Slow Start, Lovely Ending: Alix E. Harrow – A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow is one of thos author’s whose shopping list I would pick up without a second thought. Her Fractured Fables series hit a sweet spot for me, although it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, what with its many pop culture references and easygoing (maybe a bit too simple) plot. She has clearly taken feedback for this second volume but although I liked it generally, it wasn’t as great as A Spindle Splintered.

A MIRROR MENDED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 14th July 2022
eBook: 176 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one-forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding – I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

Zinnia Gray has been verse-hopping for a while and seen pretty much every version of Sleeping Beauty you can think of. Futurisitci sci-fi – check. Steampunk – check. Gender-flipped – check. All possible variations of LGBTQIA+ pairings – check. One gets the feeling Zinnia is getting a little bit bored with living through the same storybeats over and over again, albeit in slight variations. Sure, helping other sleeping beauties break out of their story, forge their own path, and defy fairy tale norms is fun, but how long does that novelty last, really?
There’s also something that happened between Zinnia and her best friend Charm which has led to them not speaking for six months! It’s clearly weighing on Zinnia, but she’d rather jump around fairy tales than face her real-world problems, especially when she catches a glimpse of a different tale, one involving a mirror and an apple, and promptly gets sucked in to it.

So in this volume, Zinnia finds herself in Snow White, (accidentally) summoned by none other than the Evil Queen. Whom Zinnia has an immediate crush on. Unfortunately, that part bothered me a lot because, sure, you can feel lust for someone you’ve only seen once, but this book is about something a little more growing between these two women and I was sad that it felt a little like insta-love and yet, at the same time, like only a fling. Eva – as the Evil Queen will be named soon – is a super intriguing character, in that she is pretty evil, yeah, but as with so many villain origin stories or falling in love with the villain tales, we get to see a different version of the well-known fariy tale and it puts Eva’s action into perspective. Killing your stepdauhter is still not the greatest pastime, mind you, but Eva’s reasoning is at least somewhat understandable here. She also undergoes a lovely bit of character growth which made me like her more than Zinnia in this book.

The plot is pretty weak, I’m sad to say. It starts with the fact that there’s almost no stakes to begin with. The only hook that’s there from the start is the mysterious fight between Zinnia and Charm and we only learn more details about that much later in the novella. The first half of it was – and I’m sorry to have to use that word – boring. Zinnia and Evil Queen meet, have some rather predictable chat, threatening each other and so on, and only later do they actually stumble into their own adventure. The second half of the novella is where things get interesting. There’s some more world-hopping, jumping around Snow White this time, dangerous situations and difficult decisions to make. As lackluster as I found the beginning, the later bits made up for a lot of it.

That fight between Zinnia and Charm also gets adressed and while I’m not going to spoil anything here, it was about something that will have consequences for later books in this series – if it is meant to continue, that is. The ending was well-rounded but gave the novella a highly episodic feel and thus detracted a bit from the relationship between Eva and Zinnia. I don’t know if the series will go on, and if yes, how exactly that might look after the things we’ve learned in A Mirror Mended. I’d like more adventures through differente fairy tales but I was already missing the wit and clever references and especially the spark that made the first book so exciting.

But if Alix Harrow decides to write more, I will absolutely read more of her fractured fables. Even if they’re “only” good, they are still a great addition to any fairy tale lover’s library. If you’re looking for easy to digest diverse takes on fairy tales, you’ll be quite happy with these novellas.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

I fully expected to adore this book. I mean Pacific Rim, as silly as the premise may be, is just pure fun. Mixing that with feminist themes, a protagonist who dismantles the patriarchy, and has a poly romance as well – it almost sounded too good to be true. And it turns out, it was. There were aspects of this book I enjoyed, but others (important ones!) were terribly flawed or underdeveloped. Which leads me to one of those unpopular opinion ratings. I feel like I’m not allowed to have disliked this book because the internet seems to love it on principle, but I want to be honest here and it just didn’t deliver what it promised.

IRON WIDOW
by Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: Rock the Boat, 2021
Hardcover: 394 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 14 minutes
Series: Iron Widow #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

A story such as this, which is meant to show a strong girl protagonist smashing the patriarchy and disrupting existing power structures, needs a solid basis. We need to know how this world works first, in order for us to watch Zetian take it apart in a satisfying manner. That is unfortunately the first problem this book has, although it tries to distract us from this fact with lots of shiny things that grab our attention briefly. What little we know about the world and the ongoing war is this:
Humans are battling the alien mecha Hunduns using Chrysalises (Pacific Rim robots) that are steered by a man/woman team, whereas the man is usually in controll and the woman frequently dies because the mental connection between them is too much to bear. They use qi powers, although I still don’t understand how or what the different sub-types of qi really mean, even after finishing this book. It felt like a Pokémon style addition but without making much sense. There’s wood qi and water qi and one is good against fire and one against air and so on, but I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried.
The fact that women pilots are used mostly as cannon fodder is accepted by the entire society because family get some money for sending their daughters to become pilots and male pilots need the women’s qi power in order to complement their own – much stronger – powers when driving the Chrysalises. Nobody except for our tenacious heroine (who has grown up in exactly the same society as everyone else in this book) questions this or finds anything with the tradition of sending your daughters and sisters to their sudden death.

But the very fact that Zetian is not like other girls (oh please, I thought we were past that!) kicks off the plot. She is fine with going to her own certain death, as long as she can avenge her sister who was killed by one of the most famous pilots in the land. Her plan is to become his female pilot, kill him and then die in the process or get executed afterward. Of course it then turns out she is MOAR POWERFUL THAN ANYONE because although she does succeed in killing the guy, she herself survives and becomes a Chrysalis pilot herself, an Iron Widow.
She is then paired with the single most powerful pilot currently living, Li Shimin. They measure this stuff in qi points or something – but this guy also happens to be forced to wear a muzzle and have a serious drinking problem. But right from the start you can tell that he is just a tortured superhero who is wrongfully seen as dangerous. I don’t have a problem with this trope, in fact I enjoyed this part of the book, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly subtle or surprising. And it’s a little cheap that it turns out everything bad about this characters (or indeed, our protagonist) is totally not their fault. They’re perfect really. Any perceived flaws are soneone else’s fault…

Zetian also still has her old love interest Yizhi who follows her into the pilots’ program and sort of helps from the sidelines while swooning over her. One major marketing aspect of this book is the polyamory relationship but, honestly, I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t really anything there. Zetian kisses one guy, then the other, then they talk about it openly – which, granted, is very nice and mature and happens way too rarely in books or on TV – and everyone’s like “guess I’m okay with it then”. But plot convenience takes over immediately because this threeway relationship is never actually tested and can’t be appreciated at all. There are no actual romantic scenes with all three of them, there’s no chance for any of them to even get jealous, there’s simply romantic scenes with Zetian and Yizhi, and there’s romantic scenes with Zetian and Shimin. I’m not the expert on poly relationships, but this depiction felt disingenuous, like the author just didn’t want a love triangel (given how many other tired tropes they used) and so decided to just roll with both M/F relationships and have the guys sort of agree to this arrangement. I don’t want to spoil things but the ending makes it feel even cheaper.

Another thing that made me sad was how this supposedly feminist book handles its female characters. And I don’t mean the obviously terrible sacrifice of young girls that nobody seems to object to. I mean how Zetian thinks and talks about other girls, how they are shown – as conniving, idiotic bitches, as girls too stupid to understand anything, or too blinded and too conformist to use their brain. Only Zetian is smart, only she sees through the VERY OBVIOUS rigging of the entire system. I’m all for romance in my SFF, but I’ll take a good female friendship or at the very least some good female characters over a shallow poly relationships any day. I found this actually the most devestating thing in a book that is sold as “feminist”.
Zetian could have been such a great character. I mean, she’s pretty ruthless, she needs a cane and later a wheelchair because her family broke and bound her feet (beauty standards and all that) and she isn’t swayed easily by nice words. In short: She is damn interesting! I may not have wanted to be her friend, but I appreciated her strong will and her determination. Except she frequently turns on her fellow women – the ones she is supposedly trying to save – thinking of them as sluts or morons. And then toward the end of the book, she does several 180-turns in a row, one to do with her family, one to do with her general view of the world and whether she cares about what others think about her. It felt like a betrayal. By that point, I was already annoyed at the way she is depicted as oh so special and the only girl worth anything in this world, but that was just inconsistent and unnecessary.

So what did I like then, you might ask yourself? Well, as with most stories about gigantic magical mecha monsters fighting mecha aliens, this one had pretty cool battle scenes. It does rely heavily on Pacific Rim, even with the “drift compatibility” being represented as the mind connection between pilots and a sort of balance of Yin and Yang, but that doesn’t make the idea and the battles any less cool.
The writing was compelling, things happen quickly, and the author creates a sense of urgency in any given scene that makes it hard to put the book down. It may turn out the scene you just read is pretty meaningless overall, but books are allowed to be just fun. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I also really enjoyed how the romantic scenes were written. I can get annoyed pretty quickly when characters throw cheesy lines at each other with no basis, just to sound dramatic and meaningful. So it was refreshing to have such no-nonsense people (although the boys are very one-dimensional) simply go for it without any fuss. And I liked the kissing. 🙂

As for the plot… it’s a bit of a mess. First of all, the big twist from the epilogue can be guessed way ahead of time and isn’t exactly an original or fresh idea. But that isn’t even all that important for this volume, it’s only set up for the second book. This book deals with Zetian discovering some similarly obvious things that are not only hard to believe but also shouldn’t have to be uncovered by an 18-year-old girl. Well, if everyone else is utterly stupid, then that makes sense, I suppose. You see, the battles and the dialogues between characters don’t really advance anything. They are fun to read, as I said above, but ultimately meaningless for the plot. When Zetian does find out some devastating truth, it’s simply presented or rather dumped on the reader. As all of these revelations can be guessed beforehand, this didn’t bother me that much. After all, I was just getting confirmation for what I had suspected all along. And I’m not trying to make myself sound clever here, it really is that on the nose!
But as the world building doesn’t really advance and we don’t learn new things about the Hunduns, qi magic, or how the Chrysalises came to be, that’s all the plot there is.

Sooooo, I read this for a readathon prompt that asks you to read a “five star prediction” and I think I don’t have to say more about that. I doubt I will read the sequel to this, even if the cover is pretty and reviews throw around buzz words. As I’ve learned yet again, just because a book wants to be something (feminist, original, featuring a poly relationship) doesn’t mean it actually succeeds. I didn’t hate reading this. It was quite a bit of light fun that smashes you across the head with ostentatiously feminist messages every other chapter, but as for rating it, especially as a Lodestar Award finalist, this sits firmly at the bottom of my ballot for now.

Because I want to end this review on a more positive note: For a good poly romance and female characters who don’t tear each other down in the name of “raising each other up”, check out the underknown but totally worthwile sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi! Or, in fact, that one part of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that I can’t explain in more detail for fear of spoilers. But reading that book is a good idea anyway, for whatever reason you choose. 🙂

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

I Want All The Alien Hugs: Becky Chambers – The Galaxy And the Ground Within

I read the Wayfarers series completely out of order and after my second book (and the third in the series), I thought that maybe they weren’t for me after all. Then A Closed and Common Orbit completely messed with my emotions and I just needed to read this final instalment in a series that has changed Science Fiction forever. It has cemented my love for these books and I’m sad this loosely connecte series is now over.

THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021
eBook:
336 pages
Audiobook:
9 hours 55 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #4
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: In the Linkings, the system was listed as Tren.

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other. 

Ah, the balm for the soul that is a Becky Chambers novel! Don’t expect epic battles or life-shattering discoveries. Come instead for the exploration of differences and similarities between people of different cultures, species, and origins, and then stay for the warmhearted friendships, the obstacles that are overcome, the feeling of belonging somewhere even though you might look and feel different from everyone else. The magic that Chambers creates is its very own kind and whether you call it hopepunk, social science fiction, or something else entirely, it’s something I don’t want to miss from my reading ever again.

This story takes place on the planet Gora which has very little to offer, as it is only a stop between bigger, more important planets. However, when several strangers get stranded on the planet, even though very little happens in terms of big events, things get decidedly interesting as cultures and opinions clash.

Ouloo and her child Tupo run the Five-Hop One-Stop and they take that job seriously! It becomes clear only over the course of the book how much care Ouloo puts into her place, how proud she is of accommodating all species and taking care of their special needs and requirements. It seems like a small thing and it may sound like it’s not exciting to read about but it absolutely is! I can’t explain it to you, I just adored learning every new little tidbit that Ouloo had thought up to make what is essentially a quick stop between destinations into a welcoming, loving place for everyone. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. She’s the kind of character that reminds you that purpose can be found in seemingly little things, that it is you who decide whether your job is worthwile and whether you are happy with it.
Ouloo’s child Tupo has not decided on xyr gender yet, as is customary for their species once a certain age is reached. That just goes to show how effortlessly diversity of gender can be incorporated into a story without making a big fuss. I personally don’t mind (in fact, I quite enjoy) reading about characters with all sorts of pronouns and genders, but I know some people can be put off by the idea of having to “learn” pronouns. Tupo goes by xe/xyr and is deserving of all the hugs. That’s all you need to know. Pretty easy, right?

As for the strangers that get stuck on Gora, they are a diverse and intriguing lot and it takes a while before they warm to each other – if indeed they do so at all… Roveg has been exiled from his home but he’s pressed for time a nd getting stuck makes him really nervous and unhappy. Pei technically isn’t all that bothered by the delay but she’s pondering prombels that have been with her for a while – she is also the one that connects this book very loosely to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And then there’s Speaker, possibly my favorite, who came to Gora with her sister Tracker who stayed behind on the ship when Speaker gets stranded planetside. They are each different alien species, not just with different physiological requirements (Speaker can’t be in the planet’s atmosphere without her suit) but also from different cultures and with very different plans.

Strangers forced into proximity is a great trope but Becky Chambers makes something truly special out of it. Most of her characters are respectful of each other, some even become friends easily, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying tension between others. Again, there are no big battles of fisticuffs but opinions clash on occasion and, honestly, that was enough tension for me.
At first, it’s just fun getting to know these characters, finding out their backstories, where they were headed when they got stuck on Gora, and what their lives are like. Then it became lovely to watch them grow into a sort of force-upon-each-other found family, at least for alittle while. Chambers shows us new and interesting aspects of the universe she has invented, all without stepping off this one lousy planet.

I’m quite sad that this series is now over because it is truly special, but my heart leaps at the thought of Becky Chambers being as beloved and successful as she is. Because that means she can write many more stories filled with loving characters who show us that diversity is something to be celebrated, that kindness is a strength, and that family doesn’t have to be connected by blood. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo Award. This book is at the top of my ballot for now.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

The Many Faces of Powerful Women: Tasha Suri – The Jasmine Throne

This review comes with a warning that my brain wasn’t up to its usual standards when I read this book. I listened to the audiobook, which I liked, but I had a hard time concentrating, needed to re-listen to chapters a lot and I may have fallen asleep more often than not (due to my pregnancy, not because the book is boring!). I am aware that, had I read this at a different time, I might have enjoyed it much more, so take my rating and impressions with a grain of salt. I’m still recommending this book overall but it wasn’t the instant hit I was hoping for.

THE JASMINE THRONE
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2021
Hardcover:
576 pages
Audiobook:
19 hours 43 minutes
Series:
Burning Kingdoms #1
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.

Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess’s traitor brother.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.

But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire

This was one of those fantasy books that I appreciate for what it’s doing without ever really having built up an emotional connection to the story or the characters. Like watching events unfold from afar and being intrigued by them, but not feeling like I’m part of things. Until I give this a re-read, I’ll never know if that’s just a result of pregnancy brain or if I just didn’t vibe with this particular book but the listening experience was rewarding, nonetheless.

We follow a cast of characters, although two of them more closely than others, who live in a recently conquered place called Ahiranya. The Parijati Empire has taken over the land and done what Empires usually do – oppress the people, destroy and/or deny their culture, and forbid their religion. In this particular case, that meant killing all the Temple Children and Elders, the ones who could wield magic considered wrong in the eyes of the evil emperor. And the emperor is pretty straight forwardly evil. I mean, who sends their own sister to burn on a pyre and expects her to climb up there of her own free will (because honor or whatever) and when she doesn’t comply sends her into exile where she is to be slowly poisoned and kept in total isolation from other humans? That’s right, Emperor Chandra does.
I normally don’t like over the top evil villains and this one didn’t exactly show a lot of nuance, but as there are enough other characters to keep things interesting, I will forgive Tasha Suri the crazy emperor.

Much more interesting and complex are the two main female characters. First of all, the Emperor’s sister who refused to be burned alive (I know, how dare she, right?) and a young handmaiden named Priya who is happy to remain an unseen servant because it helps her keep her big secret. But Priya stumbles into the job of becoming Princess Malini’s servant and thus starts a tale not only of attraction and later romance, but also of accepting her own past and identity. And the same goes for Malini. They are very, very different people, not only because of their different cultures and social standing or even shades of skin color. But also in terms of moral code, one of them is definitely more inclined to sacrifice a few things (or people?) to reach her goals than the other. And even though I didn’t particularly feel the romance between them, I do so appreciate multi-layered characters! Especially female characters who get to be all sorts of protagonists. They don’t have to be the perfectly good, ultimately feminine, can-do-no-wrong kind of women, they just get to be people. Who have flaws and make stupid decisions sometimes and regret their words and save each other and have desires and dreams… you get the point.

Funnily enough, my favorite character was one that doesn’t even get that many viewpoint chapters. The Palace where Priya works before she becomes Malini’s maid, is run by a Regent who, in turn, is married to a woman named Bhumika. And Bhumika is that rare character that first appears as one thing and then turns out to be way more than we expected. I don’t want to give anything away here but I whooped out loud at a certain scene that had to do with her and I generally found her to be the coolest character in the book. That’ll teach me to underestimate side characters!

There are many more characters, some of whom are more important than others, some who appear more often than others, and all of them were interesting and believable in their own right. There’s Priya’s brother Ashok, the young orphan boy Rukh whom she helped get work at the Palace, a man named Rao who wants to save Princess Malini, and a few others that would get me into spoiler territory.

I haven’t even mentioned all the other layers this book has to offer and maybe it was because of those many layers that I had such a hard time concentrating. Because we have this whole cultural and magical past to figure out alongside Priya, we have characters’ shared histories to unravel, we have a magic system that’s pretty cool but also demans dangerous things from its followers, and – just as a side note – we have an emperor to overthrow if we want the world to become a better place. So there is plenty to discover between the covers of this book and I think it’s a rich addition to non-Western fantasy with its Indian-inspired setting.

I wish I had managed to let myself fall into this world a bit more deeply. The beginning, during which I could still concentrate much better, was quite atmospheric. I hope to re-read this when the second book of the trilogy comes out later this year. It will be called The Oleander Sword and is graced with another gorgeous cover! You could technically stop reading the series after the first book because although certain plot strings remain unresolved, the most pressing ones are well-rounded and lead to a more or less satisfying ending. The book could stand on its own is what I’m saying. But as there is much more of this world to see and certain things I hope to still happen with certain character pairings, I will continue reading the trilogy and see how Tasha Suri keeps growing in talent with every book.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Aliens, Music, Queerness, And Dealing With the Devil: Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars

This is one of those books that makes you think “no way is all of this going to work” as soon a you read the synopsis. I mean, aliens with a donut shop, an AI with feelings, a trans runaway violin prodigy, a woman in search of souls to sell to a demon, a quest to return to one’s home planet, a magical violin bow… It sounds like too crammed into one book much but what can I tell you? Somehow, it works!

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS
by Ryka Aoki

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
384 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 13 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Shh… Yes, it hurt. It was definitely not just a bruise.

Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts.

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

Katrina Nguyen is running away from home. She can’t take it anymore. The abusive father, the unaccepting mother, the fact that her family don’t accept her for who she is. So she packs only what is necessary – including her violin – and finds shelter with a friend.
She soon meets the most (in)famous violin mentor in the world, Shizuka Satomi, who not only recognizes Katrina’s raw talent, but also has her own burden to bear. She has to deliver seven souls – six of which are already done – to hell in order to save her own.
Add to that Lan Tran, owner of a donut shop and mother of four, but also secretly interstellar refugee trying to get back home. Things are clearly complicated.

This was such a great reading experience (technically listening experience as I enjoyed the audio version) because there is so much going on in this book. It’s about music and family, about guilt and desire, about being trans and being a young person in today’s world, about love and all the shapes and forms, and yes, also about aliens and donuts. Because why not?
What I liked about it may be someone else’s annoyance because, yes, there is a lot of stuff here and not all of it gets the same attention to detail readers might hope for. For example, Katrina being trans, how she sees herself, how she grows over the course of the book and changes into a more confident young woman, that’s pretty central to the novel. Lan Tran being an alien who fled her broken home far far away because of something called the Endplague isn’t so central. Sure, Aoki throws in some hints here or there about that but this isn’t the kind of book that is about how space travel works, where exactly Lan’s home is in the universe or generally how aliens are hiding in plain sight on Earth. Just take that part with a grain of salt.

The other thing I really enjoyed was the way Aoki writes bout music and the people who love it. This story deals with violin music in particular but I think the passion that is described can work for any type of music (or art, really). There’s also the darker side of it with competitions that some people take way too seriously, instruments that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and snobbery all over the place. Because Katrina, with her rather cheap Chinese violin, doesn’t play classical music, she plays gaming music! I adored this because, come on, who could resist listening to a young nerd playing the Zelda theme on her violin? But with a degree of internet fame comes the inevitable hate and, as you can probably imagine, as a trans girl, the hate takes on entirely new dimensions.

There were many characters to like in this story, first and foremost Katrina and Shizuka Satomi, but I also grew rather fond of Lan Tran and her children – one of which is technically an AI an a projected body, so there’s a whole new can of worms. Shizuka just wants to save herself, her own soul, and she knows that sacrificing young ambitious violin prodigies is what it takes. It’s a totaly coincicence that she’s drawing out handing Katrina over to hell and has nothing to do whatsoever with the fact taht she’s grown fond of the girl…
Katrina is pretty broken at the beginning of the book (when it comes to her ribs, I mean quite literally broken), she feels ugly and undeserving of love, she just wants to belong somewhere and play her music to make people happy. Once Satomi takes her under her wing, a new workd opens up for Katrina and it was both joyful and heartbreaking watching her appreciate such simple things as not being hurt on a daily basis simply for who she is.

I enjoyed every moment of this story, especially the ending. Things appear pretty hopeless, at last for one of the main characters, and I so appreciate when characters are clever and do the right thing. That’s all I can say without spoiling.
But I also have to say that I don’t think this is a particularly good SFF novel. The fantasy and science fiction elements were there but more as afun bonus. Sure, there are discussions of when an AI counts as a person and there is a literal deal with a demon, but the SFF bits aren’t the book’s stongest suit. Very little is explained or even talked about much (Oh, there’s aliens? Cool, I guess.) and it felt like the author was simply having fun with it rather than doing a lot of world buliding or thinking up a magic system. And while that is absolutely fine, the gist of the book would have worked as a contemporary novel as well, which is why I’m not rating it higher. I had a blast listening to the audiobook but it’s not a top SFF novel for me.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

What an AI’s life is worth: Becky Chambers – A Closed and Common Orbit

So I’m reading the Wayfarers series very much out of order but that’s one of the great things about it: you can pick up any novel you like and get a full story without missing anything. The only recommendation I would make is to start with the first one, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet if you don’t want any spoilers at all. Having read three out of the four novels, this one is my favorite by far.

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016
eBook:
385 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Mimetic AI housing is banned in all GC territories, outposts, facilities, and vesels.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovelace will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible imagination of Becky Chambers and has been nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

When Lovelace was put into a body kit at the end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, she lost all memories of who she was before. She knows she is an AI, she was built to be a ship’s computer, and that her previous version wanted to live in a human body. With the help of brilliant engineer Pepper, Lovelace now finds herself in such a body (not really human, but close enough) and has to accomodate to this new life she has entered. Not does her programming make it impossible for her to lie – which is unfortunate when you’re residing in a body kit quite illegally – but she also has to learn how to navigate the world from this new vantage point.

This book follows two perspectives in two different timelines and I honestly couldn’t tell you which one I liked better because they are both so amazing and offer such interesting glimpses into Becky Chambers’ universe. The present day story follows Lovelace, or Sidra as she calls herself, as she learns to ropes of being human (well, pretending to be), how to move in her new body, how to adjust to having only the narrow vision her eyes allow her, rather than the view through numerous camera lenses. Simple things like not seeing things from the top down anymore – as a security camera installed in a room corner would – or not being able to taste food and drinks can really throw her. But in addition, there’s the whole bigger question of what makes someone “human”. Sidra struggles with many things but learns to enjoy and even love others. In perfect Becky Chambers fashion, Sidra’s story is an introspective one but with enough new and interesting things to discover for us readers. I loved reading about the various alien species and their cultural and physical differences as well as the things that unite them. There is definitely some magic in Becky Chambers’ universe!

The second timeline follows Jane 23, a 10-year-old girl who lives in a place where she and many other Janes sort metal parts into scrap and useable bits, where her day is strictly timed, where the mothers oversee their work. Until, that is, Jane glimpses something thorugh a hole in the wall that she didn’t know existed. It’s a big blue ceiling and a room that doesn’t seem to have an end… . Jane 23 wants to escape the life she’s leading and finds help in a very unlikely place. This event will change the course of her entire life and have repercussions that are still felt many years later.
I don’t want to say very much about this story line because I found it so touching and I loved watching it evolve and slowly catch up to the present. What I can tell you however, because it’s never a secret in the book, is that Jane 23 is Pepper as a child. Now finding out how Jane 23 turned into Jane who then turned into Pepper, that’s the interesting part. It’s also incredibly moving, poses lots of philosophical questions about personhood, family, and agency.

The two other Wayfarer books I have read hit me in very different ways. I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet but there were quite a few characters to keep track of and so I think I wasn’t as emotionally invested in either one of their stories. Then Record of a Spaceborn Few took forever to get going. I adored the ending and the message but a big part of that book felt like a slog. So not a favorite. But this! This book right here did everything right and hit all the right notes for me. Following two protagonists allowed me to get to know both of them very well, to care about them and to admire them for who they are. But the alternating chapters also guaranteed a nice pacing. There was even a bit of action in this book.

I loved every part of this story but the ending brought me to tears. There’s a reason this is everyone’s favorite Wayfarer book and I should have listened to you all long ago and read it much sooner. But I’m glad I read it now, during a time when a story of found family, finding your home and a place where you belong is exactly what I needed.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

A Trilogy That Lost Its Way: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Shattersteel

My hopes were high for this final part in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, Sriduangkaew’s take on the Snow Queen fairy tale, set in South East Asia, with queer characters started out really, really well. Sadly, the second book already lost momentum and direction. This conclusion to the series fared no better and felt to me like the author just wanted to get it over with.

SHATTERSTEEL
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Published: Apex Publications, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Her Pitiless Command #3
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The prosthetic arm never seats quite right, despite countless adjustments.

For her entire life, Nuawa has made herself a weapon to assassinate the Winter Queen.

She failed. Her secrets are laid bare and she has lost everything.

The queen keeps Nuawa as a tool, and soon a sacrifice as she brings her ultimate goal to fruition: to harness the divine power of her makers that’ll make her lover General Lussadh immortal.

But Nuawa isn’t done fighting yet.

I could technically copy and paste my review of the second book in this trilogy, Mirrorstrike, because everything about that one still holds true with this final instalment. Except, this time, my patience was more tried, this one is the ending of the story so I had higher expectations, and it’s also just a little bit more chaotic and less coherent than its predecessor. But okay, I guess, let’s get into it.

Nuawa and Lussadh are getting married – hooray for the happy couple – so the first half of this 160 page novella is about them being lovey dovey and having lots of sex. Which, you know, is fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for and I actually found the sex scenes to be very well written. But the reason this book even exists – to tell the story of Nuawa fighting the Winter Queen – is completely ignored for almost half the book.
The romantic dialogue also makes me cringe every time because Sriduangkaew likes using big words and so her characters tend to make grand statements with polysyllabic vocabulary. It sounds over the top and overly dramatic to me but that’s a matter of taste and your mileage may vary.

One more thing that made reading this hard was the use of various different pronouns. It’s great to read about a world that includes all sorts of genders and relationship constellations, but using she/her, he/him, they/them, xe/xer, and ey/eir/em in a book this slim felt like overkill. Especially because sometimes, when we were in Nuawa’s point of view and she just met a character for the first time and couldn’t know what pronouns ey used, she was thinking about that person as ey/em, and that just felt strange. Like how do you see if someone goes by they/them, ey/em, or something else entirely?? So again, I love the inclusion but it didn’t feel organic.

Something that is a fact, though, rather than personal preference, is the lack of plot. Now that the trilogy is finished, I have come to the conclusion that the author had a great idea, wrote the first book, and then didn’t quite know where to go from there. Everything feels so up in the air, every scene on its own reads okay but there is very little connecting these scenes to each other. The whole Snow Queen theme got lost along the way and it reads like the author pantsed her way through it all and then just left the book as it was. I get it, writing a book is difficult and writing a trilogy even more so, but that’s what editing and drafting is for. Also, maybe spend at least half a page reminding your readers of what happened before? Yes, the book then might be 200 pages long but those would be pages well used.

The characters also never quite recovered after the first book. In Mirrorstrike they already felt like shadows of themselves, occupied mostly with swooning over each other rather than what they’ve been spending their entire lives doing up until then. Nuawa from Shattersteel is barely recognizable as Nuawa from Winterglass anymore. The same goes for Lussadh. I did enjoy some minor characters in this book but they don’t get enough time to shine because this is still a very short book.

The resolution to what was set up in the first book is relatively simple and had a deus ex machina feel to it. Nuawa originally set out to destroy the Winter Queen, avenge her people, and free her land and she went a good part of the way on her own strenght and intellicenge. Sadly, she lost her agency along the way as well, so it’s not really even her to battles the Winter Queen at the end but someone else. Any satisfaction I might have felt in finally achiving the big goal was dampened by the fact that Nuawa was, at best, a messenger rather than the saviour of the people.

All things considered, I’m mostly disappointed. I will forever love and adore Winterglass but I don’t see much of a reason to recommend books two or three. They add very little to the world building and characters. What little plot they offer is merely a convoluted vehicle to get to the ending (defeat the Queen and have a relationship with Lussadh, that’s all there is to it, really). I’ll give Sriduangkaew another chance and try her Machine Mandate series but as much as I enjoy beautiful language and deep characters, the books I read still need some kind of plot. And this one couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up so now it’s a jumbled mess of pretty words.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Adventure, Thievery, Love, and Found Family: Margaret Owen – Little Thieves

Who’d have thought that, this late in the year, I’d stumble across two five-star-reads one right after the other? (I know who thought so, because both books are Illumicrate picks, so the Illumicrate team knew what they were doing!) This fairy tale retelling/sequel/twist of the Goose Girl from the point of view of the villain has a little bit of everything and a lot of heart. Even if the protagonist would never, ever admit that. This is YA the way I love it, with magic and silliness but also depth and a believable romance and characters that grow while staying true to themselves. I highly recommend this and I’m so glad it’s part one of a series!

LITTLE THIEVES
by Margaret Owen

Published: Henry Holt & Co., 2021
Hardcover: 512 pages
Series: Little Thieves #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Once upon a time, on the coldest night of midwinter, in the darkest heart of the forest, Death and Fortune cam to a crossroads.

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Margaret Owen, author of The Merciful Crow series, crafts a delightfully irreverent retelling of “The Goose Girl” about stolen lives, thorny truths, and the wicked girls at the heart of both.

Vanja Schmidt is a terror and a joy and she tells us her story not just from her own perspective but with her very personal style as well. That means we get to follow a slightly cocky but undoubtedly brilliant young girl who has taken the place of Prinzessin Gisele, is now impersonating her and following a plan that will ultimately lead her to freedom. You see, Vanja also happens to be the goddaughter of Death and Fortune who expect her to choose one of them to serve for the rest of… well, forever, I guess. So the plan is to make (meaning: steal) enough money so Vanja can leave the country and its beliefs and make a life for herself somewhere else. Except then things get even more complicated when she steals from someone who is protected by one of the Low Gods. Eiswald, the god of the forest, curses Vanja to become her greed. Which means that rubies and diamonds sprout from her body unless she “gives back what she took”. And off goes the adventure!

My gods did I love this book. It’s a chonker but there is just so much to discover and so many things to love that I was happy to have this many pages to enjoy. If you’re familiar with the Goose Girl fairy tale, you’ll know that our plucky heroine Vanja is actually the villain of that tale. The servant/friend of the real princess who steals her identity and lives in the castle with the lovely prince, all while Gisele, the real princess, lives the life of a servant who takes care of the geese (thus the title) and wants to take back her rightful place by the prince’s side.
Well, in this version, nothing is what it seems or how you remember it. Not only is Vanja not a villain (although her morals are often questionable) but Gisele isn’t the kind of vapid princess you’d expect. And the prince is decidedly not lovely!

What makes this book stand out from other fairy tale retellings and from other YA adventure/romance novels is first and foremost the hilarious yet heartfelt narration by Vanja herself. She’s funny, she’s self-aware, but she’s also a young girl who, more than anything, wants to be loved and accepted for herself. Watching her grow over the course of this novel was simply wonderful and nothing about her development felt forced.
The same goes for the romance which is understated, slow-burn, and believable. There is also a secondary F/F couple that I found adorable and charming. This story also takes place in a world where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an issue. There are very minor non-binary characters, a minor character in an M/M relationship and people don’t assume everyone is cis or straight. It’s not a big deal in the story but I found it lovely nonetheless.

The plot is pretty damn great because it does that thing that I love where it starts with a simple plan that then spirals totally out of control. Where it used to be about Vanja trying to amass a certain amount of wealth, then there’s the added burden of trying to break this curse which – by the way – will kill her by the next full moon. That leads her down the rabbit hole of her past and on the way, she has to deal with this junior prefect who’s investigating the staggering amount of thefts (by Vanja). Oh yes, and she’s about to be married to Adalbrecht of Reigendorf because she’s still impersonating Prinzessin Gisele. So there’s a lot on her plate!

There’s just so much I could be stealing right now, if I didn’t have social obligations with the man who tried to poison me earlier in the week. And if it weren’t for the curse. And, I suppose, the law, though really we all know my concern for that is cosmetic at best.

What really surprised me was how this mostly funny story that doesn’t take itself too seriously then started to show true depth. Not only are the characters multi-faceted and most of them surprised me at least once, but the themes of the book get darker and more serious, Vanja’s personality makes more sense and the tender relationships she builds in this story become so much more meaningful.

I could tell you so much about the world this is set in. There are gods and there’s magic, there are politics galore, people talk with different accents, there are cultural aspects and traditions – just a bit of everything that makes a world feel real. Margaret Owen never overburdens her story with these tidbits but she gives us enough to make her world feel vibrant and rich. I always felt like I knew enough to feel at home but there’s also plenty more I’d like to discover in future volumes, especially about how the whole prefect system works, what their magic entails, and what influence the gods have on everyday humans.

“You know an awful lot of big-boy no-no words for a man of the gods.”

“You are an absolute terror,” he snaps. “At this point I’m frankly amazed nothing else cursed you before now.”

Finally, the thing that can make or break a book is the ending. And again, Margaret Owen stuck the landing and delivered an ending that made me weepy with joy without being cheesy. Things aren’t perfect at the end and sacrifices had to be made, but overall, it is a very satisfying conclusion to this story that shows Vanja, despite her growth, still staying true to herself. Man, I love that girl! At this point, I don’t know if this is a planned trilogy or longer series but if Owen has more stories like this up her sleeve, I’d be fine with 10 volumes or more. What a feelgood romp with surprsing depths.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Edwardian Magic, But Steamy and Gay: Freya Marske – A Marvellous Light

You guys, this book came at just the right time and I unabashedly loved it! Depending on what you’re looking for, this is a real treat. It’s heavier on the romance than the magic but all the elements come together so well that I’m already excited for the sequel. And this book is still brand new so we’ll all have to practice some patience.

A MARVELLOUS LIGHT
by Freya Marske

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
384 pages
Series:
The Last Binding #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Reginald Gatling’s doom found him beneath an oak tree, on the last Sunday of a fast-fading summer.

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

Robin Blyth has a new job and it’s not what he thinks. On his very first day at the new office, in his very first meeting, he gets Unbusheled – which is what magical folks call it when us non-magical people find out that, yes, magic exists alongside the world we knew, and there’s this whole secret world of magicians, including magical police and government and all that jazz. But what starts out with a well-used trope (one I’m personally not tired of yet, btw) soon shows its original ideas.

Magic in this version of Edwardian England is done by something called cradling and that means moving your hands and fingers in specific patterns, as if playing Cat’s Cradle. I loved this idea so so much because it may sound simple – magicians waving their hands about – but it has interesting implications. You need both hands to do magic so any situation where one hand is incapacitated could bee interesting; your movements need to be precise so using an actual physical string can help. But if, like second protagonist Edwin Courcey, you always need to use that string, other, stronger, magicians may look down on you for your lack of power and confidence…
You see, a small idea spun in interesting directions can go a long way toward making a fantasy book exciting.

So Robin’s first day is pretty crazy because after finding out about magic, he promptly gets cursed by a man with fog instead of a face. Edwin, who mostly just wants to make Robin forget about magic and find someone competent for the job, is now stuck. You can’t just send a man out into the world of humans with a curse attached to him, especially when said curse gives him debilitating pain every once in a while. And so the two team up and try to lift the curse on Robin, while also researching whatever happened to Robin’s predecessor. Murder, magic, and mayhem ensue.

We are man’s marvellous light

We hold the gifts of the dawn

From those now passed and gone

And carry them into the night

I loved this so much! The writing is superb, mixing vivid descriptions with wonderful humor, great dialogue, and characters one can root for. The heart of the novel are its mystery and its romance. Man, did I want those two to get their act together and just kiss! And because Freya Marske decided to burst onto the SFF scene with this bomb of a debut, I got my wish eventually. Plus some seriously steamy sex scenes! If that’s something you enjoy, then do yourself a favor and get youself a copy of this book. If sex scenes make you uncomfortable, you can still read the book but you’ll have to skip over some delicious pages.

This book really has everything I needed at the moment. An exciting plot, a great mystery at the heart of it, a killer romance, and characters that you think you know right away, but who reveal layers upon layers of personality the more you read. The one thing I might have criticized was the lack of female characters, especially ones with agency, but Marske adresses this in the coolest, most hilarious way! First of all, it’s a man’s world we’re reading about and even so, women are always present in some way (mostly not very flattering ways, but okay). There are some parts that show just how poweful women can be, though. And towards the end, some female characters get more involved in the story and kick some serious ass. They even make fun of the way the world looks at them as useless ornaments and use society’s prejudices to their own advantage. I’m pretty sure I cheered out loud at that part. 🙂

I was also delighted to find out that this is part one in a trilogy because, although this book ends on a satisfying note, there is a pretty big problem/mystery still to solve and I am here for it! Seriously, if the second book was out already I wouldn’t even have stopped to write this review before picking it up. This book was a delicous romp with a bit of everything I love. It managed to drag some giggles and ooh lalas out of me when I was feeling mostly depressed about the whole Covid situation, and for that it gets extra brownie points. Now, dear Freya Marske, please write many more books like this. I cannot wait to eat them up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Change Your Own Story: Alix E. Harrow – A Spindle Splintered

I’ve been following Alix E. Harrow’s career with much excitement because not only does she like the same books I like, but it feels like she wants to write exactly the kind of books that end up being my favorites. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology, her tales are about nerdy characters, about underdogs, about true friendships and dreams come true. The fact that she started a “spider-versed fairy tale retelling” novella series feels like Christmas and birthdays and some other holidays all rolled into one.

A SPINDLE SPLINTERED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
128 pages
Series:
Fractured Fables #1
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

This story isn’t a fairy tale but it has a lot to say about them, particularly about Sleeping Beauty. Zinnia Gray has a rare disease – Generalized Roseville Malady – about which very little is known, except that most people suffering from it don’t make it past twenty-one. So the fact that she identifies with a fairy tale princess cursed to fall asleep on her birthday isn’t all that far fetched. Zinnia makes the best of her life, she lives fast, studies what she likes, and fiercly loves her best friend Charm who, by the way, is the absolute best friend ever in SFF fiction. Sure, you could say her savior/hero complex isn’t super healthy but she would do anything for Zinnia and reading about the way these two interact, their chat messages, the one-liners, the absolute trust – it’s pure friendshop goals!

So if you know the elevator pitch for this is “spider-verse a fairy tale” you won’t be surprised when, on her twenty-first birthday, Zinnia jokingly touches her finger to a spinnig wheel’s needle and – bam! – pops up in an alternate universe next to a real princess who wears a poofy dress and looks like she fell out of a Disney movie. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s what and soon the two work together to try and break the curse. Instead of sitting around waiting for fate to catch up in the shape of a needle, they pack some stuff and go out to find that thirteenth fairy to convince her to lift the curse or bribe her or… something. And while they’re at it, maybe Zinnia’s “curse” can be healed as well..?

The strength of this novella is definitely its protagonist and her relationships to the people around her. Zinnia has a great sense of humor and enough self-awareness to not take herself too seriously, despite her pretty serious situation. As a fairy tale scholar, she is also the perfect person to fall into a parallel universe where the fairy tale is actual fucking reality, and try to both help the resident damsel in distress as well as maybe save her own life at the same time.
There is actually a cute little adventure happening in Fairyland (where Zinnia has cell phone reception, btw, which I somehow find absolutely hilarious) and even characters who only show up shortly get… maybe not fleshed out but they give off a sense of being more than we can see. Whether it’s Princess Primrose’s mother or the prince she’s betrothed to, there is more to them than their fairy tale nature lets you suspect. I loved that, just as I loved the actual adventure the two girls go on, including creepy marshes, a raven, and some blood because, hey, its a fairytale! There must be blood.

Perhaps a little too easy and on the simplistic side was the big picture world building and the resultant world-hopping. What first seems to be the big conflict – how to get back home to her own world – soon turns into a barely existing barrier. Zinnia tries out one idea which happens to work, and that’s it. From then on, world-hopping is possible with no real effort. By anyone. That took a lot of the magic out of it for me.

But then this story isn’t about the multiverse, or even discovering and comparing some of its worlds. It’s about the people who live there. Just like in the movie inspiration for this novella series, you get a few comical appearances with no depth but great plot moments, like 90s princess (not like other girls, short hair, you know the type), Viking Sleeping Beauty, and Space Princess with a laser gun. As important as they may be to the overall plot, the heart of this story is Zinnia, her best friend Charm, and Princess Primrose who also has a lot more depth than you’d expect from your stereotypical fairy tale princess.

I loved so many aspects of this little book, starting with its self-awareness and its sense of humor. If you don’t like plenty of references then this may not be for you. Harrow drops a lot of them, starting with Disney characters, movies, and songs, , moving on to the darker, earlier versions of the fairy tale, to other pop culture characters and books and authors. And I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it but the fact that Zinnia’s disease is called Generalized Roseville Malady – GRM for short – and it kills lots of people while they’re still very young, made me think of a certain boob-filled book and TV series by an author with very similar initials who is known to kill off characters, even if they’re protagonists…

I wish briefly but passionately that I’d been zapped into a different storyline, maybe one of those ’90s girl power fairy tale retellings with a rebellious princess who wears trousers and hates sweing. (I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.)

Alix harrow clearly has a lot to say not just about fairy tales but about women’s roles in stories and in real life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the women in this book instinctively work together, that they listen to each other, try to learn the other’s story before judging. And it just so happens that the vapid princess isn’t quite so vapid, the evil fairy may not be exactly what she seems, and Zinnia’s choices in life (based on the fact that it will be a short one) may not have been perfect. Harrow allows her heroines to be flawed and make mistakes while still remaining the heroes of their own story. And having a choice to change that story makes all the difference.

The ending could have been super sappy and messed the whole book up but, fortunately, Harrow didn’t go down that path. She left us on a satisfied note with a protagonist who has been changed fundamentally by the events of this tale, with a lovely side story for some side characters, and, most importantly, with the promise of more stories. More princesses who’d rather save themselves, more worlds, more versions of fairy tales to explore.
This was a very quick read and I do worry that it might not hold up on a reread, especially once a few years have passed. But only time will tell and until then, I’ll be recommending this fun, heartfelt novella with its excellent female friendships to anyone who likes fairy tales. Especially if they don’t behave as they should.

I’m already looking forward to the next book, A Mirror Mended, which will tackle Snow White.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!