The Monsters Among Us: Akwaeke Emezi – Pet

During the second half of the worldwide shit show that is 2020, I am going to read (at least) ten new-to-me Black authors and Akweake Emezi is one that kept showing up on recommendation lists. I’m so glad I picked up their book Pet and I already bought their debut novel Freshwater because, after this, it’s not going to be too long before I want more!

PET
by Akwaeke Emezi

Published: Make Me a World, 2019
Hardback: 208 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line:

Pet is here to hunt a monster.
Are you brave enough to look?
There are no more monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. With doting parents and a best friend named Redemption, Jam has grown up with this lesson all her life. But when she meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colours and claws, who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings and a drop of Jam’s blood, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question — How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?

There are no monsters in Lucille. Jam and her best friend Redemption know that as well as anyone. It’s only in the adults’ eyes that they sometimes catch a glimpse of a time before the Revolution, when monsters still lived among humans, when you couldn’t be sure that you were safe, where people didn’t help and uplift each other.
I don’t know how this book will work for young adult or even younger readers, but as an adult reading it, the idea of monsters and their rehabilitation is fairly obvious – as I’m sure it was intended to be. Monsters in Jam’s world were the kinds of people who get away with doing wrong things in our world, in our time. Whether it’s actual criminals who hurt people or simply the super-rich who don’t mind watching people live in poverty while they themselves have too much of everything. Monsters aren’t ever really defined and they don’t need to be. As soon as you pick up this book, you know the deal.

Jam was such an intriguing protagonist to follow. It’s not just because she is a transgirl who has undergone transition and is just… accepted by everyone – that was incredibly refreshing. I mean, how many books have you read with transgender protagonists who just get to be who they are without making an issue out of it? But she also uses sign language to communicate. It’s never made clear why she decides to stay mute most of the time (she can and does speak occasionally) and, again, nobody reacts weirdly, her family and friends accept this is how she communicates and they have adjusted accordingly – by learning sign language themselves. Whenever Jam does decide to vocalize, it lends more importance to her words and makes for even more powerful scenes. I urge you to check out ownvoices reviews for in-depth commentary but for me – a cis woman – it was simply wonderful to read a story from a perspective so different to my own.

The story seems deceptively simple but this book is more about what’s between the lines, what remains unsaid. Jam accidentally cuts herself and spills some blood on her mother’s painting of a terrifying creature which brings that creature to life. Enter the eponymous Pet, a self-proclaimed hunter of monsters who shares a telepathic connection with Jam and enlists her help in finding a monster that supposedly is inside her best friend Redemption’s house. Torn between disbelief and wanting desperately to protect her friend, Jam agrees to at least look if there’s anything to see, if there could really be a monster living in Redemption’s house.

While I adored the interactions between Jam and Pet, this novel also has a lot to teach its readers. As Pet says early on, people see what they want to see. We believe what we want to believe because anything else is too frightening. Pet never judges, but accepts humans for what we are. And Pet also teaches Jam to see the unseen, to look a little closer, to educate herself and find out that monsters don’t necessarily look scary but can come in all shapes and sizes.
Just like the question of what monsters even were in this world, I also found it quite obvious what particular kind of monster might be hiding in Redemption’s house and while Emezi still has a twist up their sleeve, I was unfortunately right about the nature of this monster. None of the monster’s actions are mentioned explicitly, but we rather get to see their effect on the victim, which made everything feel even more real and terrifying.

The friendship between Jam and Redemption was another beautiful aspect of this book. These two teenagers know each other really well, they know when to give the other one space, when they need a hug, how to protect and love each other and how to communicate their feelings. Whether Redemption helps Jam get through an anxiety attack or Jam apologizes for a mistake she made, I always had the feeling that these are two people who respect each other. Man, do I wish more relationships were like this!

Pet was a book that I just couldn’t put down. Whenever I had to, I started fidgeting, wanting to get back to Jam and Pet and follow them as they make their world a little better. It also helped that the prose just flowed beautifully. Emezi says so much without using many words. She created entire family units with just a handful of lines, she gives all her characters personality – either through the way they talk or little descriptions here and there – and she tells an engaging and sometimes hard to read story about how even in the best of all possible worlds, people have to keep on their toes. Living in a utopia doesn’t mean the work is done. You have to do your best to keep it safe for everyone and that means learning about the bad things as well as the good, understanding your past, and, always, always, having empathy even for creatures that may appear monstrous.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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

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

THE SALT ROADS
by Nalo Hopkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

Melissa Bashardoust – Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I was drawn to this book for three reasons. One, its title reminds me of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I absolutely adored. Two, it’s a fairy tale retelling of sorts, and three, I had read Bashardoust’s debut novel and thought she had a lot of potential.
Thanks so much to the publisher and NetGalley for the eARC provided. This book comes out on July 7th, so if you’re interested you’ll only have to wait a few more days.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published: Flatiron Books, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3/10

Opening line: Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

I’ve read Melissa Bashardoust’s previous novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass and while I didn’t love everything about it, it showed a lot of potential and made me want to seek out whatever book came next. If I hadn’t known before, I would have thought this was her first novel and Girls Made of Snow and Glass her second one because so many first novel problems were present in Girl, Serpent, Thorn.

This is the story of Soraya, sister to the shah, and cursed with poison running through her veins. Everything she touches dies, so her family keep her locked away and nobody can touch her. Soraya fills her time with stories and gardening. Until her brother the shah returns home with a div prisoner who might know more about Soraya’s curse. I’m sure most people will agree that this is a pretty cool premise. The implications of a young girl, isolated from other people, unable to touch anyone without killing them – that alone already makes for a highly interesting story. What would such a girl’s life be like? How would she deal with being so alone, especially at an age when her one friend is falling in love?
Unfortunately, I may have gone into this book with very wrong expectations. This is not a character exploration, nor even a particularly well done F/F romance. It’s about an unbearably stupid girl fighting an unbearably stupid villain. And all because every single character in this book is too dumb to just communicate and talk normally with each other. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on forced misunderstandings, characters making illogical decisions that no sane person would make, and a romance that exists  because the author tells us, not because the characters actually get to grow close to each other.

The writing in Bashardoust’s first novel was competent and the characters were interesting and not easily classified as good or evil. Somehow, in this second book of hers, the writing got way worse. Everything lacks a certain subtlety. Pauses in the characters’ speech, for example, are always explained. Actually, everything is always explained. There are moments that would have had much more impact if Bashardoust had let the readers understand them for themselves. And I’m not talking about super difficult-to-interpret things either. Everything is fairly obvious, but I was all the more annoyed at having everything spelled out even though there’s really no reason for it. If you don’t trust your readers to be intelligent enough to get it, that’s just not very flattering.

Let’s talk romance. This is marketed as an F/F romance but apparently, the love triangle is also making a comeback. Because this starts with not quite insta-love (but sort of) and only some of it can be explained. Soraya has been lonely for a long time, so it’s only natural and understandable that she yearns for human contact and that she’d seek out the attention of a handsome young man. Why said young man is immediately infatuated with her, however, is unclear and should at least raise some alarm bells for Soraya!
And while her attraction can be understood, the immediate exclamations of deep emotions cannot. Sure, spill all your lifelong secrets to the guy you just met, even though you’ve been keeping them your entire life… How am I supposed to root for a heroine who behaves that stupidly and puts her trust in a complete stranger just because he tells her she’s pretty? Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of story but I just kept shaking my head and rolling my eyes for the entire first half of the book.

And it’s not just Soraya either. The villain – who has a great back story and could be so incredibly interesting! – is just as gullible and idiotic as Soraya. I also never understood why he’s evil. There’s no shades of grey here, he just does bad stuff because reasons. It’s just not fun to root for a dumb protagonist who’s fighting against an equally dumb villain, although at least the odds are somewhat evened out by the fact they neither of them seems to be using their brain. I won’t tell you exactly what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but let me give you a few vague examples.
Soraya immediately puts all her trust (something she hasn’t done ever!) in the guy she just met because he deeply loves her and thus is obviously trustworthy. Not only does she tell him about her curse but she also spills some other family secrets that are vital to keep her family safe!
Later in the book, Soraya tries to trick the villain by agreeing with him. It’s the most obvious, unbelievable trick in the universe and any villain worth his salt would not fall for it. Except here, he does.
And let’s not forget Soraya’s most glorious moment of stupidity when she accidentally lets someone know another secret by misspeaking. Girl, take half a second to think before you speak!! Seriously!

If the characters had otherwise been interesting, I might have overlooked those glaring problems. But they are all flat. Cardboard flat. Everyone gets one characteristic, one problem they’re dealing with and that’s it. The characters’ emotional response to anything that happens is just way overdone. Soraya holds back angry tears when telling a story that she’s heard and told over and over for many years? If we’re supposed to understand that she’s angry about it, make it less melodramatic, please. The same goes for the romantic moments. Everything felt just sooooo over the top. One smouldering look and Soraya’s skin prickles, it just felt completely ridiculous.  There were several of these instances and I kept getting the feeling that this is the author trying to make her readers emotional. It doesn’t work that way! You make us like and care about your characters and then bad or romantic or exciting things happen to them and we feel things. Don’t just tell us Soraya cried and expect us to feel sad along with her when we have no basis to understand her.

I admit I started reading this book when I was also reading Deeplight by Frances Hardinge and the difference in writing style and sheer skill became all the more apparent. I don’t know if I would have liked this better if I hadn’t been reading one of the best YA books ever at the same time but I’m pretty sure my reaction to the writing would have been mostly the same. I don’t like stupid characters without any nuance to them, no matter how interesting the setting may be.

Ah, let’s take a moment to discuss setting and world-building. There has been a high demand for fantasy set outside the tropey medieval Europe stuff that used to be everywhere, and I am more than happy that publishing is doing pretty great when it comes to that. We get all sorts of stories set in places all over the world – real and fictional – inspired by underrepresented mythologies, fairy tales, histories, and people. So of course I was excited to read a Persian-inspired fairy tale retelling. But it takes more to build a fictional place than just throwing in some fancy words or making your characters wear certain clothes. That’s only skin-deep and I have come to expect more of YA!
At no point did I really feel like I was in a specific setting. The palace may go by a Persion-inspired name but the way it’s described, it could have been any old castle. Other than that, we get a mountain and a forest setting. So fine, if the actual place and the climate don’t feature in the book very much, that’s okay. Then at least show us where we are through politics. Again, Soraya’s brother Sorush may have been called shah instead of king but essentially, that’s how he is presented. Politics are never even really mentioned and while that wasn’t super necessary for Soraya’s personal story, there are hints of div politics. The divs are just described as this supernatural species of beings who attack and kill humans. We don’t know exactly why humans and divs are at war. We do learn that divs aren’t all alike, that there are factions among them and they they don’t necessarily get along. Which would have been a cool addition to a really thin plot. But by the end of the book, we know exactly as much as we do at the beginning. So definitely don’t expect anything like City of Brass level political intrigue.

I don’t know the reasons behind the choices made with this novel. Is it a misguided belief that deeper world-building will put off readers? Do authors and/or publishers think kids wouldn’t get it? Was it just laziness because for an immersive world that feels real, you’d have to do a lot of research, hire sensitivity readers (especially when writing about a culture not your own), and put in a lot of work? From the afterwork I gathered that the author did some research but other than names, we don’t get to see the fruit of that labor. In the end, I honestly don’t care why the world building is so thin. If the end product remains shallow, that’s the version the publisher decided was going to go out into the world and that’s all we readers get. And I’m not particularly happy with what I got here.

Now that the most glaring problems are out of the way, let’s look at the actual story. Because, boy, does it have problems of its own. The first half of the book – and I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly in the middle – reads like a first draft. The entire first half is basically the set up for the real plot. And I don’t mean the part that you read in the synopsis – that’s the set up for the set up. Soraya’s skin is poisonous and anything she touches, she kills. So her royal family has hidden her away. She moves through secret corridors, rarely interacts with humans other than her mother, and yearns for friendship and love and human touch. So far, so intriguing. Then that whole insta-love-but-not-really-thing happens followed by a series of super dumb decisions,and bad writing.
In the second half of the book, however, the story finally finds its footing and becomes interesting. I’m not saying it’s great but at least by that point, I actually wanted to get back to the book to see what would happen next. Until Soraya’s next act of supreme stupidity at least.

I’ve already ranted about the characters but I want to say that they are not all bad. The most interesting ones just aren’t the protagonist. Soraya’s mother, for example, would have made one hell of a heroine. Parvaneh, the imprisoned parik (a type of div) Soraya wants to question about her curse, also turns out to be more than first meets the eye. It’s a shame that Soraya herself is so flat. Her only defining quality is that she’s cursed, wants to get uncursed and thinks of herself as a monster. It’s a good premise. I like characters who are torn, who have to find their place in the world, but if that’s their only thing and they behave stupidly most of the time, then that’s just not enough.

You will not be surprised that I didn’t really like this book. During the second half, we at least get some interesting scenes and a few moments of excitement. Although that is quenched pretty quickly by Soraya being dumb, the villain being dumb, or the plot being super convenient. The ending left me feeling annoyed and asking myself what the hell I’d been reading and WHY. If the whole point of the story is for Soraya to accept her otherness and to live with who she is, that’s great but please wrap it in a good story.
I spent almost all of the time reading this book rolling  my eyes, waiting for something thrilling to happen, and asking myself when the actual romance part would start. Sadly, this was super disappointing. For the little spark of good ideas (villain backstory, hinted at div politics, great mother character) I’m giving this book a few brownie points. But if this hadn’t been a review copy, I would have DNFd it long before the 50% mark.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Pretty bad

N.K. Jemisin – The City We Became

I don’t know what I expected. I mean, N.K. Jemisin can do no wrong if you ask me, but you never know, especially when an author branches out from epic fantasy novels into something more urban and contemporary. But if the author possesses enoughs kill and creativity, we still end up with a great novel. And we don’t have to debate Jemisin’s skill after her three-in-a-row record-breaking Hugo wins.

THE CITY WE BECAME
by N. K. Jemisin
narrated by Robin Miles

Published: Orbit, 2020
Hardback: 437 pages
Audiboook: 16 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Great Cities Trilogy #1
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I sing the city.

Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.
Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

Wow! This may not have been the first review of one of Jemisin’s book that I start with a simple “wow” but it’s the most succinct way of summing up my feelings about her ideas, her writing, her characters, and her plots. If her three consecutive Hugo wins haven’t convinced you yet, N.K. Jemisin is a shining star in the SFF field and I am so happy for her success! But as any truly great writer, she doesn’t just rest on her award wins but keeps working and keeps getting better and better. I will do my best to sum up my thoughts in a coherent fashion, but my review will probably end up very long and somewhat rambly. I am only a little sorry for that. 🙂

When Great Cities are born, a human avatar comes into their power. It’s happened with many cities on Earth, but now it’s New York’s time! A young homeless man feels himself become the city and the city coming to life. But something is wrong – it’s too much for him alone to hold and there’s something dangerous and evil lurking in the shadows… Cue the awakening of five other humans “awakening”, representing each of New York City’s burroughs. This is their story.

Having never been to New York, I only had pop culture and friends’ accounts to use as reference, and I really have no idea whether the descriptions and personalities for the five burroughs can be called accurate or fitting. But it certainly felt that way. We first meet Manny – Manhattan – who is new in the city and has no memories of his previous life. But even though it’s his first time in New York, he knows there shouldn’t be white tentacles growing out of the street and he knows something weird is going on in his mind.
We may start with Manny but he is the character that remained the most mysterious until the end. Sure, as some of his memories come back – mostly flashes, feelings, and ideas, not actual scenes – he becomes more fleshed-out. But I didn’t really connect with him the way I did with the others. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t sympathetic. It’s a sign of great writing that I even cared about a character that I don’t know a lot about.

Brooklyn is a former MC turned politician and all she really wants is to make sure her daughter and father are safe! When she meets Manny, she’s kind of his lifeline because Brooklyn understands a little more about what’s going on and why she’s suddenly the avatar of her burrough. But even she doesn’t have all the answers.
When I say I found Brooklyn to be the second-weakest of the characters, that doesn’t say much. Because even though the others are more fleshed out and we get to spend more time with them alone, outside of the group, she still comes across as a believable human being whose welfare was important to me as I read. Actually, scratch that bit about “second-weakest” – I liked Brooklyn and she grew on me more and more over the course of this novel.

Bronca, the newly-born avatar of the Bronx, sees the big picture. Not just about the birth of her city and her fellow burroughs, but about what’s going wrong in the world. She runs an art gallery in the Bronx and just wants to make the world a little better. But it’s not easy when she has to deal with disgusting art by racists pretending to do good…
I adored Bronca! First of all, she’s an older woman of Lenape heritage who doesn’t take shit from anyone. But she’s also caring and deeply protective of the people she loves. Her dynamics with young Venesa (part surrogate daughter, part protégée) were beautiful to read and showed different aspects of Bronca’s personality. I also enjoyed her storyline with the art gallery a lot which made her my favorite character to read about.

Queens is a young woman of Indian descent named Padmini who lives and breathes mathematics. She comes into the mix rather late but I loved her from the get go. Her reaction to suddenly being Queens is the exact correct level freaked-out. But while she may appear somewhat quite or even meek at first, she soon shows her strength when it is most needed.

Now this book wouldn’t be very fun if all characters were essentially good, so there is a villain and a good one at that. And then there’s Staten Island. Aislyn has grown up very differently from the other characters. Raised by a protective and super racist cop father, she has learned that white = good and brown = bad. Men are dangerous, nicely-dressed women are safe. So it’s no surprise that Aislyn is the one who listens to the strange woman in white who may or may not have something to do with the weird white tentacles growing out of the street and sometimes even out of people.

As you may have guessed already, there is a lot of social commentary in this book. And if what Jemisin has to say about the state of the world differs from how you see things, you probably won’t like The City We Became very much. I, however, am on board and I thought she did a great job in showing how a group of diverse people deal with all the shit that’s happening on a daily basis. Whether it’s some dude mansplaining to Bronca why his torture porn piece of art isn’t racist when it clearly is, or Brooklyn worrying about her daughter’s safety, whether it’s the New York avatar’s homelessness or Queen’s fear that her family might be deported – there’s a lot to think about here and it’s all presented in a careful, respectful manner. Most importantly – while Jemisin’s message is clear and not particularly subtle, it is never hammered in. I didn’t feel lectured at any point. She simply invites you to think about certain things and while her characters certainly know what they think about these issues, you are welcome to make up your own mind.

The same people who might be opposed to Jemisin’s social commentary will probably also have things to say about the diversity of the characters. Except for Aislyn, all the protagonist and side characters are People of Color, some of them queer. Honestly, if the avatars of a city as big and diverse as New York had been all white people, I would have been shocked and it would have made the whole idea of this novel less interesting. I also found that Jemisin made her characters effortlessly diverse, without any heavy-handedness. And I find it hilarious that the book itself even mentions how bigots react to this kind of thing, accusing people of using POC as tokens, of trying to gain political correctness points, and so on. This book can certainly be read as simply a great story but I loved the meta apsects of it as well. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Better New York Foundation reminded me quite a bit of a certain group of “melancholy canines” that was opposed to women and POC winning Hugo Awards a few years ago…

So many words written and I haven’t even talked about the plot yet. Well, it’s both simple and complicated. Essentially, the burroughs find out that they are the avatars of a newborn city and they should probably all get together and also see what happened to the avatar of New York as a whole. Oh, and while they’re at it, try not to get killed by the woman in white and her evil tentacles. Why? Well, to save their city, of course!
The driving force behind all their actions is a deep love for their sprawling, beautiful, flawed city and the wish for everyone in it to have a good life. It may not be a quest to throw a ring in a volcano but it was just as exciting. There’s a nice, solid build-up to the climax that leads to a thoroughly satisfying ending. That’s all I can say without spoiling the fun.

I treated myself to the audiobook version and I was so happy about the narrator. Robin Miles does such an amazing job reading this book! She does different accents for the characters, some of them better than others. I found her British accent really good and she absolutely nailed the nuances between the differenct characters’ way of speaking. Sao Paolo’s accent was a bit of a miss but then again, Miles is a narrator, not an impersonator. Considering all her other qualities – reading action-packed scenes with the necessary urgency, doing different voices for different characters, having a brilliant maniacal evil laugh – I can forgive the slightly off accent for Paolo.
Another thing about the audiobook that I want to mention is the occasional sound effects and music. They don’t happen often, but they give the story that little extra that helps immerse yourself in it. I definitely loved it!

If you like a diverse cast, reading about a city like it was a character (and which city isn’t, really?), about current issues wrapped in a fantastic tale, about friendships and family, then pick up this book. Jemisin’s writing is superb as always and this story is all the better for being a book-shaped middle finger in the direction of people who think they deserve better than others, be it because of skin color, gender, or sexual preference. This New York is for everyone!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Friendship is Magic: Sarah Gailey – When We Were Magic

After their amazing debut novel Magic for Liars, I knew I had to read whatever Gailey decided to publish next. While their novella Upright Women Wanted wasn’t the right fit for me, they are back in top form with this YA (?) novel about six friends, the bonds that tie them together, and their troubling adventures disposing of a body…

WHEN WE WERE MAGIC
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Simon Pulse, 2020
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I didn’t mean to kill Josh Harper.

Keeping your magic a secret is hard. Being in love with your best friend is harder.
Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.
That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.

This book starts with death by detonating penis. It took exactly two paragraphs for me to know I would love this novel and although it’s about much, much more than just that opening death scene, I did end up loving every bit of it. Alexis just wanted to have sex with a boy for the first time, to get it over with. So Josh seemed as good a pick as any but the prom afterparty ends with an exploded penis, a dead Josh, and a desperate and shocked Alexis, not knowing what to do. So naturally, she calls her five other magical friends to help. Together, they try to reverse whatever spell gone haywire caused this grisly scene, but they only succeed in removing some of Josh. Certain body parts remain and now need to be gotten rid off.

This makes it sound like this book is all about gore and covering up an accidental murder but it’s really not. Sure, that’s part of it but it’s really about a group of friends who happen to be able to do magic, each in her own way, each a little different from the others. We see these amazing young women through Alexis’ eyes and so it becomes very clear very early that while she may love all her friends, there is one among them that she may love in a different way.

I can’t tell you how enjoyable it was to get to know these six girls over the course of this story. The plot became almost not important anymore because I just wanted to know who these people are, how they met, what they can do, and watch them just be wonderful, loyal friends to each other. Whether it’s Marcelina with her plant magic, Paulie (the cheerleading Taylor Swift lookalike) and her fierceness, Iris who can create new spells out of nowhere, Maryam who takes make up artist skills to a whole new level, passionate Roya who is a champion swimmer even without magic, or Alexis herself who – even in her own narrative – constantly sells herself short, worries whether she even deserves these friends and whom I wanted to hug the entire time.
The diversity in this cast was just beautiful to read. Not only are the girls from different social, ethnical, and religious backgrounds, some of them are queer, Alexis has two dads and an adopted brother, and they are each just amazingly different people who came together to form this beautiful found family that just works.

Covering up a murder for your best friend is one thing. Actually taking a body part and trying to get rid of it is a whole different story. But they all agree to it, without hesitation, because that’s what magical friends do. Of course Josh’s absence is noted soon and eventually the police start investigating, so there is the plot keeps its tension until the end. But again, that’s not what made this book so good. It wasn’t even Alexis’ obvious pining after Roya and my hope that these two would finally get their shit together and make out, the best part of it was really just watching these girls respect the hell out of each other. They are so different and they react to trauma in different ways. One of them may want to be alone, another one may need to vent and shout out her feelings, yet another one could just want to pretend everything is fine – and the others all respect that and do what needs to be done so their friends can be okay. I absolutely loved that!

The more we learn about the six girls (who are represented pretty amazingly on the cover by the way), the more we also get to see of their magic. While small magic can be done with a handwave and a smile – like changing your nail polish or cleaning a spot off your shirt – the big magic they’re trying to do now to somehow bring Josh back to life or at least keep Alexis from being called a murderer is different. It has a cost and it’s not cheap. But they deal with this as they do with everything else. If one of them is not okay because of the terrible things they’re faced with, then they will all be not-okay together.

The book’s ending wasn’t exactly a revelation but it still felt incredibly right for this story. As much as I wanted to hug Alexis throughout the book, I also kept wondering if I should even sympathise with her. She did after all kill a person, whether by accident or not! And while she feels all sorts of remorse, the fact remains that Josh has been murdered. Even if the girls manage to somehow bring him back, that guy can never be the same… But because this isn’t the kind of book that focuses on the murder investigation or the group trying to make up clever lies to cover it up, that didn’t bother me too much. It was there, in the back of my mind, the entire time but the friendships and potential romance took over pretty quickly.
I’m impressed with Sarah Gailey’s ability to write stories that put such different weight on certain aspects. While Magic for Liars had a lot more focus on the actual murder mystery, characters were still highly important to that book. Then in her novella Upright Women Wanted, there was almost no plot and the characters, while important, were mostly there to transport a message – an important one, but one that didn’t particularly work for me. Here, it’s neither message nor plot – it’s characters all around. If you like the way Becky Chambers’ characters treat each other, then definitely pick this up. There’s no aliens here, just believable witchy characters who can teach all of us a thing or two about friendship and respect and love.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted

Ever since I read the brilliant Magic for Liars, I have been determined to pick up whatever else Sarah Gailey publishes. Their newest novella is a post-apocalyptic western with gunslinging librarians, so there was no way around it. And although the book wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, I liked it for other reasons. This may not end up as one of my favorites but I can see how this book could be meaningful to so many other readers out there.

UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor.com, 2020
Ebook: 176 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: As Esther breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the horse blanketsin the back of the Librairans’ wagon, she chewed on the I-told-you-so feeling that had overwhelmed her ever since her father had told her the news about Beatriz.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”
Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.
The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

When I read, I love putting myself in other people’s shoes. I like pretending I’m a character from a different place, a different gender, even from a different species. I also like reading books where the protagonist has sexual preferences that differ from mine – because that’s what makes books so great. You get to be all sorts of people, you get to live with them through amazing stories, have great adventures, and experience so many emotions. I don’t believe that certain books are specifically for a certain type of person, but in this case, I felt like Sarah Gailey not only wrote a very personal book but also one specifically for people who struggle with similar things as the protagonist, who maybe haven’t found their place in the world yet or even think that there isn’t one for them.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about this book. It’s about young Esther who has run away from home and hidden in the cart of a traveling librarians’ group. When she is found out, to her surprise, the three women allow her to ride on with them for a while. Because Esther’s reasons for running away, it turns out, are very, very good. Her secret girlfriend was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials – and Esther is supposed to be married off to some man her father picked for her. You can see how that’s not a prospect she’s looking forward to. So out into the unknown she goes, in the hopes of becoming a librarian herself.

Sarah Gailey gives us many glimpses into the world she has set up, but sadly that’s all we ever get. It becomes clear that this wild west is a post-apocalyptic one. There used to be cars everywhere, now we’re back to horses and carriages. We’re also back to executing gay people. And let’s not forget that people only get to read Approved Material… It doesn’t take more than that to make it clear that America is not a very nice place to live in. And although what little world building we get is enough to set the scene, I always kept hoping for more.

But this book isn’t really about the world, nor is it about the plot which wasn’t very strong either. Esther travels with Bet, Leda, and Cye, three queer librarians with the task of picking up a parcel and taking it to the insurrection. So far, so exciting. And of course, trouble is hot on their heels, the law wants to hunt them down, and they have to keep many aspects of their personalities secret when they reach a settlement. But for Esther, this is the first time seeing a lesbian couple just living happily together. Dangerously, sure, but happily nonetheless. And Esther also can’t help but feel attracted to Cye, who makes clear from the very start that they are “they” on the road but “she” in town. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking to read about these characters. Carving out a little place in the world where they can be themselves, but having to hide who they are when other people are around…

While the book deals with a certain amount of adventure, it really is about Esther accepting who she is and being happy with herself. If all the books you were ever allowed to read were about husband and wives, and all the people you know are straight, it’s only understandable that Esther feels like something is wrong with her. Learning that that’s not the case, that in fact it’s the world that’s wrong, is what it’s all about. So you might call this a book that’s more about the message than the actual plot and I know some people have an issue with that. I don’t. Because if the message is this clear and told through great characters, then why the hell not? All of that said, I am white and cis and straight, so I don’t pretend even for a second to understand what Esther might feel like. I can try and imagine, of course, but I know very well that’s nowhere near the real thing. But even doing just that, putting myself in her shoes, I felt for her. I wanted her to be okay and I wanted her to see that she is fine the way she is.

Despite afterwords and acknowledgements, we readers can never really know how much of themselves an author puts into their work. But whether it’s true or not, this felt like a very personal novel. Sarah Gailey definitely can write and from the dedication and acknowledgements, I got the feeling that this is the book they wrote for their younger self. Maybe I’m totally wrong and they’re just really good at making up fantastic and diverse characters, but it’s definitely a book I would put into many young people’s hands. Not just queer ones, not only ones who seem to struggle with their identity, but everyone! Because the message that, no matter who you love or what color your skin is, you are valuable and you deserve to live a happy life – that’s something everyone should know.

I will be looking for reviews of this book from queer people because I suspect that this novella resonates with the LGBTQ community way more than it did with me. All things considered, I liked the book for its characters and the message of hope it sends, but I thought the plot wasn’t particularly strong and I would have liked more world building, more fleshing out of its science fictional setting. But this is a hard one to rate. For its importance, I would give this book 9/10 points, but I rate all the books on my blog first and foremost by my own personal enjoyment. So here goes…

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

The Humans Are the Monsters: Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters

Sam J. Miller has done it again. I read his YA novel The Art of Starving last year on a Greek beach and loved every page. Then I went on to his adult, Nebula-nominated work Blackfish City, which also blew me away. So it’s no wonder that I’m back for more Miller goodness, and it’s also no wonder that he has delivered a fantastic, heart-wrenching piece of fiction yet again. Just like the last time I reviewed a Sam J. Miller book, I have such a hard time because there is so much going on in his books, so many layers, so many details. I promise you I’ll do my very best not to drift off into fangirl mode.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Harper Teen, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “He’s sleeping on the front porch again,” my mom said, her voice sounding sad the way only Solomon can make it.

A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.
Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.
Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.
As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth — together.
Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

This is the kind of dual POV story where you get two really different perspectives of the same plot. Ash is a young girl who lives with depression (a little better now, thanks to medication) and finds solace in her photography. For a school photography project, she wants to do something big, something meaningful. She just hasn’t found what it is yet.
Her best friend Solomon is a more tragic figure. Nobody knows quite where he lives now. After his mother was arrested, Solomon ran away from his stepfather’s and stepbrother’s house. Solomon also quite literally lives in his own world, a magical world where he rides an allosaurus, where groups of people can wield magic, where danger lurks around every corner.
When they were twelve years old, something happened in Ash and Solomon’s lives – something they have no memory of but whatever it was, it seems to have set off both their mental disorders. Ash became depressed, Solomon started living in Darkside. But now that Child Protective Services are looking for Solomon, Ash knows she has to remember what happened in order to save her friend.

This is such a magnificent story, both for its plot and characters, and for the way it’s told. In alternating chapters, we get Ash and Solomon’s perspectives. But seeing how Solmon lives in Darkside, not a small American town, we also get the story of two worlds. There are a lot of parallels in these worlds, but they don’t overlap exactly.
In Ash’s world, ugly things start happening. Someone spray paints swastikas on a Jewish girl’s house, there are menacing graffitis everywhere, people’s property is destroyed, and it appears that the High School football team knows what’s going on.
In Solomon’s Darkside, tensions between Othersiders (those who have magic abilities) and non-magical residents boil over. Othersiders are threatened, even hurt, in the streets. People want them gone for the alleged threat of their magic, and reading this felt very much like reading about a race war about to happen. For Solomon, no place is safe, but what’s worse, no place for Princess Ash (currently in hiding) is safe either and he has made it his life’s goal to protect her.

I loved this book from the very first chapter. Diving into Solomon’s mind for the first time was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know what to expect and I kept looking for exact parallels between his world and Ash’s all the time. Word of advice: Don’t. There are certain characters that live in both their worlds and certain plot elements that are very similar but there are characters exclusive to Solomon’s world as well. Other characters, such as Solomon’s stepbrother Connor, is a teenager in the real world but only six years old in Solomon’s Darkside. Once you’ve read this story, some of things in Darkside make more sense, but don’t expect all of them to be explained. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, there are whales in the sky and people riding dinosaurs!

But what was really interesting was how the two protagonists perceived each other. Ash may have depression in real life but her medication is helping and she is a functioning human being who has friends and schoolwork and a hobby. In Solomon’s eyes, however, Ash has been under a spell that leaves her unable to use her powers and mostly catatonic. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is how Ash’s depression manifests in Solomon’s world, but despite being quite obvious, I found it really well done. Solomon himself works just fine in his world but is seen as nothing but a weirdo in our world. People either pity him or look down on him, but other than Ash, not many actually care for him. Because a six-foot guy who says he rides around on a dinosaur… not what  our world would call healthy.

As tensions in both worlds grow ever stronger – more vandalism, more hate crimes, more uprisings in Darkside asking the Queen to banish all Othersiders – Ash suddenly grows closer to Solomon’s world than before. Although only through her camera lens, she can see what he sees. And she intends to use this power to uncover the truth about the football team, whom she’s sure is behind the vile attacks. Solomon, in the meantime, is getting through to Princess Ash more and more. She is coming out of her stupor and seems to slowly figure out how to use her powers.

There is so much to love about this book and although it feels like I’ve told you half the plot, trust me, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are all the characters really well done but the writing is just the way I’ve come to love from Sam J. Miller. Not the same as in his previous books but with the same beautiful flow that lets you eat up chapter after chapter without noticing that you’re reading. I also have to mention how refreshing it was to read a YA book with good parents. Ash is a fantastic protagonist because she realizes that she’s not living in a story and therefore, may need help from others. She goes to her parents – and they listen! And they help! It was possibly the most wonderful scene of the entire book.

I do have to say that the event that both Ash and Solomon can’t remember became fairly obvious after a certain point. That doesn’t make it any less horrible or any less impactful on their lives. But it also raises the question of whether people are just born bad or become that way (and if so, why?). While Solomon stands up bravely for what he believes in Darkside, Ash cleverly does the same in our world. She is such a smart character and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved that. I can’t abide naive or stupid protagonists, so Ash being smart about her problems, asking for help when she knows she can’t do everything alone, and believing that people make a choice to be good or evil (or something in between) – it was a joy!

The only thing that was a tiny letdown for me was the ending. Although things are mostly resolved, questions answered, and Ash and Solomon’s friendship stronger than ever, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the bittersweet note of it. But – as with any Sam J. Miller book – this was quite a story and I may change my opinion on the ending as I think it over. And belive me, this book will stick with me for quite a while.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

A hot mess: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.

GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan

Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. 

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.

Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.

As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to –  you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.

Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…

Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.

This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!

I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than  Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.

Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.

The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing.  I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.

That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.

I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.

MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)

Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

With a cover and synopsis like that, who could resist this book? I personally was hoping for some fun, light entertainment with a little bit of romance and a lot of bickering. Plus an epic road trip through Europe. While I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the beginning, it still delivered on most of those points and had me giggling for a few hours.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017
Hardcover: 513 pages
Series: Guide #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Henry “Monty” Montague is a scoundrel who gets into trouble very easily but has a lot more difficulty getting back out again. His relationship with his father is strained, to say the least. As a bisexual young man in the 18th century, his escapades – be they with young men or women – are not something his father approves of, especially since he was to inherit the estate. Until the baby brother came along, that is. Now Monty has one last chance to prove he can be a responsible adult – a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and, much to their dismay, a chaperone who is to show them the wonders of all the greatest cities on the continent.

It’s hard to dislike Monty, despite his really being an irresponsible, ungrateful young rake. He cares about very little in the world (mostly himself, his secret love Percy, and copious amounts of alcohol), but you can tell right from the start that he has a good heart and just needs to grow up a bit. The Tour seems just the right time for that. While things start out pretty much as planned (by his father, that is), Monty gets into deep trouble pretty soon. He, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity don’t even reach the halfway point of their journey when they are set upon by highwaymen, have to flee, discover truths about each other that they didn’t even suspect, and must work together as a team to get out of this adventure alive!

We’re not courting trouble. Flirting with it at most.

This book had everything I had hoped for at the beginning. Quippy banter, a budding romance between Monty and Percy, lots of fun adventures and not-so-fun danger. Things dragged a bit when the group reached Spain and begin an entirely new adventure, but because the characters were so lovely, I didn’t mind too much. Percy’s being dark-skinned may not be an issue for Monty or Felicity, but 18th century Europe has other ideas and it is frequently shown that even though he is an English gentleman, Percy faces a lot of challenges because of the color of his skin. Felicity, in turn, is sent to an finishing school from where she is supposed to emerge a skilled young lady. Skilled, that is, in the arts of singing, stitching, and other stuff she doesn’t have the least interest in. Monty is just Monty, wanting to drink and party and sleep with beautiful people. In the beginning, at least.

When someone close to him is revelealed to suffer from a disability, Monty’s thinking slowly changes. He realises what’s important in life, and who he wishes to be loyal to. As light as it may be, as funny as his scrapes are, this is truly Monty’s coming-of-age story and he doesn’t grow up all at once. It’s a slow process with more mistakes to make and misunderstandings to clear up. But I was very happy to see that, by the end, Monty had indeed grown. He’ll perhaps never be a gentleman of utmost perfection but he learns to do the right thing, and to consider the feelings of others – especially those he loves.

While the writing in this book wasn’t very special, I adored the dialogues and the more romantic scenes. Monty and Percy have a particular relationship that makes it maybe even harder to start something more than friendship than if they had serendipitously met on Monty’s Tour. Having grown up together, often sleeping in the same bed, sharing almost everything with each other, there is already so much intimacy between them, that it seems like such a small step to just fall in love. Mackenzi Lee did a beautiful job of letting these two find their way to each other slowly, through many obstacles, and start something more substantial than one of Monty’s flings.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I am so excited that there will be a second part following Felicity’s further adventures. She started out as an annoying side character but grew on me so much that I consider her as one of the gang. By the end, she is probably the most kick-ass of the trio (Hermione, anyone?).

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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