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.

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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.

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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)

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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.