Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.

Tierney reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah Burke is spending her last year of high school trying to figure out where she fits in, and often feeling awkward about the fact that she marches to the beat of her own drum. She tells the story from her perspective in Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli’s not-quite-sequel to Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (the book on which feel-good gay movie Love, Simon was based). I say not-quite-sequel because while the events in this novel follow the events in the preceding one, Leah’s point of view puts the focus on entirely different things (don’t worry, Simon and Bram are still disgustingly adorable, even as the secondary focus), and rewrites some of what we thought we understood from the previous novel in ways that are absolutely glorious.

In Leah on the Offbeat, Leah spends much of her time hanging back – from the spotlight, from taking a real shot, to avoid change and uncertainty. She loves to draw – but doesn’t think her art is good enough to actually sell her pieces, even though she needs the money. Someone has a crush on her – but she can’t figure out how she feels about it. She’s got a giant crush on someone else – but she spends time agonizing over it, even when things look promising. She’s bisexual, and is out to her single mom (and has been since middle school) – but she doesn’t feel like she can come out to her friends so soon after Simon has come out, so they don’t know about this big part of identity.

But there are also glorious moments when she steps up to the plate, like when she stands up to a friend who makes a racist comment about affirmative action being the only reason someone got into a university she was rejected from. Throughout the entire novel, Leah is an absolutely delightful character, even when you feel like yelling at her for getting in her own way and messing things up for herself with her self-consciousness and her reluctance to ever try, for fear of messing things up. It’s infuriatingly adorable (and all the more so when she finally gets over it!).

Albertalli does an awesome job in her portrayal of Leah’s bisexuality: it’s such a rock-solid part of her identity, despite her other insecurities, and is an important focus of the novel, even though she’s not out to her friends. Her pop culture references are on point, and are delightfully queer. And no spoilers, but the very queer denouement of her story feels absolutely epic – Albertalli’s writing had me rooting for this ending from very early on in the novel.

Leah on the Offbeat is a great read, and worthy of your time whether or not you’ve read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (though queer folks who have read it are sure to enjoy Leah’s take on things, and the spectacular unfolding of Leah’s own queer story!). All I can say, they better make this one into a movie too: Leah deserves her own movie, and her queer fans deserve to see this story onscreen. Fingers crossed!

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst cover

Inkmistress is Audrey Coulthurst’s second novel, and the first of her works that I have personally read. It’s the story of a young demigod hermit, daughter of a human and a wind god, whose teacher has raised her separate from human beings in an effort to protect her from them. Asra is an herbalist who has the power to write fate into being by using her blood as ink and her lifespan as fuel.  She’s used the power only once before, inadvertently causing an ecological disaster, so it’s only out of the real fear of losing something precious to her that she uses it for a second time.  The love of her young adulthood, a human villager named Ina, is sworn a political marriage with the ruling son of another village unless unless she can gather enough of her own power to not need to marry.  In this world where every human being takes on a “manifest,” a bond with an animal which allows them to shapeshift, Ina’s lateness to develop the skill has made her vulnerable.  Longing to marry her herself, Asra writes Ina will find her manifest tomorrow, and her lack of specificity sets off a chain reaction of horrors; the village is massacred by invading bandits, and Ina takes a dragon as manifest by force, cutting herself off from the gods and dedicating herself to vengeance.  Asra has no choice but to follow her, down from the mountains she has lived in all her life, desperate to turn Ina from her horrible quest.

This book had me walking a balance beam between “Oh, I really like that!” and “Hmm, I think I would have done that differently,” which means it kept my attention until the last page.  I liked that the magic got very little explanation, and that was explained wasn’t done in a way that kicked me out of the narrative.  I very much enjoyed that the appearances of characters were described naturally, with no resorting to weird food metaphors to describe the characters of color. I appreciated that there was a sense of history to the piece, without any of the plodding common to early works of fantasy novelists; the characters were simply living their lives, navigating what eddies they had to to keep from drowning in fate, and the fact that they were in a world where the gods were very close to them didn’t matter as much as getting the harvests in, or avoiding a well-traveled road on a muddy day.

Both the protagonist and the antagonist of Inkmistress are bisexual, each of them having partners of multiple genders within the text, and it goes unremarked-upon by other characters, which is something I found comforting. In a world with dragons and shapeshifting warrior kings a person’s sexuality should be a subject of no note.  That said, there is a character who was disowned by her parents for getting pregnant without getting married first, so this world isn’t that far divorced from our own, which made the world feel familiar.

The things that I didn’t enjoy as much mainly came down to characterization.  Asra has spent her entire life on a mountaintop, separate from the village below and, after her master dies, totally alone for all the winter months. This has instilled in her a certain believable naivety and hunger for human communication, and it doesn’t seem like she ever overcomes that during the course of the novel. No matter how she is abused or manipulated for it, she does not gain worldliness.  In addition, despite the fact that she’s had it drilled into her head since infancy that her powers are dangerous, and that humans will take advantage of her to force her to use them, I’m not sure there’s a character with a speaking role who she doesn’t end up blabbing her secret to.  Predictably, this leads to her becoming a weapon for one character after another to use against their enemies. This does drive the plot, but I kept wondering how Asra thought she was going to survive, when everyone who knows her name seems to know that her blood could make them into something approaching demigods themselves.

I was most of the way through the book before I realized what it was reminding me of: there was a ghost of the same sort of driven desperation that I enjoyed in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” That was a good surprise, since I adored that novel, and I could see something of a quieter, less-driven Yeine in Asra.   Asra accepted that she had only so much power, and due to that, that her agency was limited.  She never had enough choices, and none of the ones in front of her were good; in defter hands, that could have taken on a beautiful anxiety. As it is, the character’s constant uncertainty made her come off to me as a bit weak-willed.

Weak-willed can be kind of interesting, though, and Asra’s malleability was consistent.  While she couldn’t adhere to one frame of mind or one decision beyond “Stop Ina,” she’s that rare protagonist who is both terrible at saying no, to anyone, and generally capable of getting her own way out of her problems.  The fact that “out of a problem” means “into a worse problem” every single time just ratchets up the tension.

That said, I thought that the last few pages were a bit too pat and easy.  Asra had gone through physical, spiritual and emotional agony to come to where she was, but throughout the entire narrative she wasn’t ever able to make a choice and stick to it.  She vacillated between supporting one villain or another, walking one path or another.  Wind’s daughter that she’d thought herself to be, wind’s lover that she becomes, it seemed as if she spent the entire novel being blown this way and that, with little control of her direction.  I would have liked to see her plant her feet and make real demands of the world around her.

Final rating: ***

Genevra Littlejohn is a multiethnic, queer martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and their two cats, baking and reading and cussing at her tomato garden.  She’s at http://fox-bright.tumblr.com, or you can find her on Facebook.

Danika reviews Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Love as thou wilt.

Such is the precept of Elua, the most important deity of Terre d’Ange, where Kushiel’s Dart takes place. If that sounds like the perfect commandment for a queer novel, it pretty much is.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first of a trio of trilogies based in the same world, though only the first trilogy feature Kushiel’s Dart‘s protagonist, Phèdre. If I could describe Kushiel’s Dart in only two words, it would be sex and politics, but religion would be a close third.

This is a 900 page book, which makes it pretty much impossible to discuss without some spoilers, but I’ll keep them to the first 100 pages or so. This is the story of Phèdre, sold as a young child to a… well, it’s tempting to say brothel, but in this world being a sex worker is being a Servant of Naamah, a semi-spiritual, respectable life. After all, love as thou wilt. Anyway, Phèdre goes on to become a pupil of an intellectual, taught to listen and spy while exercising her unique talents as (minor spoiler) an anguissette: the rare trait of experiencing pleasure in pain. As such, Kushiel’s Dart has graphic, but tasteful, I think, descriptions of sex, including sadomasochism.

The first half of the novel builds slowly, with Phèdre reporting to Delauney, her tutor, the things she learns through being an anguissette. Personally, I found it difficult to follow all the names and politics, but I have a terrible head for that. It didn’t stop me from enjoying it, though. The second half is more fast-paced, with greater stakes. It includes conspiracy, love stories, and quite a bit of travel.

Phèdre may have the most involved relationships with men during the course of the novel, but she takes both male and female clients, like most Servants of Naamah, and perhaps the most erotic relationship Phèdre has is with a woman.

I’m sorry this review seems little jumbled. I liked Kushiel’s Dart, but it was definitely a thorough world-building, one that lost me few times, since I couldn’t always keep track of the names or politics. I won’t be picking up the next one, but I definitely enjoyed Kushiel’s Dart and I’m hoping to eventually re-read it.

 

Have you read Kushiel’s Dart or another lesbian/bi women/women-loving-women Fantasy novel? What did you think of it?