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!

Confusing But Still Good: Linden A. Lewis – The Second Rebel

Linden A. Lewis’ debut The First Sister didn’t make quite the splash I expected it to, judging from the marketing. But I, for my part, really liked it and wanted to learn more about this world and these characters. Things you can get away with in a debut should improve in the second novel, so I was more than excited to dive into this world again. I picked up the audiobook version again because I loved the multiple narrators, and this time, we even got an extra one. SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SISTER BELOW!!!

THE SECOND REBEL
by Linden A. Lewis

Published: Skybound Books, 2021
eBook: 516 pages
Audiobook: 19 hours 45 minutes
Series: The First Sister # 2
My rating: 6.75/10

Opening line: I can’t move in my coffin.

Linden A. Lewis returns with this next installment of The First Sister Trilogy, perfect for fans of Red RisingThe Handmaid’s Tale, and The Expanse.

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Aunts who run the Gean religious institution, but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an outlaw colony station deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but they are not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner, Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Venus, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Souji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere

Having read The First Sister last year, I thought my memory would still be fresh enough to at least remember all the biggest story beats and plot twists from that book. However, as soon as I started The Second Rebel I realized just how much I had forgotten and how confusing certain terms and even character names are. I read some reviews to remind me of the characters and plot but I want you to know that this review might look very different had I read both books back to back.

So to recap here as well (I may need my own review as a memory crutch when I pick up the third book, after all), in this universe, there are three major opposing factions. The Icarii, who are all about tech and gene-assisting their bodies to perfection and who also train pairs of duelists that are connected via neural implant. These implants can also regulate their emotions, hormones, etc. The Icarii live on Mercury and Venus.
Then there are the Gaeans (on Earth, Mars, and more recently Ceres) who are much more tech-averse than the Icarii and who are run by a religious order whose head is the Agora. The Sisters of this order have their ability to speak removed and serve as comfort women (read: prostitutes) and confessionals on space ships. In the first book we learned that their voices are taken away via neural implant and could technically be restored, as happened for Astrid, current First Sister of Ceres with ambitions to become the next Mother and change the entire system from within. How exactly this all works politically, I’m not sure.
Thirdly, the faction we as readers sympathise with the most, are the Asters. These people have been created by genetic experimentation and are treated like non-humans by both Icarii and Gaeans. Val Akira labs is using Asters for their experiments, testing geneassists on them, leaving them dead or broken and not much caring either way. So yeah, we’re rooting for the Asters!
What’s new in this volume are the Synthetics, and I’m not sure if they were added just now or if I just missed a mention of them in the first book. Either way, these are A.I.s who left our solar system a long time ago and who also make sure humans don’t travel past a certain point (mostly because we can’t behave and insist on killing each other through war after war…).

The Second Rebel also adds a new POV protagonist. There’s still Astrid, who is trying to navigate the crazy (and of course corrupt) politics of the Sisterhood and has to scheme her way to becoming the next Mother without losing sight of the people she’s trying to save. There’s Lito, whose plan is breaking out his partner Ofiera’s Aster husband from the facility where he is being held. We still follow Hiro (in Saito Ren’s body) who goes to Autarkeia to investigate a Synthetic. And now we also meet Lito’s sister Luce, who joins the Aster rebels and becomes a sort of spy.

As if there weren’t already enough plot lines to keep straight, cities and planets and terms to keep apart, Linden A. Lewis’ naming conventions make everything even more confusing.
Luce’s full name is Lucinia sol Lucius… you’d think a family whose surname is sol Lucius would come up with a given name for their daughter that sounds at least a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I think Lucinia and the nickname Luce are very pretty names, it’s just more challenging to keep things apart while reading.
Lito and Hiro are also pretty similar looking names and I was very glad that the audiobook narrators have such different voices. But even so, it sometimes took me a few seconds to realize whose chapter I was currently in. That may well be my own shortcoming. I have a lot going on in my life and my concentration wasn’t always the best while reading this book.

Plot-wise, this was so cool! Things are always moving forward, there are big battles and smaller battles, new revelations, complex politics, finally some (small) answers to burning questions I’ve had since the first book, and even some beautiful relationship developments – not necessarily romantic, mind you – between characters. All of that made listening to this book something I looked forward to every night. I do think juggling four separate story lines was maybe a bit too much because each of them could have used just a bit more backstory, more fleshed-out characters, more detailed world building. But my overall impression was still very good and I definitely can’t remember a single boring chapter in this book.

This being the middle book of a trilogy, I had hoped to learn more about the world that has already been set up. Like how exactly does the Sisterhood work, how did the Icarii hierarchy and its naming conventions come to be (sol vs. val), what do the planets and cities look like, what exactly is Astrid’s motivation other than “doing the right thing”? We get tidbits about all of these but I never felt like any aspect of this world was satisfactorily explained. It is of course possible that I was an inattentive listener, but I don’t have similar problems with other books, so I think The Second Rebel gave me too many things to juggle in my mind at the same time and therefore didn’t have any time left to flesh out the world and make it feel alive.

My feelings about this book are so strange, because on the one hand, it has all those problems I mentioned above. Like the feeling that none of the characters existed before this story started, like they don’t have a proper backstory or lives that were disrupted by the events of The First Sister. But then again, in the story that is happening during the book, they do feel like real people and I cared about all of them.
I also really loved the plot and the world building, confusing as it is. In terms of ambition, Lewis may have bitten off more than she can chew, but I can’t deny that I had a blast reading this. Sure, I was confused about the setting and characters at the beginning of many chapters, but that didn’t change the fact that the whole spy stuff, the battles, the heisty bits, and the political scheming weren’t exciting.

I also still adore the themes and ideas Lewis is exploring. Gender, identity, a sense of purpose, family ties, betrayal, honor, and corruption are just a few of them. Some are done better than others, sure, but whichever topic came up, it got me to think about things I wouldn’t in an older sci-fi novel (looking at you, Foundation Trilogy). Even if it feels rushed at times, the book offers a lot of food for thought and especially in Astrid’s storyline, it doesn’t simply tell you what’s wrong or right – it lets you make up your own mind and sometimes, that’s really not an easy distinction to make.

I think with some editing and maybe an additional 50 pages or so, this could have been an excellent book. I still loved it because the whole idea is just my jam and I like the way Lewis reveals twists at the end, but I also know, deep down inside, that the book is far from perfect. Will I still read the third one? Of course I will, I’d pick it up right now if I could! Does it go on my award-worthy list? Probably not so much.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Pretty good

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!