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.

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: 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.

Review: Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal

Publication Date: April 27, 2021
Attributes: na fiction, novel, slice-of-life
Tags: queer protagonist and side characters, living with chronic illness, horror trope as character metaphor, dramatic comedy
Quick note: I received a copy of this book from Kristen, who's a friend, but that did not influence the content of this review.

Priya and Brigid are sick.

Both have illnesses that come on without much warning. It's painful and exhausting and embarrassing; their bodies sometimes feel beyond their control.

One has lyme disease. The other's a werewolf.

Many books, the werewolf – Brigid – might take center stage as the main POV character. She's vibrant, and witty, and has to keep tons of raw meat in her fridge to deal with the one time a month she turns into a huge hairy beast.

But Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses takes the subtler path, and it pays off. The book instead takes a slow build that starts with with the shyer Priya, an aspiring doctor home from college to deal with brain fog and aching joints. She's on the mend, but feels trapped. Her main outlet is Tumblr, and her friends there.

Priya and Brigid, her longtime internet bestie, join a Discord server that hosts a chronic illness help chat. These conversations are great fun; the ensemble's struggles are illustrated through multimedia snippets and chat logs.

When Brigid goes radio silent one weekend, Priya is genuinely worried about her friend – but she also sees the 1-hour road trip as a way to exercise some small steps of freedom.

Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses really starts to shine here. Priya discovers Brigid's wolfy secret, through a series of hilarious incidents (one involving a hapless animal control guy, who becomes a recurring and delightful character who does NOT appreciate all these weird prank calls about large dogs). Priya wants to help her friend. But more than that, she treats Brigid's mysterious problems as a way to avoid her own.

Ultimately, this is a quiet, character-driven book. There's a serious “werewolf on the loose”/chronic illness relapse incident toward the end, sure. (Cue animal control friend Spencer to the rescue, and hospital escape hijinks.) But most of the action comes from the friendship between Priya and Brigid.

The two characters grow together and clash, grappling with their feelings of frustration with their unpredictable bodies. They try to take back small freedoms and find independence and direct their lives back in the directions of their hopes. And when Brigid starts looking for ways to get rid of her werewolf transformations forever, Priya takes the danger – and the perceived rejection of chronic illness – personally.

I enjoyed the book a lot, especially in how it turns a classic horror trope – transformations as a metaphor for modern anxieties! – into a more slice-of-life character study. It also fits neatly into a genre of monster books that use ill/queer/disabled/POC characters as both the figurative and the literal. Instead of relegating said characters exclusively to the monster roles (the common form of the trope), these books allow marginalized characters humanity, but still explore and upend the ways our experiences resonate with the monster allegories.

(Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve is another notable recent example, though it's a more intense political horror than dramatic comedy.)

Also worth noting that this book falls into the more gray-area “new adult” genre, rather than strictly adult or young adult. The characters are a little older, 19-20s, and they're dealing with more adult questions like “what do I do with my life now that it's been totally derailed?” But it takes the more quick-read, quippy style and tone less common to adult novels.

In-all, this book is a darkly fun, smart read that explores some more serious themes. Definitely recommend to anyone who's looking for a character-driven, lower-stakes read with a modern setting and a speculative quirk.

More like this: I did this section in my last few reviews, but it felt kinda weird to just randomly throw loose associations out there so... I'm thinking I'll drop it and just mention those associations in the reviews!

#prepublication #reviews #books #novels #nafiction #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: Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp

Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: ya fiction, short novel, horror/thriller
Tags: TTRPGs are a little too real, trans man protag, nonbinary protag by nonbinary author, characters with disabilities, neuroatypical characters

This book was fine. For readers more interested in concept and style than character, it'll even be great.

The concept is great fun, a tropey twist on an old tale: Friends with secrets head to a cabin for the weekend. Instead of whatever they were planning on doing in most slasher films, these kids are going for a full-on LARP session. It's the last session before they all split up to go to college, and after a few brutal falling outs, things are tense. Then someone starts hunting them down, one by one, and using their secrets against them.

I love this concept, and in ways the book used it well. I'm a sucker for any subversion of the old cabin-in-the-woods premise (hello, Cabin in the Woods (2011) and Until Dawn). Especially if it's queer and trans and has a T4T romance. The prose is compulsively readable, which doesn't hurt.

And the TTRPG elements are delightfully whimsical and true-to-life. Nijkamp also writes frame chapters told as if the GM is narrating. As the book progresses, and characters come closer to their “breaking points”, the RPG-world narration collapses into the real-life game that someone is playing with their secrets. These were one of my favorite elements of the book.

Nonbinary GM Ever is still determined to give everyone a great time, complete with props and ambiance. Trans man Finn is there mostly because he has a giant crush on Ever. Autistic injured lacrosse star Maddy wants to close out the game and bridge some of the gaps that have cropped up in recent months. Middle-class, high-achieving Carter sees the weekend as one last chance to have some fun before embracing the boring business future he needs to bring in the $ and please his dad. And extremely rich and rather aloof Liva is providing the cabin for the weekend.

The character concepts are one of the biggest delights in this — it's a good cast, with lots of places to clash. And the Finn/Ever romance is cute and, as a “wait, our lives are splitting up soon” love tale, quite well handled. Almost everyone has clear motives, and they end up clashing with clarity and purpose.

But the character work from the POV-side is also one of the biggest weaknesses. Nijkamp tells their stories in alternating first-person POV chapters. Everyone has a secret that they're hiding — from each other AND the reader.

All these eighteen-year-olds are headed to a remote cabin for a weekend, and they all slowly reveal their secret hangups and hopes and fears. But the interiority of the characters never quite rings true. The narration ends up sounding all the same, even between five wildly different characters with separate motives. And it seems unbelievably overwrought for a person to actually think something like “will we reach our breaking point this weekend?”, even for a group of intense TTRPGers. All POV characters spend a lot of time reiterating those themes of breaking, even though they don't necessarily have a good reason to — especially in the book's early pages.

The murderer (not saying who) wants to use everyone's secrets to drive them to a breaking point, too. They leave creepy messages that end up mirroring the props of the game. They try to drive an addict to overdosing, a thief to cheating with stolen money in the TTRPG, a kid with low self esteem to start questioning their worth. The conceit is compelling.

But like a lot of the book, it doesn't come together. It's a lot of thematic and conceptual and structural works that works on the theoretical level, but doesn't quite end up making sense from the character motives side. We hear from the murderer early on, but there's little clue that they're Up To Something. (In that sense, it joins a long legacy of teen thrillers like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.) The murderer's identity also feels more thematic than character-driven, even though it should have been both.

This book could perhaps have benefited from a third person limited POV perspective. The interiorities of five characters are just a lot to establish in a short novel.

I've also really loved Nijkamp's work when it depends less on the characters' interiority. The Oracle Code is a phenomenal DC YA reboot.

Despite its imperfections, I still enjoyed reading this book. It's unusual enough to read horror where queer characters [REDACTED]. I'd recommend it to others who are looking for a quick YA horror that's a low-key love letter to TTRPGs and has solid rep from multiple directions.

More like this: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, Until Dawn, Cabin in the Woods (2011)

#backlist #reviews #books #yafiction #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.

Or, a review of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi, kindof

Publication Date: September 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, short novel, general fiction
Tags: The Plot Is The Myth, protagonist with amnesia, labyrinths, vaguely bisexual, fantastic travelogue

The trouble with queer specfic: It's nearly impossible to filter for it without setting some arbitrary constraints.

Both “queer” and “specfic” are two categories both wildly broad and obnoxiously debated.

Specfic itself is gigantic, covering every genre as long as the writer applies the right type of speculation. (What's the right type? Good luck getting a consistent answer on that one.) And academics have argued that queer covers everything from dyed-in-the-wool ~HoMoSeXuAlS~ to robots that look at you with a certain je ne sais quoi. The queer community tries to narrow that, but then you end up with arguments that some gay people aren't queer, and asexual people aren't queer, and... and... and....

In fiction, you end up with months-long fandom debates about, say, what it takes to queer-validate a popular media property depicting two immortal beings who don't really jive with gender but do present as men and have essentially lived as life partners for millennia. Do they have to kiss on screen? Is holding hands enough? Does a cheeky slip of an implied handhold juuuust out of viewer sights count as queer, or queerbaiting?

All of this to say, Piranesi isn't queer by a lot of definitions. Okay, yes, the main character does lovingly detail the sartorial choices of a man he repeatedly calls “handsome.” But many would say the author's refusal to use on-the-page identifiers or depict romance or mention the gender of past lovers — however plot implausible — disqualifies it from queerness.

I'm writing about it here anyway. One, because I feel like it. Two, because I'm not really interested in a “textual gate-keeping definition of queer.” Three, because I've never read a truly straight book about getting lost in a labyrinth, and I'm not going to start with this one. (A labyrinth, as with a book, is just as much about what you bring into it as it is about what's already there.)

For people who came for a proper review, I'll say this: Piranesi is a puzzle of a book, and its unraveling is a delight. The story is told in the form of journals written by a man who lives in a great labyrinth. The format is deeply relational: Instead of Julian dates, the writer marks time by important things that occur; he tells time and space from the goings of inexplicable tides and grand statues. The unnamed narrator knows the halls of the labyrinth better than he knows himself. In fact, he does not even know his own name, in the beginning.

The journey is as much about discovering the world-truth as it is discovering the narrator; the two are well-twined. As he learns more about himself, the mystery draws him to places beyond the labyrinth.

Fans of Patricia A. McKillip will enjoy a more restrained approach to a similar storytelling ethos. (I never read Clarke's beloved 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so I can't say how that compares.)

Though there is a “plot,” and a “mystery,” and a sort of “battle” between some people who mean the narrator harm and some people who hope to help him, the book is as much meandering travelogue and fable-esque architectural digest as it is a linear narrative.

It joins a long line of delightful fiction that serves as an ode to the people who feel lured to imagined worlds. This one also follows many of my favorite pieces, which are interested more in getting lost than getting to a destination.

More like this: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, much by Patricia A. McKillip, Imaginary Prisons: Giovanni Battista Piranesi Prints

#backlist #reviews #books #novels #adultfiction #essays #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.