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.

Danika reviews The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

If you’ve been looking for the queer Hunger Games (or, at least, queer Mockingjay), this is the book for you.  Do you want to read about crushing oppression and the horrors of war, but with a bisexual protagonist? The Scorpion Rules is the book for you!

This was a bad choice for a readathon. I should have seen that coming, since this is clearly a dystopia, but the premise made it seem like a Fantasy novel:

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

A queer Canadian princess dystopia! I was expecting a page-turner. I was not expecting a YA 1984. At the beginning of the novel, I definitely was getting those Fantasy-esque sci fi vibes. Once Elián arrives on the scene though, things get darker. The group of hostages that Greta is a part of have grown up that way. They have been trained to be hostages. To follow the rules. Behave. They know the deal: just get through until they turn 18, and then they will go home, and become rulers–if they live to 18. If their parents don’t declare war. Elián has not been raised with this expectation. He is the hostage of a newly-established nation. He resists. He rebels. And he poses a threat to all of them.

This is a world that is ruled by an AI. The hostages are held captive by robot enforcers. There is a panopticon. The AI has aerial weapons. Machines don’t get tired. Which is all to say that escape is impossible. You can be shot down from the sky at any point. You will be electrocuted if you say the wrong thing, if you question the system. But Elián refuses to comply, and they are punished collectively–with increasing harshness.

This is not a light read. In fact, it becomes brutal. There is torture. The end has one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in a book. That was what reminded me of 1984: the ending.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned a romance to this point, and that’s because although Greta has love interests, it really isn’t a significant part of the book. I did like Greta’s relationship with Xie, because it develops from such a close friendship, but I wasn’t exactly getting warm and fuzzy feelings.

I had mixed feelings about the villain, Talis (the AI). He speaks very casually (even in his “scriptures”), which toes the line to silliness at some points–but on the other hand, it almost makes him a more sinister character because of that. He does seem human.

As you can probably tell from this review, I have mixed feelings and thoughts about this. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s my own fault for not knowing what I was getting into. I am definitely interested to pick up the second book, and hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts at that point.

Danika reviews Biketopia edited by Elly Blue

A smart person once told me that the key to having a good life in the face of world’s uncertainty is to find something that is meaningful for you and go all-in for it. For me, that’s the real appeal of both bicycles and science fiction–no matter how grim the world looks, each other can take you to a place where you can see another perspective, explore your options, and even if they each have the potential to create as many problems they solve, at least you’ve gone somewhere in a way that feels good.

The introduction to Biketopia 

If I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that my favourite part of Biketopia is the cover. That’s not a slight on the stories! It’s just that the sight of this beautiful illustration of a badass woman raising a bike above her head is arresting. Add on to that these are speculative fiction, feminist, bike-centered stories? I’m sold several times over!

There are only two blatantly queer stories in this collection, but all the stories do focus on women and their relationships with each other. The premises range, including semi-utopias, horrific dystopias, classic sci fi, as well as settings that seem all-too-possible.

The first sapphic story is “Meet Cute” by Maddy Spencer, the only comic of the collection. It is wordless, and shows our main character bringing her bike-powered bookmobile through a town. Although we obviously don’t get a big backstory, this seems like a peaceful, cooperative place, and bikes look to be the only means of transportation (other than by foot or wheelchair). When her bikemobile tips over, an adorable mechanic with an artificial (robot? magic??) arm repairs it for her, and hands her a phone number while they both blush furiously. It’s very short, but super cute.

The other queer story is “The Future of Flirtation” by Leigh Ward-Smith. Mika runs a mobile shop in a post-climate-change, water-starved world. When a 6-foot-something muscled figure strides up to her stand, she is immediately smitten, even though she has no idea the gender or even species of the person behind the mirrored helmet. She spends the story attempted to flirt with them, while bartering over a cold can of Coke.

This was a fun read, and although there weren’t many stories that were incredibly memorable, I did find the variations on “feminist bicycle science fiction” stories interesting. They definitely went in different directions. This is actually the fourth volume of the Bikes In Space series, each of which explore feminist sci fi stories about bicycling, so that sounds like your style, you should pick one up! (Probably this one. It has queer stories and a sweet cover.)

Megan G reviews Forget Yourself by Redfern Jon Barrett

Blondee’s world is comprised of fifty huts divided between four groups of people: least, minor, moderate, and severe. Each person is grouped based on what crime they committed in their previous life, though nobody can really know for sure what their exact crime was, as everybody comes into this world with no memories of who they previously were. The few memories people have are recorded in a book and used as rules to govern this world. The memories Blondee begins to have, however, will change the course of her world.

This is a tough book to review. It’s speculative science-fiction unlike any I’ve read before. Blondee’s world is new, both to the reader and to the characters, creating a deep sense of uncertainty throughout the novel that never fully dissipates. Every character is an amnesiac, making the world outside their prison compound a complete mystery and creating a strong sense of claustrophobia. We don’t know where we are, and we don’t know where we came from. I will admit, the eventual reveal left me scratching my head, but it also left me thinking in a way that very few dystopian novels ever have.

The issue of sexuality is just as complex as the rest of the narrative. Although Blondee’s world seems far more open-minded than our own, monogamy is still the law of the land, and when Blondee begins to shift into the world of polyamory she is quickly shunned by the rest of the compound. This is a world where everybody must act in the same way and follow the same rules, and having two lovers simply doesn’t fit with those rules. Despite the reaction of the rest of the compound, Blondee continues to date Burberry and Fredrick simultaneously, and, for a short time, this works for all three. Then, Blondee begins having memories.

The way that memory is dealt with in this book was something I found particularly intriguing. Everybody arrives into the world fully formed, but with no idea of who they are. When they do have memories, they’re vague. “If one person cheats, the other breaks up with them.” Nothing is personal or specific, and so it is believed that all memories are simply reminders of how the world works. When you’re with someone, they live with you. When you break up, you have sex once, and then one of you moves out. Things that in our world are decided based on personal preference are rules in Blondee’s world. This eventually leads to terrible consequences when Blondee remembers marriage, finds a bridal magazine, and re-introduces heteronormativy and traditional gender roles into a world that operated rather smoothly without them. This shift is one of the many social commentaries embedded within the narrative, and it may potentially be the only one that I fully grasped.

There are a few warnings you should be aware of before picking this book up. There is a decent amount of fatphobia within this book, all dealt with in a very casual way. Suicide is also a theme, and while it is not omni-present, it is rather explicit when it comes up. [major spoilers]This book also includes the death of a queer woman and of several queer men [end spoilers]. There is also explicit sexual content throughout the book, if that is something you prefer to avoid.

Overall, Forget Yourself is a tightly woven, complex story that deeply examines our society, sexuality, and the personal in contrast to the general. While I did greatly enjoy this story, I must admit that a lot of what happened in the final section went over my head, leaving me confused and a little unsatisfied. A second read might be in order, now that I (sort of) know where everything ends up.

One final note about Forget Yourself: don’t be fooled by the quick pace. This book initially seems like a light, easy, mindless read. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.

Kathryn Hoss reviews Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

not your sidekick
Five words: lesbian, bisexual, and trans superheroes.
Wait, I think I need a few more.
Lesbian, bisexual, and trans superheroes taking on the kyriarchy, falling in love, and just… being kids.
Jessica Tran doesn’t fit in. I know, not the most original premise. But along with all the normal crap teenagers worry about– mediocre grades due to excessive daydreaming, crushes on intimidating Volleyball players, jobs and internships and college applications… Jess has the added pressure of being the only person in her family who hasn’t exhibited superpowers.
It’s been ten years since I was Jess’s age, and the world has changed a lot since then. Back in my day, most of us didn’t have smartphones, or Facebook, the endless scroll of notifications. Not Your Sidekick takes that technology a step further, into a world with holographic communication devices on every wrist, driverless cars on every street, and a robot housekeeper in every home. Despite the surface convenience, the infrastructure of North America has crumbled, good jobs are scarce, and all that flashy technology? It’s constantly malfunctioning.
Is this gonna resonate with the tumblr generation, the “millennials,” those of us disenfranchised by our currently-crumbling systems of government? Oh hell yes.
The cool thing is, Not Your Sidekick doesn’t just offer up a hopeless dystopian nightmare– it shows the world on the verge of being fixed.
This is a story about false binaries, and how one can go about smashing them. Jess starts off the story as bisexual with no qualms about it, which is refreshing. She does struggle with her cultural identity, as the child of Chinese and Thai refugees from the Southeast Asian Alliance– too American for the Thai sandwich shop, too fobby for her old friends from Chinese School. Finally, there’s the titular binary, the concept of heroism versus villainy. Who decides which is which, and why?
Okay, so I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, especially when it doesn’t forget that a major continent exists. But I also thought this novel shone when it came to its portrayal of the intense platonic love that can form in a tight-knit group of friends, as well as the complicated dynamic of idolization turning to genuine love.
The novel is not without its flaws. Some of the prose seemed unpolished, the twists predictable, the pace a little too rushed. But Not Your Sidekick is also Not Your High Literature. It’s camp. It’s trope-y. It frequently defies the laws of physics. (When one or more of your characters can manipulate gravitational fields, that will happen.) If anything, the way the narrative played so seamlessly into superhero tropes made me visualize it as a movie–and man, that would be a good movie.
Let me put it this way: there is a glut of blatant wish-fulfillment books, movies, and TV shows about male superheroes. There is a handful about female superheroes. Before Not Your Sidekick, I could think of one lesbian or bi superhero whose sexuality was explicitly mentioned in a long-form work, and she was killed off (Black Canary on Arrow). Not Your Sidekick is the story LGBT fans deserve, AND the one we need right now. My biggest problem with it?
It’s the first of a trilogy, and we have to wait until 2017 for the next one.

Emily R. reviews Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

santaolivia Vividly rendered at the intersection of liminal spaces of all kinds, Santa Olivia follows the story of Loup Garron as she comes of age on the Mexican-US border.  Born to a woman and a genetically enhanced soldier, part of a military “werewolf” experiment, Loup inherits some of her father’s abilities. After being orphaned, she is taken in by what is left of the local church along with other children.  Together, they begin to address the wrongs perpetrated by the military on the townspeople. In this dystopia, a DMZ buffer zone was created and all existing towns declared military outposts. Located between countries, in a place the rest of the country was told no longer exists, this is a beautifully austere and gritty novel that delves into moral ambiguity, survival and love with both eyes wide open.

As Loup and other orphans of the town become increasingly aware of the injustices around them in what amounts to a small military dictatorship, her abilities allow them to adopt the identity of a the church’s patron saint, Santa Olivia, known for making peace in a dangerous war zone.  A counter-intuitive choice perhaps, but one that resonates beautifully against the backdrop of stark contrasts in this book. As a team, they begin to right wrongs, and dream of getting out.

Threaded throughout this narrative is the romance between Loup and Pilar.  Sweet, devoted and sensual, Carey weaves an incredibly heartening relationship into an austere landscape of a town that does, and does not, exist, with a wide variety of multi-racial characters fighting not only to survive, but to live.

So many things stand out with this wonderful book, the character development is brilliant and complex, with excellent world building that is one of Carey’s calling cards (see her Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy, set in an alternate Europe complete with sub cultures, political machinations and international policy consequences).  The liberal use of profanity throughout juxtaposes with the luscious writing in a way I can only compare to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Angela Carter’s work. The voices of moral authority in the face of despotism and corruption come from members of the Catholic Church who may or may not be in a relationship and who may or may not have ever been ordained in the first place.  As with so many aspects of this book, sources of authority are treated with extreme cynicism while the heart of the story is about individuals negotiating those systems

Carey not only builds one of the most amazing and delightful relationships between women I’ve ever read, but also takes on questions of power with the character of the physically lush Pilar.  She has access, via her appearance, to power by charming powerful men – and indeed both she and the troupe utilize it as an asset and make no bones about doing so.  It makes for an engaging application of 3rd wave feminism as these characters own their sexuality and make us of all the tools available to them. In addition to sex positivity and agency, several fraught topics are explored in intriguing ways here – including bisexuality, being multi-racial, chosen family, military control, genetic engineering and manipulation, and gender/sexual power dynamics.

This novel is also an interesting critique of the typical super-hero story.  Loup has super speed and strength, and a will to do the right thing – much like most any of your super-hero du jour.  Loup and her cohort have absolutely no privilege and throughout the story, this doesn’t particularly change – it isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American mythos narrative.  Where a more mainstream superhero character would be hyper-masculinized by an inability to feel fear, this trait is constructed as a danger for Loup.  After all, if a child can’t feel fear, how do they begin to develop survival skill around every day dangers like crossing the street?  In a highly feminist move on Carey’s part, Loup may be the muscle behind their vigilantism, but she and her friends must work as a group to protect one another and their town.

Fans of urban fantasy, dark fantasy and dystopia will likely enjoy this work – though it sits solidly in none of these sub-genres and is a very different story than Carey’s earlier work.  For fans of Angela Carter, Catherynne Valente, Seanan Mcguire (penname Mira Grant) and Margaret Atwood, you have been waiting for this genetically-engineered lesbian superhero dystopian werewolf folktale.

Emily works with teens in a library by the sea and is a recovering academic who writes, reads, and thinks mostly about fairy tales, gender, queerness and cats. When not playing minor-key Celtic tunes on her fiddle, she avidly tracks down obscure fairy tale anthologies and has a yarn storage problem for her knitting. As ever, she pursues that culinary Questing Beast, the perfect guacamole.

Danika reviews Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson

smoketown

 

I was intrigued by the first sentences of Smoketown:

Anna Armour had had her fair share of failed resurrections. There had been the lichen when she was three and the dragonfly at six–the sad twisted platypus that her mother took away before it ruined her tenth birthday. Since the day of her mother’s death when Anna was fourteen, she hadn’t brought anything back to life.

This is a book that plays with genre. I picked it up expected a dystopian novel, which it kind of is: it takes place in a post-global-warming world, but that’s only part of the story. At times, this felt more like a series of interlocking short stories than a novel. Smoketown is only 197 pages, and it bounces between three points of view (Anna; Eugenio, a researcher of the Crumble; and Rory, who has been living in isolation ever since the disease spread). Each has their own backstory and motivation, and between that and the complex setting, it began to feel a little crowded.

Anna lives in Leiodare, a city which survived the epidemic called the “Crumble” decades ago, and reacted by banning birds from within the city. Already this is more at work that I expect from a dystopia, and that’s ignoring the magical element of Anna’s abilities.  The setting is remarkable, though. In addition to this description of the post-climate change landscape, it also describes new technology and religion, with enough slang to seem realistic but not distracting. The detail that goes into the consequences of these changes was impressive. For instance, the outlawing of birds leads to ongoing infestations of insects, and human callers are hired to imitate birdsong after the silence becomes overwhelming.

I also found Anna’s storyline fascinating, especially her mysterious relationship with Peru and her budding romance with Seife. The idea of her powers was also compelling, but I would have liked more of this element to the story. The actual plotline, and Eugenio and Rory’s contribution to it, I found less interesting. The mystery aspect seemed fairly straightforward, and I found Rory especially to not be a necessary POV character.

It’s a shame that the plot didn’t pique my interest, because I loved the setting, and I would really like to see another story set there, or even just more from Anna.

Danika reviews Twixt by Sarah Diemer

TwixtbySarahDiemer

Sarah Diemer is an author that I am pretty familiar with from her online presence, but I’ve only read one book by her, The Dark Wife. One of my favourite Booktubers, Jessie Quinn from Cup of Books, reviewed Twixt pretty positively and recommended it as an October read, so I figured it would be a good one to pick up during Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. (Now that all the links are out of the way…)

Twixt is a sort of dystopic fantasy young adult book. It drops you immediately into this world of Sleepers and Snatchers, a walled in town where monsters swoop in and snatch people who try to leave, a place where hair is bartered like money and memories are drugs. It’s overwhelming at first, and I spent most of the novella trying to get my bearings. This is a story that I feel like is based around the world and setting. Although the characters are interesting, I didn’t feel like they were fully realized. I also appreciated a lesbian romance in this setting, but because I didn’t feel connected to the characters, I wasn’t invested in the romance, either.

Because the setting is so unique, the whole time I was reading it I thought that the ending/explanation would really determine how I felt about the novella as a whole. The explanation is satisfying in that it is fittingly odd, and does make sense for the story, but afterward I felt like some elements were unnecessary (spoiler, highlight to read: specifically the doubling of the sixers–the two-as-one thing seemed unexplained and unneeded. Also some details like the rivalry between the houses felt superfluous).

Overall, I found the story interesting and intriguing, but I wanted more from it: more development of the characters and more detail of the setting. I would have liked to see this fleshed out into a novel-length work. It feels like the bare bones of a richer, more thorough narrative. But this may just be my own experience. In addition to Jessie’s review, also check out Katie’s very positive review at the Lesbrary.

Danika reviews “Good Girl” by Malinda Lo

“Good Girl” by Malinda Lo is a short story contained in the collection Diverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti. It’s a dystopian collection, and I can never resist dystopian stories. Add in that there’s a lesbian story by a known author, and I couldn’t resist! In dystopians, I feel like the world is the most important character, so I tend to focus on that. It takes most of the story for the background to be revealed, so I’m marking it as spoilers.

[spoilers] “Good Girl” takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where most of the US (world?) is completely unlivable, except for pockets that are protected in sealed domes, waiting generations for the world to be habitable again. Inside the dome the main character, Kyle, lives in (New York?), the government strictly controls people’s lives (think The Giver). The government has also instituted eugenics, claiming that mixed-race children are diseased and die. Kyle knows that she and her brother are mixed race, though she passes as “pure” Asian. When her brother disappears, she goes into the underbelly of the city, “the Tunnels”, to try to find him. Instead, she finds herself falling for one of these “mutts”, a girl named Nix, who has a tattooed shaved head.

In some ways, it reminded me of Shadow Swans in that there is a semi-secret society of outcasts living under the city, and that a “good girl” finds herself sucked into it, but where Ruby is a bored rich person, Kyle is living in her own dystopia above ground. [end spoilers] I thought the story was well-written and plotted well. It could very easily be its own novel, and I am really intrigued by the world. I would love to know more about the government and its history of eugenics, and about whether the other cities have a similar system or are entirely different. I would even love a story that took place after they first could walk out on the world again, and what it would look like when these isolated communities came back together. Not to mention that I would love to know what takes place after the end of this story with Kyle or Nix! I highly recommend this one, especially if you’re a dystopia fan.