micro reviews of queer specfic & nonfiction. diversions into out of print annals. occasional digressions.

just finished Davey Davis' X, which feels very much like an heir to Patrick Califia's lesser-read work (and only published novel, iirc) Doc and Fluff.

It's not that they're particularly similar. Beyond starring transmasculine protagonists who have a ton of BDSM sex, much of it well outside of SSC or RACK paradigms while navigating romantic relationships, sex work, and queer intracommunity conflict... they're pretty dissimilar in tone, politics, approach to character and relationship. I'm not sure I particularly enjoyed either, and I have thwarted feelings about where to place them on any objective rating scale.

But there's something to be said for the fact that there's not much out there like it: dystopias often focus on a promised hero (especially in the YA vein of Divergent/Hunger Games), or an everyday office schmuck (ah — Calvin Kasulke's several people are typing), or grizzled survivors (Walking Dead, various zombie comedies, Torrey Peters' infect your friends and loved ones). Not a lot start from the lives of people already on the outside of society structures, struggling to make rent & stay housed just on a normal day. People who just function under passively, banally evil bureaucracies in futuristic worlds that are near-identical to modern reality.

(the treatment of bureaucratic evil also feels in line with Bornstein/Sullivan's approach to nearly roadkill's fumbling internet regulators, although that book's world is certainly more fun and less graphically violent & dour than Califia or Davis.)

curious whether there's an entire genre of banal dystopias that I need to hunt down, or whether this is just a strange trans stub-genre that rears its head once a decade and disappears.

#y2022 #books #horror #dystopia

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Catching up on the LaRocca craze, as I managed to entirely miss the hype (which I guess? occurred? via people on TikTok hating on things have gotten worse since we last spoke). Not sure how I missed it, as it's queer body horror that makes people mad. aka. my genre.

you've lost a lot of blood manages to meld two wildly different premises: the cold-blooded queer murderer, vis a vis Poppy Z Brite's exquisite corpse, and time loop/virtual reality shenanigans (Cronenberg –> eXistenZ?) through a nested novella. The murderer and his boyfriend argue about the nature of art & horror vs. exploitation (lol) while characters in the murderer's book have a very bad time running from horrific creatures while trapped in a madman's postmortem magnum opus. Also, poems are threaded in. There's a lot of philosophy and genre commentary packed in here, at times sarcastically so, and some of it is fun but some of it is just annoying. Still, the collection as a whole was fun, weird, creepy, etc. Never quite grabbed me at the character level, but consistently entertained at the conceptual one.

we can never leave this place landed less well for me. a tale of a girl living in sewage in a crumbling home that her mother refuses to abandon, even as war rages around them. after her father dies (while trying to abandon them), her mother takes in the malicious Rake, who promises to bring back the girl's father. Which is, of course, a trap. There's a lot going on in this one, nearly all allegorical, and for me there was just too much metaphor and not enough literal for everything to work for me. it's about grief & survival, but through the dark fairytale lens with indulgent prose and symbolic characters. eh.

bonus: interesting brief piece on poorly behaved queers & reactionary criticism against their existence in books. More relevant to you've lost a lot of blood / things have gotten worse since we last spoke. some interesting framing for LaRocca's work & certain criticisms of it.

#y2022 #books #novellas #horror #adultfiction

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

This blog has been pretty empty this year — I've been very busy with a new job (and also reading more nonfiction than speculative fiction).

But! Ancillary Review gave me the opportunity to read E. Saxey's collection of dreamy, discomfiting short fiction. It's a fantastic selection of work. I especially loved “The Librarian’s Dilemma,” “Missing Episodes,” and “Raising the Sea Drowned,” but it's the rare collection where every short was worth the read, for me.

Check out my review on Ancillary's website.

#y2022 #shorts #adultfiction #external #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.


The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate The Silence of Wilting Skin by Tlotlo Tsamaase Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard Caroline's Heart by S.A. Chant The Companion by E.E. Ottoman Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray Home by Toni Morrison In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu A Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler


Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Wagonner The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by K.J. Charles Nearly Roadkill by Caitlin Sullivan & Kate Bornstein Nevada by Imogen Binnie Kindred by Olivia Butler Swordheart by T. Kingfisher White Trash Warlock / Trailer Park Trickster by David R. Slayton The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Short Fic Collections

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel by Julian K. Jarboe Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders


Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Memoirs & Nonfiction

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell Care of by Ivan Coyote Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi A Restricted Country by Joan Nestle Belly of the Beast by Da'Shaun Harrison On Connection by Kae Tempest


from unincorporated territory [guma'] by Craig Santos Perez Knots by R.D. Laing Cross Cutting by Charles Jensen Can you sign my tentacle? by Brandon O'Brien next by Lucille Clifton The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo

Graphic Novels/Manga

Thirsty Mermaids by Kat Leyh The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani (vol. 1-4) Are You Listening by Tillie Walden Alone in Space by Tillie Walden The Dire Days of Willoweep Manor by Shaenon K. Garrity Boys Run the Riot by Keito Gaku Eat the Rich by Sarah Gailey (iss. 1-5) A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong

#y2021 #roundups #endofyear #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Eternally struggling w/ how to accurately and meaningfully describe romances in these short summaries — I want to help hype up queer books but being like “cis whatever” “trans whatever” etc always just feels vaguely beside the point. You might see that formatting change over the months.


Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

adult novel, modern day litfic, disaster polycule (kindof?), complicated trans romance

Ames, who used to live as a trans woman but has begun trying to pass as a cis man again, accidentally impregnates his boss. He doesn't want to be a dad for Gender Reasons but proposes that Katrina (his cis woman boss) and he co-raise the baby with his ex-girlfriend, a trans woman named Reese who's always wanted a baby. The proceedings turn into a whole mess-and-a-half.

So, I think I started this one in January, and it took me absolute ages to finish. It's so smart, and so incisive, and possibly the meanest and most accurate book about gender in American society that I've read in... ages? Maybe ever? And it's very darkly comedic. But I also found it pretty hard to read — there's a lot of misery, in this book. Still, I finished it several weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it, so that's high praise.

From Unincorporated Territory: [guma'] by Craig Santos Perez

poetry collection

The first in a series that's part personal story, part protest against militarism and colonialism. The author is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), and he incorporates more standard poetic forms with found-documents work that deals with migration, culture, and custom. The collection is multi-lingual and takes a bit to work through if you really want to pay it proper attention. Really emotionally affective, and well worth the time.

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

adult novel, fantasy mystery, f/f romance, bi woman main character

This was so fun and grabbed me immediately. It stars Delly, a poor fire mage who's used to bad luck and scarcity. She just wants to get enough money to help her mom, who's a drug addict, to stay safe and housed. So she takes a job as a body-guard, which quickly escalates into a mystery plot involving creepy necromancy, an undead portentous mouse, and the very drug her mom's hooked on. Delly's voice is SO fun, and there's also a lovely little romance plot that follows along with the mystery, as Delly falls in love with a well-heeled lady who's also a fellow bodyguard.

Worth noting that this book is the second in a series, but can be read totally independently of the first. (I actually picked up the first a few times but never got into it after a few pages, so I've never gotten anywhere with it.)

The Silence of Wilting Skin by Tlotlo Tsamaase

adult novella, surreal fantasy mystery, f/f established relationship

This book is surreal and gorgeous, and refuses to give straight-forward answers. It's about a woman who receives a warning from a “dreamskin,” which seems to be a familial magic-power object that's a bit mythic in this world. She has one, and her grandmother's is the one that warned her of coming darkness and corruption. The narrator's skin and color starts coming off, and she enlists her girlfriend in a journey to stay awake and protect her family. Having read the whole thing, I'm not totally sure I wrapped my head around it — but it was beautifully written and poignant, and worked with a lot of resonant imagery that leaves a lot unspoken. The sort of thing that works perfect in a novella format. I definitely recommend it, with the caveat that you'll want to prepare yourself for a narrative structure that feels more experimental.

The Triple B by S.Y. Tyler

adult novel, modern day romance x like 4

I picked this one up because I really enjoyed the author's Star Wars fanfiction. Don't @ me. Anyway, this is a little book that follows a bunch of romances centered on a bakery run by two brothers. It's from the POV of the brother who gets involved in everyone else's lives to help them out, but never seems to manage to have much luck himself. Overall was a cute quick read, although there were just so many characters and romances to keep track of that I got a little lost.


Star Wars: The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray

ya novel, scifi with a bit of horror

This was a ton of fun! It stars a Padawan who's just like “please... don't make me have adventures... I just want to sit in the library,” but gets dragged to the Jedi's (probably doomed) new outpost in the Outer Rim. (For context: this new canon series is set ~200 years before the Star Wars films, and everything happening in these books... uh... doesn't exist anymore! So SOMETHING went wrong!)

This book is half-locked-space-station horror feat. Sith artifacts and evil cthonic tree aliens, half political/YA space opera ethic. I enjoyed it a lot!

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

new adult novel, modern day romcom, m/m romance

In short: Son of flaky rock legend starts fake-dating a handsome barrister because of workplace homophobia, and things get a bit too real for both of them. I've poked around at some of Hall's other work, and it seems really excellent. This is his first book released by a larger publisher, that I'm aware of, and it has a lot of the traits of large-market queer romance that just... don't appeal to me? It's very funny and extremely well-written and just overall well-done, and I'd recommend it to basically anyone who reads queer romance. That said, it was not for me. I did enjoy the book enough that I'll probably check out some of his smaller publications; I suspect my lukewarm feelings are more a byproduct of the book's broader audience than the author.

Graphic Novels

Star Wars: Shattered Empire by multiple

adult comics collection, scifi

Look... I read this for one (1) reason, and it was for Shara Bey and the Force tree comic. I literally don't remember anything else about any of the others. Poe Dameron's mom is hot, the Force trees are cool, whatever. Mostly an unremarkable collection, but some really great explosion art.

Star Wars Omnibus: Boba Fett

adult comics collection, scifi

Yes, I have Boba Fett brain-rot right now. This was a collection of no-longer-canon comics centered on Fett. The most interesting ones detail his work with the Empire and his early interactions with Vader (I cannot BELIEVE Vader hired him again after all of that, but then again... the chaos of it all). A long multi-issue arc in the middle is a serious dud, and ugly to boot, but many of the single-issues and smaller collections are pretty brilliant. If you're trying to hunt this one down, I recommend trying to get it from a library or a friend (or just... you know... look around REALLY hard on the internet in definitely legal places) — it was a hassle and a half to source.

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

Publication Date: March 23, 2021
Attributes: adult novel, f/f unresolved sexual tension, enemies-to-still-enemies-but-horny-about-it, low-key backstory polycule (I think???), epic military fantasy
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Orbit via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

HO BOY. I do not even know where to start with this one. There's so much here, and it's all so GOOD.

This is a smart, brutal book invested in the concept of empire and colonization. It struggles heavily with complicity, and it's not shy or evasive when it comes down to it. It shares some thematic resonance with Kacen Callender's Queen of the Conquered and Matt Wallace's Savage Legion, though the plot and setting are entirely novel. And some elements remind me quite a bit of Emily Skrutskie's Bonds of Brass — though this book succeeds in all of the places where that novel fell flat, for me, as it manages to actually meaningfully grapple with the concept of empire.

The Unbroken follows two women at opposite poles of an empire whose lives crash together. One, Touraine, is a lieutenant in a colonial brigade of the empire that conquered her home country. The other, Luca, is the embattled heir to that country.

Touraine's military superiors have failed her again and again, and early in the story, they strip her of her rank and condemn her to death. Luca decides to save her so that she can use the former lieutenant to infiltrate a rebel cell that's trying to destabilize colonial rule. Meanwhile, she's also trying to find proof that rumors of magic are true, and use that magic to heal a plague.

What follows is... a lot. Touraine struggles with indoctrination/inculcation that has convinced her to remain loyal to the empire that separated her from her family and continues to abuse her and use her comrades as canon-fodder. Yet, she excels among her soldiers, gets promoted, feels success and pleasure at the small nibbles of validation that the army metes out. Even after getting sentenced to death, she's still loyal.

But things start to change as she interacts with the rebel forces. She has family among them, and they... don't get along. But her connection to Luca continues to draw her back in to the life she's learned to love, and the rules that she's been promised will reward her if she follows them.

Meanwhile, Luca's scrabbling for power, desperate to push Touraine to find any kind of advantage that can end the rebel insurgence. She wants to take a different approach to rule than others in the empire, is a scholar seeking the secrets of magic and peace, and she sees herself as better than the rest. Maybe she is, but she's still cruel, self-centered, and short-sighted in many ways.

Everyone makes terrible, terrible choices in this book. Things go horribly, progressively wrong. Each time something gets slightly better, something else goes wrong (usually because Touraine or Luca made a disastrous decision). There's no easy romance here — there's a lot of tension, and betrayal, and fury. But their connection is undeniable and fascinating. As they fight on and their allegiances change, their relationship still propels the book.

I loved this one overall. It's smart and mean and cathartic in a way that really, really works, and is compulsively readable to boot. Highly recommend — and you still have a few days to preorder.

#y2021 #novels #prepublication #adultfiction #reviews #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Review: Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Publication Date: March 9, 2021
Attributes: young adult novel, f/f enemies to lovers romance, magic shenanigans, fairytale-esque
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Margaret K. McElderry Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

An inexplicable plague sweeps the land. Magical source Wren is fighting to stop it to save her father. Cursed witch Tamsin just wants to be left alone, to harvest feelings of love from hapless customers who need magic but can't afford to go elsewhere.

Wren's love for her father is very strong, though, and Tamsin's reserves are very low. So when Wren approaches Tamsin to ask her to help hunt the dark witch causing the plague, Tamsin agrees — for a price.

What follows is part adventure, part romance, part family drama.

Tamsin's curse comes from a dark past, which unfolds to readers slowly as Tamsin puzzles through diary entries written by her lost sister in her final days.

Tamsin's story is one of grief, of being pushed out of everything she knew because of past mistakes, and having no one left to mourn with. And Wren is newly struggling with the loss of her father (and the eventual loss of her love for him). Wren becomes a friend willing to push back at Tamsin's habitual bitterness and cruelty. Together, they recover some of what they both have lost.

I am pretty picky about the enemies to lovers trope, rather than a staunch believer in it, and this one ultimately wasn't for me in the way the relationship started and developed. I was more interested in the themes related to loss of family, which do play a major role by the end, but feel very quickly and neatly resolved after the book's emotionally fraught first half.

However, there's a lot of interesting things going for this book: some fun magical worldbuilding, a clear and propulsive quest that merges well with character growth and growing feelings, generally propulsive prose, a lot of banter. It's something I'd recommend to a lot of readers, especially people who really enjoy enemies-to-lovers YA where the characters are initially frosty but grow to see the truth of each other.

#y2021 #novels #prepublication #yafiction #reviews #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

I'm moving my “reading lists” to here, mostly. I'll still highlight my favorites on Twitter, though! Talk to me about books on Twitter @petrinkae.


Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

adult novel, fantasy-comedy

A delight, though probably 50 pages too long. Love the “hapless conman discovers the oddities of magical government services” concept. Am absolutely stealing it. Also oddly relevant with, uh, gestures at the USPS.

The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, trans. David Bowles

adult novella, horror (Dracula tie-in), cis gay narrator

I wrote a full review of this one here. Short version: Wow. Stunning, horrifying, gothic, lonely, erotic-but-fraught-about-it. Extremely worth your time if you have the remotest interest in horror or gothic genres, vampire lit, or queer lit. And the hard copy is gorgeous.

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

YA novella, portal fantasy, intersex main character

This one's for everyone's inner horse girl. A short tale about defying destiny and conformity and what the world expects you to do. Stars a girl who learns she's intersex, tells an untrustworthy best friend, and tearfully stumbles into a portal world of centaurs and fauns and kelpies while running from the aftermath. My enthusiasm for this series had been dwindling — the last few have had a lot of aesthetic but felt overly packed for their brevity — but this one was very thematically coherent and more focused. They're all independent, so I'd put this one high on the list of books in this series to pick up.

Medusa's Touch by Emily L. Byrne

adult novel, sci-fi, central cis f/f romance

I gave this one a try but didn't end up reading it super closely — the central romance felt a bit weird to me, especially as in the beginning it seems like the main character is somewhat aggressively going after a woman who has been avoiding her. It does turn out to be a misunderstanding, but. Just not my vibe. The plot and worldbuilding were very cool despite that, with an intrigue/spy political storyline. Snake head/cybernetic sex elements were fun, also.

Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha

YA novel, cyberpunk, side cis m/f romance involving main characters

This book has fantastic worldbuilding and ideas but has a bit of the “we'll continue this in the next book so decent portions of the plot are unresolved” problem. Full review here.

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

collected poetry

Eh. Atwood has published better collections. She's having a lot of fun with this one, which does show, but I prefer her poetry when it's a little more dour and over-the-top. (Sorry.)


Baffling Mag iss. 1

This is such a cool new magazine concept, with a stellar line-up of authors writing speculative flash fic. Read here.

When We're Done Here by Paula Molina Acosta

A beautiful piece of specfic set in a future torn apart by climate change and political terrors. Lyrical, surreal. Loved the prose and the vibe. Overall a great short chapbook prose-poetry read.


Raise Hell by Ray Nadine & Jordan Alsaqa?

short, kickstarter

This is a fun and funny little short story, with a bonus short at the end. It stars a group of punks who summon a demon for mischief, only to end up with a sloth devil who wants to do nothing but sleep. Very cute style & fun story. Short — would read a whole anthology of these, though.

Star Wars: The High Republic, Iss. 1 by Cavan Scott illus. Anindito/Leoni

single-issue 6-part series

Gosh. The eternal problem with Star Wars is that I can never tell if they're trying to make the Jedi come off as deeply irresponsible and vaguely unethical, or if some of the tie-in writers are just so ga-ga over the Star Wars cultural legacy that they're missing all the weird stuff baked into some of these plotlines. It's turned out to be about 50/50 so far. Holding out judgment on this one until I have a clearer idea of what they're trying to do with the writing. It's very pretty, though. The High Republic armor...

Serial fiction

I'm currently reading Effie Calvin's Cursed (sapphic arranged marriage in fantasy world, available for $3/mo on Patreon) and Johannes T. Evans' The Boatswain's Hook (Hook/Smee post-story Peter Pan retelling dealing with chronic illness/disability, available for free on Ao3). Enjoying both a lot.


Two phenomenal ones here, both written by gender non-conforming black gay people. The writers narrate their own books for audiobook, which makes them doubly awesome listens. Both are short audiobooks (<5 hours).

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

fiction, gender non-conforming gay main character

Autiobiographically inspired. Follows Michael, a kidin the UK, as he figures out what he wants, grows up, comes out, and finds some of his first adult moments of happiness and belonging through drag performance. Grapples with experiences of being mixed-race and gay.

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson

nonfiction, gender non-conforming gay author

Structured as a series of memoir essays + thoughtful manifesto on gender nonconformity, trauma, coming out, and sex. This feels like a very vulnerable book, and it has some especially poignant thoughts on queer sexuality and consent.

Worth noting it deals with multiple instances of sexual assault, against the author as both a child and an adult.

Story-Driven Video Games

I, For One, Welcome Our New Lady Knight Overlords is an extremely gay bitsy/twine hybrid that fills me with absolute joy. Give it a play if you have a few minutes.

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Attributes: adult novel, immigration story, nested narratives, hauntings
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Erewhon Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

Firuzeh loves her life in Afghanistan. But her parents take her, and her brother Nour, and run to Australia, hoping to escape war and political turbulence.

What follows is an aching story told through lyrical prose, part immigration tale and family drama, part nontraditional haunting.

Firuzeh's journey is fraught with dangers and tragedies. Early on, she meets another girl who dies during the oceanic passage to Australia. She'll continue to see echoes and visions of that girl throughout the book. Her family finally makes it to Australia, after the horrible voyage and limbo in a refugee camp. But they find cold welcome, and life in Australia comes with heartbreak after heartbreak.

Firuzeh, who's basically still a child, doesn't totally understand everything that's happening around her — wars, and deaths, and arbitrary legal processes, and inexplicable cruelties — which makes the story, if anything, more harrowing. But her narration is threaded with the fantasies and stories that she picks up from others along the way — moments of hope and brightness and longing through the shared connection with another world.

This book is beautiful, and phenomenally researched, and absolutely gut-wrenching. Most of the other stories I've read about refugees recently have been memoirs, or works of nonfiction written by younger relatives about their parents' or grandparents' journeys and legacies. This book takes a more fictionalized approach, and it does a lot right with it. The shadow of the girl from the voyage who haunts Firuzeh, especially, feels poignant and emotional. The narrative never tries to explain her presence or its implications, which works quite well.

There's a bit of an odd moment where a journalist pops in. Her interviewees criticize her only wanting refugee stories that are sad, rather than looking for moments of humanity and connection across a broader spectrum. The interaction feels troublesome, and a bit unresolved; it leaves the reader wondering whether the book itself has done something similar. The author seems to have grappled with this concern in her fictionalization — and I suspect she attempts to answer that concern through the moments where characters share fantasy and bond through storytelling. These, and other small moments, try to move the novel toward hope and magic as much as despair.

I think as a reader, I felt the devastation more than I felt the moments of hopefulness, so your mileage may vary there. Still, in all, an excellent debut novel and an empathetic tale that doesn't want to provide easy answers.

#y2021 #novels #prepublication #adultfiction #reviews #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

Review: Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha

Publication Date: January 19, 2021
Attributes: young adult fiction, cyberpunk/mecha, climate change dystopia, South Asian setting, cis m/f non-central romance
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Erewhon Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

The Rise of the Red Hand largely stands out for its style, a general air of badassery on a dystopian backdrop.

The setting is explicitly South Asian — a rarity, when cyberpunk often pulls aesthetics from Asian cultures but showcases white protagonists. Uplanders live lives of ease and wealth inside a climate-controlled dome. But outside, the inhabitants of the Narrows struggle to survive a world wracked with disastrous climate change.

This book's worldbuilding shines: the gritty cyberpunk setting is fraught with political conflict. Cybernetics and mecha elements play prominently throughout: the lower-class inhabitants of the Narrows often take on cybernetics in a desperate bid to survive, while the upper-class uses mechas to squash rebellions and control the populace.

But it's also flecked with delightful details and bits of humor, like mercenaries and grifters using revived Neopets-like creatures as currency on odd jobs.

The story follows two sisters, both revolutionaries with the mysterious Red Hand, who are working to take down a technocratic government as a deadly plague ravages the globe. One, Ashiva, is basically a cyborg who completes various tasks for the Red Hand and gains increasing leadership/importance as the book progresses. The other, Taru, is kidnapped as part of a shady experimental program. Both have lived their whole lives in underworld spaces full of people their government would rather forget. They encounter another POV character, Riz-Ali, an upper-class politician's son who leads a secret life as a hacker.

The story is told in split-first person POV. I tend to find that format difficult to follow, no matter how deft the author is — a fault of mine, not the book. I think readers who spend more time with books in this POV style will likely find the perspectives compelling. The prose is consistently tight, fast-paced, and emotionally attuned to the characters, so that helps.

Riz-Ali and Ashiva form the plot core of the book, though Ashiva's search for her missing sister (and its implications for the world around them) forms a bit more of the emotional core and motivations. Their stories intertwine as they try to fight back against the algorithm that runs their cruel government.

The plot is at its strongest when it focuses on the relationships between the characters and their communities. The character journeys were interesting, if a bit genre standard. At points where it delves into some of the motives of the larger forces around the main characters, it feels weaker: the book drops big reveals (especially about the nature of the Red Hand) that feel like they'll likely be explored in future installments. As it was, some of these big secrets didn't hugely change the stakes of this book for the characters themselves, despite having major implications for the worldbuilding. And the story is clearly awaiting a sequel, so some plot aspects are left unresolved.

That said, in all, this is a unique YA with some really compelling elements. It's a quick read, and worth it for anyone who likes to dive into a good cyberpunk world.

#y2021 #novels #prepublication #yafiction #reviews #books

Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.

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