Magic, Egypt, and Bowler Hats: P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn

P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.

Identity, Freedom, and Body Horror: Rivers Solomon – Sorrowland

I have come to absolutely love Rivers Solomon’s writing, whether it’s about a neuroatypical woman on a generation ship, mermaid-like creatures with the weight of history on their shoulders, or this creepy, haunting science fiction tale about a young mother searching for freedom. Solomon is a brilliant voice in SFF and I can’t wait to see whatever they come up with next.

sorrowlandSORROWLAND
by Rivers Solomon

Published: MCD Books, 2021
eBook: 368 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 2 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

There’s something about Rivers Solomon’s writing that just grabs me. Out of the books I’ve read by them, this was by far the most uncomfortable. There is violence, body horror, religious fanaticism, and all sorts of other things that make me queasy. But if I’ve come to learn something about Solomon as an author, it’s that they don’t shy away from difficult themes but rather face them head on, exploring them and turning them into fantastic stories. Sorrowland is no different.

The book begins with Vern, a young girl (although it took me forever to figure out just how young), who is running through the forest. She’s running from some unnamed fiend that we will learn about later. She’s also super pregnant and about to give birth to twins. Without help or medication, without any other humans, Vern gives birth to her two boys Howling and Feral, and the little family proceeds to somehow live in the forest, always in hiding, constantly vigilant.
Vern has grown up in Blessed Acres, also called Cainland, a religious compound that may have gotten started by noble ideas but has definitely drifted off into exactly what you’d expect. One powerful man gets to say what happens in Cainland, all the others have to follow. For what began as a place for Black people to live in peace, independently of white people’s economy and society which always puts them at a disadvantage, is now a strict religious cult whose leader one day decided that Vern is just the kind of girl he’d like to marry. Never mind that she’s still a child herself and has no interest in men generally or him in particular. Through flashbacks we get glimpses of life in Cainland, of Vern’s mother, Vern’s best friend, and everything that Vern has run away from.

To be alive meant to lust after connection, and better to have one with the enemy than with no one at all.

You’d think being on the run with two newborns, living off the forest, and simply staying alive would be enough for a novel. And you’d be right, but Rivers Solomon is full of ideas and they don’t write easy stories if they can write very complicated ones. So in addition to raising two children in the forest by herself while reguarly being hunted by the fiend, Vern’s own body is changing in strange ways she doesn’t understand. It starts as an itch here, a skin thingy there, but over time, it becomes clear that something is happening to Vern that she can’t control and that doesn’t happen to people normally. Finding out what that is, what caused it, and what it means for Vern’s future is part of what makes this book so intriguing.

But there is so much more happening in this book that I can’t tell you about because it’s such a pleasure reading it for yourself. Pleasure may not be the right word, as this happens to be a very dark tale with no guaranteed happy ending, with many difficult situations, tough decisions, and quite a bit of body horror added to the mix. But it’s not only the changes in Vern’s body or the sometimes graphic descriptions that make this a tough read. Vern is a young Black lesbian whose gender identity doesn’t fall into a binary system. She is called “she” throughout this book and she gives birth right at the beginning, but other than that, she doesn’t much hold with gender roles. She even meets another character who goes by she/her pronouns but who may not have sexual organs that fit perfectly into a male/female binary.
In recent years, I’ve read more and more books with a range of diverse characters written by diverse authors, but I’m always happy when I get to meet a character who teaches me something new or shows me different aspects of the world. I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about Vern’s gender or sexual preferences (she is into women but that’s also not a 100% rule) but I found it super interesting to read about these aspects of her character as well as the way she explores her own sexuality throughout the book. Because as science fictional, occasionally dystopian, and survival-focused this story may be, it is also a coming-of-age tale.

It’s super hard to talk about it without spoiling things, so let me just repeat that Solomon tackles dark and difficult themes head on. They don’t sugar coat anything, they don’t try to make their heroines look pretty or keep their hands clean so it’s easier for us to like them. Vern isn’t the kind of character that I always agree with or even understand, but she reads very much like a real person! I loved following her on this crazy journey, finding out snippets of her past, seeing how she’s raising her children (“unconventional” is a huge understatement, as you can imagine), and how she falls in love and learns to trust people. The science fiction aspects of the story simply added a layer of awesome and made sure we get a few cool action scenes that keep us at the edge of our seat. But, like Solomon’s previous novels, deep down it’s a very personal tale about one young woman finding her place in the world ancd coming to terms with who she is.

I can’t say this was always fun to read because the subject matter is so dark at times, and things seem so hopeless and terrible at others, but I loved the book anyway. And if it hadn’t already been the case, this would have cemented Rivers Solomon’s place on my list of auto-buy authors. Whatever they write next, I’m here for it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

A Book Like a Warm Hug: T.J. Klune – The House in the Cerulean Sea

Isn’t it lovely when you find a book that everybody seems to love, you open the book with trepidation because your expectations are super high, you start reading, and then the book ends up being exactly as great as everbody had said? This is such a book and I’m adding my voice to the many others recommending it, especially when you need a bit of escapism, something that will make you feel good, and give you hope for the future.

house in the cerulean seaTHE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA
by T. J. Klune

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 394 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line:  “Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is most unusual.”

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

Never would I have thought that this book would get to me the way it did. After all, I had read some reviews, I had heard all the raving and squeeing about it, I knew what it was about and how it would try to push my emotional buttons. But the truth is, knowing what you’re going to get doesn’t keep you from feeling it. And, oh how I felt it!

Linus Baker is all about rules. He works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his job is visiting orphanages where magical kids live to see if everything is fine, if the RULES AND REGULATIONS are being adhered to or if, in some unfortunate cases, the orphanage should rather be shut down. Linus’ life is simple and straight forward. He has no dreams, no ambitions, he just has a cat named Callipe who doesn’t like him very much, a few sunfowers, and a super annoying nosy neighbor who wants to set him up with her grandson. But as Linus also has the ability to be extremely objective and doesn’t let his job get to him emotionally, Extremely Upper Management takes notice and sends him on a special, super secret investigation of an orphanage on Maryas Island.

As I write this, I am once again amazed that a book that is kind of predictable, can work so beautifully and make me so happy. Because we all know what’s coming. Linus will investigated that place, the kids (and the master of the orphanage) will steak Linus’ heart and we well all have learned a lesson about acceptance and the evils of prejudice. And yeah, it’s kind of that, butthere’s so much more to this book than that.

Starting with the writing style which I immediately fell into and just soaked up because it was everything I wanted, over the characters who not only show Linus that they are deserving of love, no matter how monstrous they may look, but who also totally carved out a spot in my heart, over the world building which reveals itself more and more over the course of the book, to the absolute delight of the found family and the real connections between them. I honestly can’t think of any comparison that would do this book justice. A warm blanket, a much-needed hug, someone holding your hand when you thought you were all alone – it’s kind of like all of those but none of them tell you all that the book is.

Every chapter brought new delights, showed a new aspect of this magical world that has its own problems, or a new side to a character, so even when there isn’t much action going on, it’s never boring. Watching Linus grow and come out of his shell a little, seeing alongside him that there can be more to life than RULES AND REGULATIONS (always in capital letters!) gave me so much joy. There were times when I wanted to crawl into this book and spend a week at the orphanage.

But this book is also really funny. I chuckled every time I read “Extremely Upper Management” or basically anytime Talia or Lucy opened theirmouths, but there are also some hilarious moments where Linus just feels out of place or accidentally shows an emotion that got me to smile.

Around his neck hanging on a chain was an orante silver cross. “He tried to shove that in my face.” Lucy laughed as he shook his head. “What does he think I am, a vampire? That’s silly. I like crosses. They’re just two sticks put together, but they mean so much to so many. I tried making a symbol out of Popsicle sticks that I could sell and get rich, but Arthur said it wasn’t right. […]”

The close I got to the end, the more I wanted to draw things out. But you know how it is with really engaging books. You can’t stop reading so the dreaded end keeps coming closer and closer. I thought I was prepared for things to come. I thought I had it all figured out. And, as far as the plot goes, I had a pretty good idea of how everything would turn out. There was a lovely twist there at the end, which I appreciated, but even without that, it would have been a great ending. I cried like a baby and then I cried some more. But it was the good kind of crying, the kind that reminds you why you love to read, why you immerse yourself in imaginary worlds, why fiction characters can feel so real.
The House In the Cerulean Sea may not have a super original premise or the most surprising plot but it does what it’s trying to do with perfection! I put all of T J Klune’s books on my wishlist immediately after reading this and I will save them up for a time when I need a reminder that there’s still good the world and that home is the people you choose to surround yourself with.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

A Latinx Love Story With Ghosts: Aiden Thomas – Cemetery Boys

I had had Aiden Thomas on my radar because their newest book is a Peter Pan retelling with a gorgeous cover and I just can’t resist Peter Pan retellings that look like they do something new and interesting with one of my favorite stories. But then Thomas’ first book, Cemetery Boys, became a finalist for the Lodestar Award (not-a-Hugo but really totally a YA Hugo), so I picked that one up first. It won’t make ranking the finalists easier but it was a great reading experience.

cemetery boysCEMETERY BOYS
by Aiden Thomas

Published: Swoon Reads, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.

A trans boy determined to prove his gender to his conservative Latinx family summons a ghost who refuses to leave in Aiden Thomas’s paranormal YA debut.
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

divider1

Yadriel is a young trans boy living in a brujx family. What he wants most in the world is to be accepted for who he is, and that includes being a brujo (rather than a bruja), one of the men of his community who can summon spirits and send them on to the afterlife. The only people who seem to undertand him and take him seriously are his cousin Maritza – who, as a vegan, refuses to become a bruja because they use animal blood for their healing rituals – and his tío Catriz who has no magical powers at all, despite being born into a brujx family.
Right from the start, this book has so much to offer! The first few chapters may be heavy on the exposition, but it’s exposition about interesting stuff, so I didn’t mind all that much. Getting to know how the whole brujx thing works and why Yadriel lives on a cemetery (!), as well as meeting the protagonists is important. Not every book needs a steep learning curve. Sometimes, it’s really nice to have things explained to you first, and then go and have adventures in that world.

The plot kicks off with Yadriel and Maritza secretly performing a ritual which will grant Yadriel his brujo powers – if, indeed Lady Death, sees and accepts him as the young man he is, rather than the young woman some of his family think of him. The ritual works out – YAY! – but almost at the same moment, something terrible happens. Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, dies and because brujx are all connected somehow, every brujx feels it. The problem is, there is no body and nobody knows what happened to Miguel. Sure, they can wait for Día de Muertos, which is only a few days away, for his spirit to return and tell them how he died and where his body is, but if something went wrong and he hasn’t crossed over into the afterlife, they need to find his body and help him.

In an attempt to help his cousin’s spirit and prove to his family (and himself, a bit) that he truly is a brujo, Yadriel summons a spirit, thinking it’s Miguel. It turns out that it’s a boy from Yadriel’s school (although he isn’t there very often) named Julian Díaz. And Julian, although definitely dead, has no idea where he is, why he’s a spirit, or how he died. Bewilderment ensues.

I enjoyed this book so very much and despite the fact that I had guessed the solution to the murder mystery at pretty much the halfway mark. I guessed both the villain and the reason for Miguel’s missing body as well as Julian’s death, and my guess turned out to be exactly right. Like, not even a detail missing… You’d think that would take the fun out of this book but it really didn’t. That, to me, proves that this is about much more than just an exciting plot or solving a murder case. It’s about a wonderful cast of characters and the pretty tough things they have to go through.

I immediately liked Yadriel. The fact that he is trans is a big part of his life, mostly because his family are super traditional and don’t really take him seriously. His mother did, buying him a proper binder and making sure the rest of the family called him by his name, didn’t misgender him, etc. But his mother died not long ago in a car accident, so now Yadriel only has Maritza to truly support him and his uncle to understand what it’s like feeling like an outsider. As I have only occasionally read books with trans characters, many aspects of Yadriel’s daily life were interesting to me. I admit, I get annoyed when my boobs get in the way sometimes, but I have never thought about what it’s like to bind them up every day and how that affects your life. Yadriel’s binder isn’t mentioned all that often, but it is part of his life and if you’ve ever worn tight clothing, you know that when it doesn’t fit, it can get uncomfortable fast. When you’re running around the city, trying to find out who killed your new ghost friend, these things are important. Just as controlling what you wear or how you cut your hair can make a huge difference for your identity.

But as much as I liked Yadriel, I freaking loved Julian. I was super bummed out that, when we first meet him, he’s already a spirit. His life is officially over and all he can do now is convince Yadriel to help him check on his friends and his brother and make sure everyone’s okay. Julian has a reputation as a bad boy, a guy who never goes to school but rather hangs out with dangerous gang kids on the street. In reality, Julian is the kindest, sweetest boy you can imagine, even if he does have anger management issues. Discovering, alongside Yadriel and Maritza, what this dead boy was really like and how, even after dying, he is still trying to look out for others, is the heart of this book.
You may guess that Yadriel develops feelings for Julian, but this book isn’t super heavy on the romance. There is way too much going on for sappy moments or big declarations of love. No, what feelings there are, they are shown in small ways, through gestures or little moments. It’s my favorite kind so I don’t need to tell you that I was close to tears several times while reading this.

All things considered, this is a very good debut novel. The important (and I suspect hardest) bits are well done, the characters all feel real and fleshed out. They have agency, they are individuals but they aren’t defined by their character traits – Maritza isn’t only vegan, just the way Yadriel isn’t only trans – they are people and these things are part of what makes them, them. I also adored the world building. Sure, there are probably more elegant ways of explaining the magic and intricacies of brujx culture, but for a book aimed at a young audience, I don’t think it’s terrible to just straigh up tell your readers how things work. I loved how Thomas conveyed the feeling of Latinx families. Without ever really saying it, you totally get the feeling of large families with lots of siblings and cousins and grandparents, all living close together and watching out for each other. And cooking. Lots of cooking. 🙂

Was this a perfect book? Probably not. Or at least not for me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans boy out there, looking for stories with someone like themselves and coming across this book. I can only imagine that it must be delightful and wonderful, especially because it’s #ownvoices. To me, an adult, cis woman, this book was just beautiful and made me want to pick up Thomas’ next one even more. And I have to say, after guessing the solution the the biggest mystery, I was more than happy that the ending still held a few surprises in store. But that’s all I’m willing to say because you should really pick this book up and enjoy it for yourselves.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Linden A. Lewis – The First Sister

I am still catching up with all the awesome 2020 releases and this was one of my most anticipated ones. Debut author Linden A. Lewis delivered a kick-ass first novel that – while flawed – got me excited for her world and for the next books in the trilogy. I’m telling you, this is a tough year to pick favorites… I’m already dreading my favorite books of the year list but I guess I’ll just cheat and make it super long. 🙂

THE FIRST SISTER
by Linden A. Lewis

Published: Skybound Books, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 33 minutes
Series: The First Sister Trilogy #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: The new fool captain arrives in two houers, so I sort my belongings and pack them into a small bag.

Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising, this epic space opera follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

A stunning and sweeping debut novel that explores the power of technology, colonization, race, and gender, The First Sister is perfect for fans of James S.A. Corey, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.

I love me a book with multiple POVs. In this case, we get three: The eponymous First Sister who is a Gaean priestess serving on a space ship where she (and her fellow Sisters) are there to give comfort to the soldiers. Comfort in the form of taking confessions as well as bodily comforts… they’re basically prostitutes, except they don’t get paid and their job is considered religious in nature. The sisters cannot speak and are limited to sign language among each other and using facial expressions and body language when “talking” to others. It’s an intriguing premise that immediately asks questions about bodily autonomy, identity, and freedom. First Sister is lucky insofar as she is First Sister – a privilege granted by the ship’s captain which means she is his own private courtisan and none of the other soldiers can request her services.  But at the very beginning of the book, the captain is going into retirement and does not keep his promise of taking First Sister with him. She is stuck on the ship Juno once more and has to regain her First Sister privilege with the new captain, the charismatic war hero Saito Ren.

The second perspective we follow is Lito, an Icarii soldier fighting against the Gaeans. Icarii duelists are paired together as Dagger and Rapier, two people who not only fight as a team but are also emotionally connected via neural implant. They can share messages and emotions through these implants which makes them even better fighters.
But Lito’s partner Hiro val Akira is missing. More than missing, they are branded as a deserter and Lito’s new mission is to find and kill them. Needless to say, he has qualms about executing his former partner, friend, and maybe even romantic interest. Newly paired with Ofiera, Lito goes onto the mission anyway, fighting his feelings the entire time. When new information about the war comes to light, Lito has to rethink his entire existence, however, not just whether he will actually go through with killing his friend…

Our third perspective comes in the form of recordings by Hiro val Akira himself, left to Lito as a sort of explanation/goodbye. Through these chapters, we learn more about Hiro and Lito’s back story, the battle of Ceres which was a turning point for the war between Icarii and Gaeans, and how Hiro came to be a traitor to their people.

You may have noticed that Hiro uses they/them pronouns. Their gender identity isn’t talked about much. They are simply Hiro and they go by “they”. It was quite refreshing to see a nonbinary character in this sci-fi story without their gender identity being an issue. First Sister identifies as female, Lito identifies as male, and all the side characters also fall onto one side of a binary, but people generally accept Hiro as Hiro – although there are instances where characters wilfully disrespect their wish for they/them pronouns.
But that’s not the only interesting thing Lewis does with gender in this story. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the rest without spoiling things, so you’ll just have to believe me. 🙂

Although the book is called The First Sister, I found her to be the weakest aspect of the story. First Sister is a good character to follow but, boy is she flawed. I don’t mean as a person (she is that too, but I’m considering that a good thing that makes her more believable) but as a part of the world she lives in. In fact, the whole Sisterhood is a great idea that wasn’t executed very well. I can suspend my disbelief about the Sisters being unable to speak  – because whatever religious reason demands it – and I can even see who a society evolved that has prostitutes on a war ship to keep up the soldiers’ morale. As despicable as this may be, it makes sense within this world Lewis has set up.
What bothered me a lot, though, was how little explored the horrors of such a world were and how isolated First Sister felt the entire time. Sure, as First Sister, her only “patron” is the captain of the ship, but she does occasionally communicate with other Sisters as well as Aunt Marshae who is a sort of overseer for the Sisters. Her only friend is a soldier named Ringer. Apart from that, First Sister doesn’t have much personality. She doesn’t want to be a Sister but dreams of a quiet, simple home on Mars. But her life on the Juno doesn’t feel believable. It’s unlikely that she would have no relationship with the other Sisters whatsoever, that she doesn’t see how they are dealing with their lives. And because First Sister only “services” the captain, we don’t see the horrors of the Sisterhood. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted to read graphic scenes of how the other Sisters are used, but it would have helped to see the aftermath of their experiences. Since First Sister barely communicates with them and the story is told from her POV, we don’t get to see the other Sisters’ suffering (or whether they consider it suffering at all). To me, this was a lost opportunity to flesh out the world, show us different characters, and explore why First Sister hates the system so much.

As for the larger story arc, this book was very much part one in a trilogy. It sets up certain things that will probably become the main plot in the sequel. I really enjoyed the world building, even though certain aspects of it could use more depth. First Sister’s dangerous relationship with Saito Ren, the ongoing war between the technologically advanced Icarii and the nature-loving Gaeans, and the Asters – genetically changed humans living on the asteroid belt – there’s a lot to discover. Lewis did some heavy lifting when it comes to world building without lenghty expositions and she got me hooked early on. Character-wise, Lito and Hiro are easily the most interesting people in this book. First Sister, unfortunately, fell a little flat.
As for the plot, there are some great twists at the end that actually made me gasp. I did not see it coming but it worked perfectly within the story, it didn’t feel cheap, and its implications and consequences will carry on into the next book.

As for  the audiobook version, it is narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, Neo Cihi, and Gary Tiedemann who read the three POVs respectively. I thought each of them did a fantastic job in bringing the characters to life. Zeller’s voice felt a little too sensuous and sexy to me at first, but whenever First Sister was afraid or excited, the emotion totally came through in the narration and made the audiobook a great experience. Cihi and Tiedemann I liked right from the start and they stayed brilliant until the very end. It was also really nice to have someone pronounce the (very few) Japanese words or names in a way that sounds Japanese – I don’t speak it, so I can’t judge if it was actually pronounced correctly, but it definitely helped with the immersion. So: Audiobook highly recommended!

Although the book has some debut problems, I am deeply impressed with Linden A. Lewis’ work and storytelling ability. It also felt like she has the whole story planned out – at least in broad strokes – and we will get a satisfying trilogy. I’m definitely going to read the next book, The Second Rebel, which is currently set to come out in August 2021.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

World Hopping and Finding Your Place: Micaiah Johnson – The Space Between Worlds

This book had me so confused. Not because of its contents (they were awesome – expect some gushing below) but because of its marketing or rather the way early reviews presented it. For some reason, I thought this was a YA book but… it’s really not. The protagonist is in her mid-twenties, there is nothing particularly “YA” about the writing style or the plot, so I don’t know where early reviewers and people on Goodreads got this idea from. It is, however, a really great book that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

43301353. sy475 THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS
by Micaiah Johnson

Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: When the multiverse was confirmed, the spiritual and scientific communities both counted it as evidence of their validity.

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying–from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works–and shamelessly flirts–with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

Caramenta works for Eldridge, the company that has invented multiverse travel. As a traverser, she is tasked with hopping between Earths that are similar to, but not quite like, our own in order to take samples and conduct research on behalf of her employer. Cara is so valuable because you can only safely travel to worlds where your other self is already dead – and Cara happens to be really good at dying…

The premise alone was already so interesting that very little could have gone wrong with this book. But Micaiah Johnson didn’t just rely on one good idea. Instead, she took that idea, extrapolated from it and delivered twist after twist, all fitting perfectly together in this world she’s built and keeping me riveted for the entire book. I mean, how often does it happen that you get a plot twist in chapter 2 (!) that actually shocks you? For me, this showed two things. First, that Johnson did a really good job setting up the world and protagonist in the first chapter. And secondly, that she somehow got me emotionally invested in that same amount of time. And that’s no small feat.

Caramenta is pretty easy to like, even though she is complicated, stubborn, and carries a lot of baggage. She keeps flirting with her watcher, Dell, even though she only returns the flirtations with cold professionalism. Cara is also great at getting herself into dangerous situations, ones she mostly makes the best of. The best being her pursuit of a Wiley City citizenship. As a traverser, she gets to live in Wiley City but she never, for one second, forgets her origins in the Mad Max-like wastelands. Walled cities have all the wealth and quality of life, whereas the outside is mostly desert under a scorching sun, with terrible living conditions, and ground that barely wants to grow anything. It’s ruled by the Blood Emperor and that title alone should tell you all there is to know about him.

This book may be about multiverses, and we do get to see some of those, but it’s also about living between two worlds on your own Earth, of straddling two identities and not feeling like you properly fit into either. As much as I enjoyed Cara’s jumps between worlds, it was this aspect of the novel that truly gripped me. And I was very impressed with how the author managed to show both those worlds as believable spaces, with their own culture, their own clothing and mannerisms, their own rituals and rules. Discovering both how Wiley City and the wastelands work was a large part of the fun for me.

But there’s also plot. Oh, and what a plot it is! You’d think the trope of the multiverse would prepare you a little for what’s to come. And again, some things that are expected turn out to happen in this novel – such as meeting other versions of people you know, except they’re very different or meeting their other versions and they’re almost exactly the same – but there is so much more! Things in one universe actually impact other universes, if only because Cara travels between them and can take information (and objects) with her. Let’s just say there are quite a few twists, none of which felt cheap, and I was there for it!

What made this book even better was the relationships between the characters and the way they were written. This may sound mean (I don’t mean it that way) but that’s another thing that convinced me this was not a YA novel. In YA, sometimes relationships can be described in very obvious terms. And while it’s obvious from the start that Cara is in love with Dell, that’s all we really know. We’re in Cara’s head so we don’t really know what goes on in anyone else’s. But as aloof as Dell may be, through little (and sometimes big) gestures, she shows that she at least cares whether Cara lives or dies.
Similarly, Cara’s relationship to her stepsister Esther was beautifully done. As different as these two girls may be, there is love between them and it is shown not by either of them declaring it in big words, but rather through actions. It may just be me, but I’m a sucker for love shown, rather than told. Sure, pretty words are nice and I get weak in the knees as much as the next person when I read a powerful declaration of love. But even more than that, a collection of little gestures is what gets to me. A small lie to protect the other person here, a gift there, something that shows you listen and care about someone… aaaaah, I’m getting all mushy inside.

This book is exactly what the title promises. It’s about the space between worlds. A multitude of worlds. The literal parallel worlds that exist next to ours, the two worlds on Earth Zero with their class differences, even the worlds inside Cara herself where she has to decide whether she wants to be a good person or just someone who carved out a comfortable life for herself, regardless of the cost. And let’s not forget the space between Cara’s two romantic relationships which couldn’t be more different. In short, there is so much to discover in this book and the way Johnson explores these themes is amazing.

I loved everything about this book, especially considering that it’s a debut novel. Johnson writes like she has at least five books under her belt. If this is what she comes up with for her first book I cannot wait to see what’s next. The Space Between Worlds was a fantastic, multi-layered story with high stakes, great science-fictional ideas, brilliant characters, and a satisfying ending. It will easily end up on my list of favorite books of the year.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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!