she is. Again, I have only read one of her books so far but after finishing Warchild, I immediately went out to get all her other books. Warchild is a science fiction story that focuses on character rather than space battles (although there are some of those, too). As a young boy, Jos’ ship is attacked, his parents killed and he is kidnapped by a space pirate. He is later trained to be a spy in the intergalactic war that is going on. Mostly, this book is about how war can shape humans. If you’re worried going into the story because the first chapter is written in second person, don’t worry, it’s only one chapter but I found the narrative choice gave it even more impact.
Plus, there will be a new book in that series coming out soon, The Warboy.

Recommended starting point: Warchild, which is part one of a loose trilogy (different characters in all the books), or the standalone fantasy novel The Gaslight Dogs.

KAREN LORD

Of the three books I read by Karen Lord, I adored one, liked another, and really disliked the third. But that may well be a matter of personal taste and I still want to recommend Lord because she is such a fresh voice in today’s SFF publishing. Her debut Redemption in Indigo retells a Senegalese folktale (which is much more interesting than the billionth version of Red Riding Hood) and reads very much like a bit of mythology.
My favorite book of hers was The Best of All Possible Worlds which took me a couple of attempts to read, but once I got into it, I was into it! It’s about the remnant (exclusively male) population of an eviscerated planet, trying to find a culture similar to theirs to so they can find wives and keep their own bloodlines and culture alive. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and also a little bit of a love story. The book I didn’t like was its sequel, The Galaxy Game.

Recommended starting point: Redemption in Indigo if you like some mythology and a fairy tale feel, or The Best of All Possible Worlds if you prefer a roadtrip of cultural discovery in a science fictional world.

ZEN CHO

I discovered Zen Cho before her wildly popular book Sorcerer to the Crown came out. This Malaysian writer has been publishing shorter fiction for a while now, and I’d say her most standout quality is charm. Her characters, her writing, her stories are just utterly charming. They don’t have the emotional impact I would like but there’s something about them that makes it hard to put her books down. My first read was The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, but I fell absolutely in love with Prunella Gentleman of Sorcerer to the Crown. Practical women for the win, especially if they can do magic!

Recommended starting point: Sorcerer to the Crown or the short story Monkey King, Faerie Queen which you can read for free or even download for your e-reader.

JACQUELINE KOYANAGI

So Koyanage has only published one book so far and I am still waiting for a sequel to that first novel. But I highly recommend it, especially if you’re reading it for the Read Diverse Challenge. Koyanagi writes queer women of color, protagonists with disabilities, and polyamorous relationships. All of that you get in Ascension, a pretty cool space adventure with lots of kick-ass characters and excellent world building. She suffers from chronic illness herself, and I felt that this experience showed in her protagonist, Alana. Alana’s condition doesn’t feel like a “characteristic” to make a character stand out, it feels like it’s part of who she is, a thing she lives with every day. In short, it felt real. Definitely check out this book!

Recommended starting point: Ascension, the first book in the Tangled Axon series. Hopefully, there will be a second book soon.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE

You didn’t think I’d write any sort of recommendation list and leave out Cat Valente, did you? As a bisexual author, Cat writes diverse characters in all her books. Here’s a podcast with lots of recommendations of LGBT+ books that made my wishlist grow quite a bit. Valente is incredibly prolific and while I have read most of her books, it’s difficult to recommend where to start. I will give you pointers that may help you pick the right book for your taste. But all of her books feature characters of all shapes and colors (literally! There are blue characters…) and genders and sexualities and physical abilities.

Recommended starting point(s): For the YA/MG lovers out there and those undecided, the best place to start is with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. It’s the first in a (completed) series, so you can continue reading once you get a taste.
If you want something more grown up, and more difficult to read, you can pick either of these:

  • Deathless: A standalone fairy tale retelling set during WWII in Leningrad. It’s got lovely, lyrical language, beautiful imagery, Russian folklore, and lots of that fairy tale flavor.
  • Palimpsest: A standalone novel about a sexually transmitted city (no typo, that’s really what it is). It’s not exactly fast-paced, but focuses on character and imagery. Beautiful book, but not for everyone’s taste.
  • Radiance: This is AMAZING! The story of a disappeared film maker set in a pulpy version of our solar system. You can live on all the planets, Hollywood is on the moon, etc. But the best is the way it’s told: through interviews, movie script pages, different narration styles. You kind of have to read it to see what I mean. But it is pretty much a perfect book.
  • The Orphan’s Tales: This duology is difficult because of its structure (stories within stories within stories) but it has the most diverse cast I’ve ever read about. It reads like an alternate 1001 Nights and feels very much like folklore and mythology.
  • Six-Gun Snow White/Speak Easy/Silently and Very Fast: Three novellas if you just want a taste. Six-Gun Snow White is a Snow White retelling set in the Wild West with a biracial Snow White. It’s heartbreaking and kick-ass and very poetic.
    Speak Easy is set in a hotel in the Roaring Twenties where every room hides a secret, the basement is a portal to hell (or a really great party, depending on your stance) and there’s a great twist at the end.
    Silently and Very Fast is a more abstract novella about an AI coming to terms with its existence. It has some fairy tale elements to it but less plot than the other two novellas.

That’s it for my second round of recommendations. In the next and final part, I will tell you about the diverse authors on my TBR that I haven’t read yet. I hope this list was helpful and my favorite writers find new readers because then they’ll write more books and that will be great for all of us. Happy reading!

 

 

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#ReadDiverse2017 – A Recommendations List (Part 1)

It’s officially May and I’m still very much enjoying the Read Diverse 2017 Challenge because it helps me discover so many great books. Some people post Diversity Spotlight posts every week and I like those well enough, but they are always too short for my taste and not as useful as I’d like. I want longer lists of recommendations, and not just a list of book titles and the Goodreads synopsis, but a reason to pick those books up. So, although I could collect tons of points for the Read Diverse challenge by recommending only three books at a time, I thought I’d throw my favorites at you in a few longer posts, contaning lots of books.

MY FAVORITE DIVERSE AUTHORS

N. K. JEMISIN

If you haven’t heard about Nora Jemisin, then (1) where have you been these last years and (2) you are so lucky because you’ve got a ton of great books ahead of you. Jemisin writes fantasy, but unlike anything you’ve read before. There are no elves and dwarves, no European mythology, no setting that’s a blatant copy of medieval England. Her characters are usually people of color, and race and gender play a large role in most of her books. But it’s her original ideas that make her books so addictive to me. Humans controling gods, a thing called Dreamblood, people who can feel and alter seismic activity? It sounds wild and it is, but Jemisin also manages to create believable fantasy worlds, peopled with fleshed-out characters who are flawed and beautiful and heartbreaking.

Recommended starting point: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or, if you feel adventurous and up for something heftier and darker, The Fifth Season.

HELEN OYEYEMI

This is for you if you prefer a more “literary” type of fantasy fiction. Oyeyemi’s writing is gorgeous, no matter what you call it. She plays with fairy tales and folklore, turns tropes on their heads, and above all, writes diverse characters in all her stories. In Boy, Snow, Bird (my favorite of hers) she uses the Snow White fairy tale to examine race and gender during the 1950ies. Her short story collection What is not Yours is not Yours is filled with all sorts of diverse characters. Whether it’s skin color, sexual orientation or gender identity, Oyeyemi tells stories where everybody gets a voice. I found Mr. Fox quite difficult to read so I wouldn’t recommend to start with that. I still have quite a lot of her books to read myself and I look forward to each one of them.

Recommended starting point: Boy, Snow, Bird because the language and structure are easy to get into, or What is Not Yours is Not Yours if you want to try short stories first.

NNEDI OKORAFOR

Okorafor has recently been very successful with her novella series about Binti, a young Himba woman who goes to a renowned space university and accidentally brings peace between two formerly warring alien species. It’s a wonderful novella series and I highly recommend it, but my first book by Okorafor – and the one dearest to my heart – is Who Fears Death, a story so powerful and gut-wrenching I will never forget it. Okorafor also writes short stories and YA novels, so there’s something for every taste.

Recommended starting point: Binti for a quick and wonderful introduction, Who Fears Death if you’re up for dark post-apocalyptic stuff, or Kabu-Kabu for short stories that are much lighter.

NALO HOPKINSON

Hopkinson is one of those authors who effortlessly make two ideas come together and turn into something new and beautiful. Her books are heavily influenced by Caribbean folklore, they are sometimes set in Canada, and they mostly feature women of color as protagonists. But Nalo Hopkinson also does amazing things with language. If you read Midnight Robber and don’t fall in love hard, then I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends.

Recommended starting point: You could start with Hopkinson’s debut novel Brown Girl in the Ring which is accessible enough but (comparatively) not that good. I recommend Midnight Robber and if the language puts you off, go for the short story collection Falling in Love With Hominids.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON

I admit to having only read one book by Alaya Dawn Johnson so far but that book was so wonderful that I have been buying her other books since then. My recommended starting point is fairly obvious in this case – start where I started, because apparently it gets you hooked. Johnson’s writing in The Summer Prince did so many things on so many levels. On the one hand, it’s a YA romance story, set in future Brazil, featuring a graffiti artist protagonist. But on the other hand, there is so much going on in this world on a politica, world-building, social level. I am still amazed that such a short book could convey this amount of detail.

Recommended starting point: The Summer Prince! Or Love is the Drug, which won the Andre Norton Award.

 

CAITLÍN R. KIERNAN

I read very little horror but when I feel like it, Kiernan is my go-to woman. Her books are beautiful mind-fucks in which you rarely know what’s real and what’s not, sometimes can’t trust your narrator, and will definitely see some crazy shit. But, you know, in the best of ways. Kiernan also writes amazing characters who suffer from mental illness, as she mentioned on her blog she does herself*. Of the books I’ve read, both featured lesbian protagonists and both led me into a beautiful labyrinth of creepy imagery, folklore and myth. It’s like the horror movies you love to watch even as they follow you into your dreams. Also, this woman has written a LOT of books and short stories.

Recommended starting point: The Drowning Girl, definitely. It is plenty weird, but Imp’s voice is one you can follow, I got super involved in her story and that ending is just perfection. For a darker, creepier, less optimistic start, go for The Red Tree. Or (although I have yet to read this myself) try her latest novella, Agents of Dreamland, if you want to start with something shorter.

YOON HA LEE

Okay, so I’ve only read one book by Lee so far but hey, it’s a Hugo finalist this year and for good reason. Lee’s writing is superb, especially when it comes to characters. I have also heard excellent things about the short story collection Conservation of Shadows. Lee is a trans man who doesn’t want to write about trans characters. Read more about him in his own words in this article at The Book Smugglers. But most of all, read Ninefox Gambit.

Recommended starting point: I have no idea, honestly. I started with Ninefox Gambit which took quite a bit of brain power and persistence. But if I can do it, so can you.

MISHELL BAKER

Here’s another author that stole my heart with only one book. I read Borderline not so long ago and, expecting very little from this Urban Fantasy (because no matter how hard I try, I am full of prejudice when it comes to certain sub-genres), I was blown away. With an amputee suicide-surivor, BPD suffering protagonist, you’d think it’s all a bit much. But Millie was a perfect heroine. Perfect not in the sense that she never messed up – quite the opposite. She was perfect because she felt so real, she makes mistakes, she apologises, she tries to make things right. She’s also just a really cool person that I’d want to be friends with.

Recommended starting point: You really don’t have much choice here. Assuming you don’t want to start with the second book in a series, I suggest you start with the brilliant Borderline. Or try one of the author’s short stories (none of which I know yet).

 

That’s it for my first recommendations post. I hope many other challenge participants continue to recommend books as well, especially SFF books. I see lots of contemporary YA out there and I’m thrilled that this genre is getting more and more diverse, but me, I am always on the lookout for new fantasy writers to discover. So throw them at me, people! And happy reading.

 

 

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Laura Ruby – Bone Gap

Looking at the cover and description, you wouldn’t think this is speculative fiction. The reason I picked up Bone Gap was Ana and Renay’s discussion on their Fangirl Happy Hour podcast. Now I can finally go back and listen to the spoilery bits. I loved this book. A deceptively quick read, it really packs an emotional punch and explores some difficult themes through multi-layered characters. A fascinating read that will definitely make it into my years’ favorites list.

bone gapBONE GAP by Laura Ruby

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name.

Bone Gap is the story of Roza, a beautiful girl who is taken from a quiet midwestern town and imprisoned by a mysterious man, and Finn, the only witness, who cannot forgive himself for being unable to identify her kidnapper. As we follow them through their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures, acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

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Bone Gap is one of those flow-y books. You know the type. You plan to read just a few pages to see if it’s up your alley, and before you know it you are knee-deep in an adventure without hope of finding a convenient chapter to stop reading. Finn lives in Bone Gap, a small town where everybody knows everybody, and he is known by everybody as a bit of a strange guy. Never looks you in the eye, head in the clouds, very handsome, but distant. And ever since Roza disappeared, things haven’t been the same.

I don’t know how to describe this book in a few sentences, because it is about many things, despite its relatively small page count. It is about Finn growing up and learning things about himself, it is about Roza and how her beauty is a curse as much as a blessing. It’s about Petey, who thinks her face looks like a bee, and whose life is influenced by beauty just as much as Roza’s, and it’s about Sean, a young man forced to abandon his dreams and being, in turn, abandoned by the people he loves.

The tale unfolds through Finn and Roza’s eyes and while Finn does meet a magical horse, his story is still grounded in the reality of Bone Gap. Here, everyday problems are added to Roza’s disappearance – dealing with bullies, getting the girl you like to kiss you, finding a way to talk to your estranged brother… Finn has a lot on his plate, even without the guilt he feels. When Roza was kidnapped, Finn witnessed it but he is unable to identify the kidnapper, which leads most people – his brother Sean included – to not believe Finn at all. After the death of their father, the boys’ mother left them, so Sean was almost expecting to be left again, this time by the woman he loves.

Roza’s story, on the other hand, reads like a dark fairy tale – this is what grounds the book firmly in the fantasy genre (no matter how many times the print “magical realism” on the back cover). It’s not a retelling but the fairy tale I was most reminded of was “Beauty and the Beast”. Except in Bone Gap, a real girl gets thrown into an awful situation and she really has no interest in turning her captor into a prince. Even before her kidnapping, Roza’s life was hard, and the way she reacts to the terrible things happening to her, is part of what makes her so wonderful. I loved this character to pieces and she only gained more and more respect as the story continued.

bone gap bee

I was surprised at the many ways in which this little book broke my heart. A few chapters in, I already cared deeply about Finn, Sean, Petey, and Roza. Then the author throws a few twists our way that are big enough to shatter worlds. Terrible things happen to Roza, so awful in fact that all the other characters’ problems should appear ridiculous in comparison. But Laura Ruby, with her flowing prose and lyrical style, managed to make all characters feel equally important. I had so much compassion for Petey who is considered ugly by the people of Bone Gap, I understood Finn’s guilt about letting Roza be taken, I got why his brother Sean behaves the way he does. The characters and their actions are utterly believable, even when confronted with the fantastic.

This is a magical book whose pages just fly by without you noticing. I read it in a hammock on the beach, in one sitting, and afterwards felt like waking up from a dream. A dream of a Polish girl too beautiful for words (who is not portrayed as arrogant or a villain or a bitch), a young boy trying to find his place in the world, a girl very conscious of the power of beauty (and her own perceived lack thereof), and a man lost and abandoned and desperate.

Rounded with a perfect ending (and Roza’s most badass moment of awesome!) that subverts the tropes of fairy tales, this was a wonderfully engaging, emotional book. It had just the right amount of fairy tale flavor, lovely writing, and a cast of amazing characters. Another excellent publication of 2015 – this is a strong year for speculative fiction with original ideas and character depth.

MY RATING: 9/10  –  Close to perfection!

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Jacqueline Koyanagi – Ascension

I’m having a good luck streak. So far, every book I’ve read this year has at least been good, but considering this is only the sixth story I read in 2014, there have been many outstanding ones. Ascension belongs on that list. This book does so many things right and gave me that Firefly-esque warm feeling in my belly of stepping onto a fictional space ship and coming home.

ascensionASCENSION
by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Published by: Prime Books, 2013
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Tangled Axon #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Heat buffeted my face, whipping my locs behind me.

Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

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Space Opera is an interesting subgenre, though not one famed for its diverse characters, its space-faring queer, disabled, polygamous, engineer women – or so I hear. Ascension presents a crew made up of some very underrepresented groups and I loved every single one of them.

Alana Quick is a sky surgeon (read: spaceship engineer) who has never left her home planet but dreams of the Big Black, of serving on a ship, going places in the universe, and not having to worry about the next job. She doesn’t just need the money for rent and food but also – even more – to pay medical bills.

If this novel has a theme, it is how oppressive a disease can be, especially an invisible one. Alana doesn’t seem sick but she knows that without her medication, her body will slowly wither away, her muscles will betray her until they stop functioning altogether. That’s a heavy load to carry around and I’m glad to say I have no experience with anything like that. I could ramble on about how brave Alana is and how she doesn’t let the disease take over her life. But honestly, I believe if I suffered from something as severe, I would go to pieces and I wouldn’t want people to judge me for it. More power to her for being as strong as she is, but I would have liked her every bit as much if she had wallowed in self-pity every once in a while.

Alana isn’t the only one with a medical condition. Take Marre, the Tangled Axon‘s pilot, whose body fades in and out of reality as she slowly, literally, is losing parts of herself. Captain Tev Helix lost a leg in an accident, the ship’s engineer thinks he’s a wolf and Alana’s sister Nova, while not considered ill in the context of the novel, is starving herself in order to reach the next spiritual level. Let’s just say these characters each have a life and backstory of their own. None of them are defined by their disease (maybe Marre, a little bit) and all of them show us page after page that not being “whole”, by society’s standards, doesn’t keep them from living their lives.

Now while you could say the plot is pretty straight-forward and not exactly original – Alana gets onto the Tangled Axon, bad stuff happens, the crew gets framed for it and is on the run, trying to figure out how to save their hides – this book isn’t about what happens, it’s about who it happens to and how these characters act in the situations they’re thrown into. Sure, dangerous situations arise and things go boom, and these moments are thrilling, but they aren’t what makes the novel great. Getting to know the characters and seeing them grow as people and grow closer together as a crew, that’s what did it for me.

ascension cover art

The book blurb gives away that there is romance on the Tangled Axon. I loved the romantic (read: steamy) scenes but I found some of the set-up a bit silly. For example, if you have the hots for a woman, and you’re already kissing her and telling her how badly you want her, why would you not also tell her some other vital information that may help her not feel like a piece of shit after kissing you? In general, Tev withholds pieces of information for no reason that I can see, that would have helped Alana understand better why the crew are the way they are. Oh well, it’s a small thing to nitpick.

But as much as Alana is falling for her new captain, the real romance is her love affair with the ship. The way Koyanagi describes Alana’s connection to this vessel read like a proper love story. The last time I read of such a beautiful love story between a human and a thing was in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy (and those ships were actually alive, so it’s not quite the same). She feels the ship’s pain, she hears its humming, she loves every metal plate, every cable, every fiber of it. Koyanagi also shows off her best writing in the scenes describing Alana’s feelings about the Tangled Axon, going from simple language to almost poetic.

My biggest qualms are all about the ending. “Rushed” doesn’t begin to describe it. So much was crammed in last second, crazy things were revealed as if they meant nothing – they’re not all game changers but still, a bit of build-up wouldn’t have hurt – and the things Tev had been holding back came out all at once. There is a bit of an overload at the end that I would have preferred to see drawn out a bit or even cut completely. I was especially sad about the way Nova’s character arc was handled. She became one of my favorites in the book (I hated her at first, then ended up totally rooting for her) and to see her storyline done with in such a hurried way just sold her entire character short.

But there is something to be said about a book that tells the stories of an almost entirely female cast, of a ship’s crew that – while vastly different – reminded me of Serenity, in the way they stuck together as a team. I loved that a queer woman who has to think about getting her medication on time every single day, gets to be the heroine of this tale, I love how much depth even minor characters had, and if the future holds more stories for the Tangled Axon (pretty please?), I’ll be among its first readers.

RATING: 8/10  –  Excellent!

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