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

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.

#y2021 #roundups

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

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.

#roundups #y2021

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, trans. David Bowles

Publication Date: January 19, 2021
Attributes: adult fiction, novella, gothic horror, Dracula tie-in, cis gay m POV character
Content warnings: lots of complicated sexuality, some references to child sexual abuse and assault, past homophobic hate crime
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Innsmouth Free Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

This is a weird, lonely, queer little novella, and I love everything about it.

It's a new translation of a tale released by a now-defunct Mexican indie publisher in the late 1990s. The novella apparently has a cult following in Mexico; it was published when queer literature was much rarer and popular opinion tended to be much more homophobic. Despite that rather specific cultural context, the novella grapples with concepts of shame and monstrosity in ways that feel timeless and adapt well for a modern audience. It's especially remarkable as an explicitly queer turn on a genre that too often only plays with queerness, invoking it as a subtextual horror.

The translation, from David Bowles, is lyrical and horrifying. This new edition comes from Silvia Moreno-Garcia's micropress with a beautiful foreword from the author and an excellent post-script essay from trans horror novelist Poppy Z. Brite; those essays alone are worth the paperback purchase price. (I received this one as a review copy, but I loved it so much that I've since purchased a physical edition.)

There's a lot of disturbing and fraught sexual elements in this, though none of it is particularly graphic, so this might not be for everyone. But if that doesn't bother you as a reader, this novella is well worth your time.

The book follows the crew of the Demeter, which took Dracula to England. In Dracula canon, the ship arrives mysteriously devoid of its crew — except for the captain, whose corpse is tied to the wheel and grasping a crucifix.

Worth noting that the book does not rewrite the captain's fate. Instead it recounts his fight against the vampire, and recontextualizes his eventual death as an act of self-sacrifice in honor of his dwindling crew.

The Route of Ice and Salt asks “what happened there” and gives one hell of an answer through the captain's private diary. He normally dedicates the space to a secret log of all his secret shames and sexual fantasies about his crew. The diaries at first just contain notes of pression, trauma, loneliness, guilt, and shame. The ocean he describes feels vast and gray and empty. The captain struggles with the power he holds over his men, and its implications in context of his desires.

But the longer the Demeter carries mysterious boxes of dirt, the captain begins recording events that become increasingly odd, and violent, and terrifying.

Soon, he realizes that something is hunting his crew. The voyage grows more and more fraught as crew disappears and mysterious problems crop up — complete with a plague and vampiric rat infestation.

As the tale unfolds, the captain is also haunted by his memories of a lost love, who was murdered in a homophobic hate crime. Zárate uses this backstory to explore the tension between the eroticism of the gothic genre and the treatment of gay men as monsters (even when there are literal monsters about). This is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, though it's harrowing.

The book as a whole is feverish, and Gothic, and haunting. I'll likely be revisiting it, as there's a lot going on. I'm very glad it's been translated for English readers for the first time, and I hope I'll see similar pieces from the publisher.

#y2021 #novellas #prepublication #adultfiction #reviews #books

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, space opera, intergalactic politics, queernormative world, cis gay m/m romance
Content warnings: past intimate partner violence and extensive-but-not-graphic flashbacks
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Tor Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

Warning: I'm just going to go ahead and straight-up spoil all of the “plot twists” in this review, because I wish I'd known about them before I started reading it. If you're a “no-spoilers” person, I recommend skipping this review.

I don't know how to eat this book.

It's a perfectly functional book. Good — even great. The character work is spotless, and incredibly fun to boot; the politics and worldbuilding are interesting enough to support an intrigue plot but simple enough to avoid boring, convoluted storytelling. It approaches silly romantic tropes (arranged marriage, stranded in the wilderness, only one bed!) with humor and sincerity. It's a space opera with a central gay romance, a queernormative world, and a cast of mostly queer characters.

But it's also, above all other things, a trauma recovery narrative. The climax of the book hinges on kidnappers using a military torture technology to force one character to relive emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of his ex-husband. His new husband has to dive into his mind, witness memories of the abuse, and convince him that he's loved and valuable and worth saving.

If someone had told me any of that before I picked up the book, I would've gone, “Haha, wow, OK, not for me!” and simply. not read the book.

Hopefully this review will equip others with the knowledge necessary to go “whoa there, no thanks!” And I think a lot of people are going to, rightfully, love this book. Hopefully people who read this review and think, “That sounds really interesting, actually!” will also find it.

Caveat: Film Crit Hulk talks a lot about how a lot of criticism isn't “this is bad” or “this didn't work” — it's more often, “this wasn't for me.” And that's where I'm at with this one.

I read a lot of trauma recovery narratives. I might even say they're one of my favorite forms of storytelling, especially in SFF. (Some of my recent favorites include Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan and the Murderbot series by Martha Wells.)

So it's not a “I don't like this type of story at all” response — I love this type of story! This book, in the character sense, handled the intimate partner violence very well. It's not crass or exploitative. The psychology is there. But my God, did I hate nearly everything about this book's plot-level approach to trauma.

Winter's Orbit stars Jainan and Kiem, a planetary ambassador and a reformed fuck-up prince who are forced into a diplomatic marriage after the suspicious death of Jainan's husband. It's part awkward, miscommunicated romance and part murder investigation, as the husbands discover that Jainan's dead ex, Taam, was murdered because of his involvement in some shady military plot.

It becomes obvious early on that Taam abused Jainan. Jainan accepts massive violations of personhood as normal. Kiem is in turns oblivious, appalled, and confused that Jainan would expect Kiem to treat him so poorly.

Because the story is told in alternating third person, we see both Jainan's expectations and Kiem's bewilderment. Jainan's psychology post-emotional abuse is textbook accurate, and extremely well handled.

But! Here's the thing. Large sections of the book are from his POV. But he never, ever thinks about Taam's abuse; the POV exclusively focuses on Jainan's emotional response to Kiem. The result? Inadvertently treats abuse as a final-act “reveal.”

Blah. Writers do this a lot. It has literally never worked for me. Often, it's just lazy storytelling, because it allows writers to avoid dealing with character psychology conflicts that might interfere with their plot. In this specific case, I don't think that problem exists: Jainan's actions are totally consistent with those past experiences, even though he does not explicitly think about the abuse.

It seems likely the book intended reflect the aftermath of emotional abuse. It phenomenally portrays the ways that abusers often manage to convince their targets that the target's own failures and inadequacies cause/justify poor treatment. When we're just seeing Jainan from Kiem's point of view, all the pieces are there.

But... This guy is three weeks out from a literal two-year-long torturous hostage situation. He's still coming to terms with it. He hasn't really recognized that Taam abused him, yet. Janain's internalized the idea that everything Taam did to him was Jainan's own fault. A lack of emotional clarity on all that? Expected. And Taam's voice is certainly there, in Jainan's head as his internal critic — always unnamed.

But Jainan never once remembers his poor treatment, even when Kiem does things that remind him of situations with Taam? He never thinks back to specific incidents, even just a raised voice or quiet threat, with enough clarity for readers to recognize what Taam did, even if Jainan himself can't quite grapple with it? He just blithely refuses to think about it, and that works? This really feels more like a plot requirement than genuine character writing — and it causes a few actual problems with the read.

(Note: I'm not saying, “we need a whole bunch of specifics,” here — this book probably even had too many specifics in its final scenes, though it was never graphic. Rather, it's that it feels disingenuous to totally elide those memories from Jainan's memory. Especially when we experience them extensively later, when it's suddenly convenient for the plot.)

Jainan's own internal POV avoidance of nearly ANY tidbit of Taam also made me doubt whether the book knew it was portraying an abusive relationship. Was Taam's behavior just going to be passed off as the actions of a shady smuggler doing what he must to keep his husband out of the loop? When Jainan used the passive voice to avoid naming people, was I just misinterpreting when I assumed that “Taam did X”? Was it actually some unrelated politician?

This points to a craft-level issue: The “Taam abused Jainan” character background and the “Taam participated in an illegal military scheme to start a war” plotlines were intertwined. Correctly so — they're related! But about 1/3 of the way through, the breadcrumbs for the abuse plot started to come off as a cynical red-herring for the intrigue plot.

The uncertainty had this reader gritting their teeth, dreading the inevitable stressful reveal.

Ultimately, the abuse was NOT a cynical red-herring, which was a relief. But the actual reveal wildly exceeded my expectations for stress-levels, and... honestly, it felt a bit trite!

First, Jainan finds out about Taam's abuse through a video that someone used to blackmail Taam. Then, when he tries to bring it up, it goes very poorly. Alright. I'm with you. Don't love plotlines where people get outed as survivors against their will, but if we're going here, I guess we're going here.

BUT THEN! The bad guys kidnap Jainan. They want to frame him for murdering Taam. So they put him in a torture device that rewrites memories. Cue at least 50 pages of reading about Jainan reliving some of his most horrifying, painful moments. This was extremely unpleasant to read.

THEN! Kiem dives into Jainan's mind to try to help him reassert reality. Kiem witnesses a bunch of Jainan's most closely guarded private moments of shame and terror. To get him out, Kiem needs to convince Jainan to recognize that they're just memories. Which requires convincing Jainan, who thinks he's worthless, to believe that he's worth rescuing, and that Jainan is actually real, and actually cares about him. Jainan succeeds! Cool!

That sure is an allegory.

It pulls itself off just well enough that I wouldn't call it a “plot-magic solution to massive amounts of trauma”. Just.

I'd probably be less miffed if this book had been marketed + discussed as a trauma recovery narrative, instead of just “squee! gay space princes romcom! I want to squish them! Why don't they just talk to each other?!” (Not a specific person: a conglomerate of literally every discussion I've seen re: this book.) I don't think that part is an issue with the book itself, really... More just a broader industry issue of how it's very difficult to sell fiction about trauma when “getting it to sell” is the main goal of marketing. And a cultural issue of the weird weird ways in which we consume and talk about traumatic material.

Normally, I wouldn't have written a review when my primary complaints about a book are pretty much just “this annoys my personal preferences, despite being technically well done.” Buuuut I kinda want to give readers more of a heads' up about what they're getting into.

So, that's that. I cannot reiterate enough that I don't think any of this was poorly done or poorly handled. Some of you are really gonna love this one. It's very readable, and charming, and emotional.

Also. I want more books like this. I love that queer space opera is getting enough energy from major publishers that they can publish something like this. I want more queernormative worlds. I want more stories that grapple with trauma, and empire, and queerness where the main conflict is not “coming out.” I want more books like this that are absolutely not for me, but will probably be mind-blowing and healing for other people. I also want queer books that I will find amazing and personal, and that a bunch of other people will hate.

It's heartening, I guess, that I can say, “this one wasn't for me” and still have a dozen or so others like it in my TBR. That wasn't anywhere near the case 5 years ago.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth

Publication Date: April 13, 2021
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, dark comedy/thriller
Tags: unreliable narrators fight for chapters, gamergate, toxic fandom, IT'S ABOUT ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM!!!!!
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Grand Central Publishing via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

We Are Watching Eliza Bright is about video games. And memes. And jokes. And it's also about none of those things. It paints a picture of how all those things feed into culture, and narrative, and belief, and values.

“It's not just games” echoes through the core of a book as it tells a tale where sexual harassment escalates to physical assault, and where game culture escalates to gamified gendered violence. At points, the book gets uncomfortably close to recent events, clearly drawing inspiration from actual episodes of harassment during Gamergate.

Personally, I loved every second. It's a emotionally difficult: Horrible things happen to the titular Eliza Bright. Eliza starts her first week of her dream job as a developer on one of her favorite video games, a superhero MMORPG. Her new coworkers mess up her code and write “boobs” all over it. Her company mishandles Bright's harassment report, so she goes to a journalist. The responses, of course, vary: She's taking things too seriously, it's just a joke, she's a feminist hero, would she like a new job with us, etc. Then one of the coworkers doxxes her. Eliza's blip in the news cycle turns into a barrage of harassment and stalking (much of which comes from actual things that have happened to actual doxxed women). Things get much, much worse from there.

In some ways, the plot takes a backseat to its telling. The thing is, we don't really know what happened with Eliza Bright. Dueling narrators fight over the chapters. On the one hand, we have toxic fandom, the obsessive players of the MMORPG that Eliza helps develop. On the other (slight spoilers), a group of queers who live in a commune that helps Eliza hide later in the book.

This book is a telephone game, and a conspiracy theory. Most chapters follow the twisted fantasies of the internet stalkers who imagine entire scenes based on a latitude-longitude code placing two people in the same room. They put pieces together from digital leftovers. As their information decreases in quality, they'll recast three versions of the exact same scenes, taking cues from hackers and public records and data dumps.

But they've never met Eliza, or her boss or her coworkers. And as they tell the tale, it becomes increasingly clear that the fans are living in a crass drama of their own making.

(It's basically reading a book narrated by this guy:

Image of Charlie Day as Charlie Kelley in popular Pepe Silvia meme pointing at a serial killer conspiracy board

Meanwhile, the author is carefully constructing a story that shows all the ways said guy's talking points become literally dangerous – and relentlessly making fun of him.)

It sounds disorienting. In the hands of a lesser author, this could have gone horribly wrong. But this was one of my favorite parts of the book. Osworth handles it phenomenally – they balance readability, unreliability, and maybe-clues-about-reality. It's always extremely clear when the narrators are backtracking, and their biases are right on the page.

(Worth a mention here that Osworth has tackled similarly complex topics in their essays, often while messing with form, and I've loved those as well. See some standouts on bisexuality and thirst traps and gender in VR.)

If you're a reader who wants to definitively, actually know “what happened,” you might have some trouble with this book. The queer commune narrators do shed some actual, probably-more-accurate light on the proceedings later on. But a huge portion of the story is still filtered through others who are, you know, watching Eliza Bright, and not very kind about it. At the end of the story, you very likely know what happened – especially about certain key events that most definitely did occur – but you also have no idea about some tidbits behind the scenes. But, again, what actually, definitely happened every step of the way is, in some senses, beside the point.

A lot of fiction that takes this type of approach uses the ambiguity of the events, and the unreliability of the narrator, to avoid committing to a point of view. “We're just asking questions!” is the general energy. But Osworth does the opposite. Every bit of ambiguity in Eliza Bright's story builds to a larger point and structure. The book is full to the brim with a point of view, and that is not ambiguous.

Instead of distracting, these narrative lenses end up making a host of powerful points about paths of disinformation, how “harmless jokes” connect to more literal harms... and they also make a compelling argument that it matters who gets to tell a story. (A lot of recent books have had the thesis “stories matter.” Very few have really articulated why as clearly as this one.) The gamerbros straight-up on-the-page get mad that queer people get to take over the narrative, and it's fantastic. You can practically hear the same talking heads screaming “it's about ethics in game journalism!!!!!!!!!!” on Twitter.

This book has a sense of humor about most of its contents – but it's still deeply humane, sympathetic to its characters who do no harm and unflinching from the realities of its nastier occupants. This one's heftier at 420 pages, and a bit denser of a read if you want to pick out all the details. But it's well worth the mental energy.

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

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.

Review: The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton

Publication Date: November 17, 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, neo-noir but about women
Tags: feminist revenge not-so-fantasy, fucked-up sapphic ladies, lots of crimes, racier than your average book

This is a mean tale about cruel women. It's billed as a “feminist novel,” but as the author herself mentions, it's less that the characters themselves are feminists (probably not) and more that the book explores the interiority of the noir genre's hardened femme fatales.

It's a little bit Ocean's 8 meets Hustlers, but with on-the-page queerness. Personally, I think I wanted more Ocean's 8, but that's a different book. This is definitely more Hustlers. It's interested in depicting a cruel world, and exploring what drives people to enter and escape it, and what social mechanisms allow all the badness to continue.

Readers looking for more books about queer women making terrible, tragic choices to survive will enjoy this one. A lot of it is unpleasant, and a bit too true to life. But it hasn't left my head since I finished it, so I suppose that's an endorsement of its craft.

It's not fun – it's too depressing for that. But it flips crime thriller/noir standards, and it follows a twisty crime-driven plot through to the bitter end. Along the way, it interrogates sex, consent, power, and abuse, particularly ways people exploit the concept of “empowerment” to control people.

(It's worth noting that this book borrows a lot of the tropes of rape revenge tales, BUT there's no sexual assault plotlines. There are lots of terrible men who are cruel and creepy to women, though. Content warnings for bad consent practices in the form of women manipulating other women into having bad sex with other men, and a man who hurts women without permission during sex off the page. Also content warnings for alcohol abuse and self-destructive sexual behaviors.)

It takes the POV of Jo, who recruits girls to seduce powerful bad men, then blackmails them, on the orders of the mysterious Lady Upstairs. Jo works with Lou, who brought her into the fold while she was vulnerable after a breakup. Jo's got a thing for the terrifying Lou, but she's fucking Jackal, the sleazy blackmailer/photographer who works for them.

Jo is self-destructive. She drinks too much and pursues men she hates instead of admitting her terrifying feelings for the woman she actually likes. Every action Jo takes is filtered through stress, trauma, alcohol, self-denial, avoidance... (There's probably a whole essay in the meta-level of how the book handles Jo's fear of intimacy, and how it cross-pollinates with her bisexuality.)

Due to a job gone wrong years ago, Jo owes the Lady a lot of money. When Jackal skips out on the latest job, it jeopardizes Jo's ability to pay off. Things escalate from there, and go poorly. The series of disasters brings Jo to the terrible truth of her boss, the Lady Upstairs, and poises her to decide whether to stay in her prison, escape with her life, or something else altogether.

This book both loves and hates its femme fatales, and it's not really interested in reconciling that. Instead the book worries at that problem, like it's tonguing a wound in its mouth.

While the plot is essentially about honeypots and blackmail and punishing bad men, the story is really more about the women. Thematically, Jo's tale circles around empowerment and abuse: Lou makes Jo feel like she's taking power back from men who hurt her, and others, but Lou is herself controlling Jo. Jo uses the same tactics to bring in young girls; one manipulated girl muses that as much as she hates Jo and her manipulation, she still wants to be her.

There's all sorts of nasty circles of lies and abuse, here, and no easy solutions – just escalation. If the book has an argument, it's probably that some forms of freedom are traps.

In all, a provocative read, and one that's more interested in raising questions than answering them. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't dissuade someone from reading it, and it'll definitely hit the spot for readers who want a revenge noir more willing to explore the nastier implications of the genre.

#backlist #reviews #books #adultfiction #novels #y2020

I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.