The Half-Light Makes for a Clearer View: Genevra Littlejohn reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

I’m writing this from inside of a curious space. About a week ago I stood up into a cabinet and gave myself a concussion, which I then immediately exacerbated by doing Chinese lion dance in four shows for a local production of The Nutcracker. So my life for a few days was cut harshly between periods of bright light and motion, and periods of sleep. Being awake has felt like one of those dreams where I’m just a little late to everything. Being asleep has felt like falling into a well. And then Winter Storm Diego hit my part of Virginia, and everything, everything stopped. My little house in the woods got fifteen inches of snow over as many hours, and since we’re a quarter of a mile from the closest paved road, gone was every possible excuse for getting up and doing things. In previous winters over the five years I’ve lived here, this is when I would read. I’d cover the available space in the tiny living room with quilts and pillows, hunker down with some snow snacks, and only get up to find another book.

But. Concussion. Trying to sit and read a novel proved…problematic. It’s been dreamlike and odd, the quick-slow jittery passage of time, the way that things don’t seem to stick right in my memory.

And then. Somehow, by chance, I found this lyrical, poetic, beautiful treasure-box of a graphic novel.

There are a lot of things to read in the world. I could do a review here every single day for months on end and not run out of my TBR list. That’s what I’m telling myself, when I’m asking how I never heard about On A Sunbeam until now, even though it started serializing as a webcomic a couple of years ago. Named for a Belle and Sebastian song, On A Sunbeam is set in a future so far from ours that its technology is more or less unrecognizable, though people are still more or less the same. It takes place after human expansion into deep space, and after–like a bacterial bloom dying back from lack of resources–the collapse of civilizations. People traveled so far into the dark that they weren’t able to come home again, and the most distant of them have sat for generations, just barely getting by. Barely daring to hope for rescue, because who would come for them? And there are some old colonies that don’t want any contact with anyone else, like the people of The Staircase, a settlement on the edge of known space mostly mentioned in legends and ghost stories.

But all of that, all of that seems very far away from the protagonist, a young girl named Mia. Her story is split raggedly between two timelines: the one where she’s a student at a boarding school-cum-space colony, and the one a few years later where she works with a team of antiquity restorers/maybe something more to mend abandoned colonies and architecture that has long since fallen into ruin. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; the story is pulled like a rope between this girl with great potential and very few aspirations, stumbling through life, causing trouble, and the older, quieter version of herself who spends her days cleaning up after the consequences of others’ centuries-old mistakes.

The first three quarters of the comic are colored largely in shades of Payne’s Grey and in oranges. I thought at first that this was just a pretty sort of contrast in the minimalist style so popular to indie comics and webcomics these days, but about halfway through, I remembered all at once those distant high school lessons about redshift and the Doppler Effect, how speed and distance turn what you see from red to blue. The past looks different than it really is. The future can’t be seen clearly, even if we think we’re sure what is going to happen. And like the narrative, we’re pulled taut between those two points, looking forward and back but pinned to the inescapable Now.

The line weight and panel structure reminded me a lot of the early days of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980’s Nausicaa manga. On A Sunbeam has the same sort of dreamlight vagueness to some of its figures and landscapes, a knobbly intricacy to its plants and architecture. Even the edges of the panels waver, mirage-like. Things swim into focus and out as if with the attention of the protagonist, and scenes that in a more action-oriented comic might be very close to the viewer are instead distant and hazy as with memory, as much concerned with the landscape as with the characters living in it. Because you never can clearly remember everything about your first love, can you? Even if you write it down event by event, there are always going to be things that dissolve into the dim red past. You can’t hold tightly enough to ensure that nothing escapes.

The characters have complicated relationships and love each other deeply, but all the same every one of them has stories they don’t tell the others. Every time you describe something, scientists say these days, you’re changing your memory of it. It might be that to preserve something flawlessly, it must never be spoken aloud. Or maybe it’s just about self-protection, because if you like the way she looks at you right now, why damage that fragile connection by showing her the darkest places you’ve had to walk? But, as everything has a flipside, if you don’t share anything, if you’re never truly seen, can you be sure they love you?

This review is not purposefully vague. I could give you a cold recital of events, chapter by chapter, but that would be as lifeless as a sparrow dissection, and this work deserves much better treatment than that. It has a dream’s motion to it, inexorable but winding. There’s nothing extra, nothing that could be cut away, but it doesn’t feel spare or thin. The world is never explained with any clarity (why do the spaceships all look like koi, and how do they travel so quickly? Why isn’t there a single male character? What’s the political power structure of the human universe?) and simultaneously, it’s not necessary. This is a love story, and a story about finding family in unexpected places, and it’s enough to know that all the science and history exists at all in the world. We don’t need to see it, because it’s not what we’re focusing on.

As I read, I kept being reminded of a sonnet I memorized a decade ago, Against Entropy by Mike Ford. There’s a bit in it that goes:

The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
although some of the colors have to fade,
do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.

There are things we get to choose, and things we don’t. We get to choose how to respond to a given situation; we don’t get to choose how others will respond. We don’t get to choose the consequences for the things we do. We don’t get to choose to make the world hold still until we’re good and ready to move forward. We don’t get to choose what we remember, and what our minds leave behind. Mia, exhausted, says “Sometimes I just wish…everything would slow down…I fuck things up, or everything turns sour, and it just rushes by me. And I’ll take a second to catch my breath… But by then it’s too late. Everything… everything is gone.” She’s young, and she’s still learning what should be held on to, and what should be let go. She is constantly deciding between wakefulness and sleep, between flying and falling. But this deftly-crafted story isn’t going to let her, or the reader, hit the ground too hard.

Final rating: Five out of five stars. I’m buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents, because this is the most enjoyable graphic novel I’ve read all year.

CONTENT WARNINGS (spoilers!):

There is no sexual violence in this work. There is no parental abuse in this work. There is no partner-to-partner domestic abuse in this book (there are a couple of arguments, but they are not abusive, just snarly). There is no male-against-female violence in this book.
Some school bullying, both physical and emotional, but not extreme.
Death of a mentor.
Automobile accident (non-lethal).
PG-13 bloody violence (less than a video game, but against a protagonist).
Attempted lynching (unsuccessful).

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Woman Who Tried To Be Normal by Anna Ferrara

The Woman Who Tried To Be Normal by Anna Ferrara cover

I read a very great deal, but I’m kind of like a butterfly; while there are some things which will always draw my attention the most, I flit around quite a bit otherwise.  When The Woman Who Tried to Be Normal landed in my inbox, I was intrigued to see that its protagonist was a synesthetic woman.  I freely admit that I opened it strictly on that basis alone.

Synesthesia is basically a cross-allocation of the senses. While there are a lot of different expressions of the phenomenon, and I’ve never met two people whose responses are the same, it works more or less like this: a syesthete might see the bright blue color of a bus driving down the street and because of experiencing that color they also hear a sound, or even music.  They might taste a flavor and see shapes in the air, or feel sensations traced on their skin. One of the most commonly-recognized forms causes the person to perceive colors when they see letters or numbers;  if you’ve heard just a little about synesthesia, that’s probably the form you know. I’m drawn to stories about synesthetes because I’m one myself, and it’s always interesting to see the difference between how non-synesthetes and synesthetes write about the experience.
That said, this was an odd novel, and I’m still chewing on it.
The premise is that it’s 1975, and Helen Mendel, Stepford-wife wannabe, is doing her damnedest to come off as normal.  Every action she takes is calculated, down to the tiniest tics of her facial expression.  She feels no emotion beyond irritation shading to anger, and she doesn’t fit in with the “normal” wives in the suburban neighborhood her husband has just moved her to. But she has a goal: blend in and find out what her husband is keeping from her.  Her next-door neighbors are the family of his best work buddy, and the story is in particular concerned with Ethel, a Valium-addicted alcoholic who hates life and whom Helen blackmails and seduces in short order.  Their husbands are airplane engineers–supposedly–and both of them are stereotypical in their demands for sex, dinner on the table when they walk in the door, and unquestioning wives with smiles on their faces.  The skin of “normal” life is very thin over horrors everyday and extreme.
There are no sympathetic characters in this novel, with the possible exception of Gigi, Ethel’s nanny.  The men are all brutes, Helen is an emotionless, manipulative automaton, and Ethel pinwheels between sexually demanding and vicious with no seeming reason. Ethel’s baby appears in the story mainly to cry and irritate the adults in the room, Gigi’s husband only exists so that she has someone she needs to be saved from. The whole comes off largely like a forcefully-arranged stage play where one character freezes when the spotlight is on another, or like a box full of windup dolls. There’s an implacability to the way that they go through the motions, not one of them seeming to enjoy anything for more than a moment, all the smiles coming off as soon as the attention passes to someone else.
It is definitely horrific in ways great and small, from Helen’s repeated quiet attempts to make scrambled eggs to her husband’s specifications to sudden ultra-violence. There is a sense throughout the entire work that she is alien, is other in a way that makes her inhuman. But it isn’t until the climax that it’s revealed why–and the more seemingly mundane part of that revelation distressed me a little.  You see, besides the poorly-camouflaged synesthesia, Helen is autistic.  This, explains the narrative, is the reason behind her emotionless manipulations, her dispassion and total lack of attachment to almost anyone or anything. I am not autistic, and so far as I know I have only one relative on the spectrum, but I’ve had more than enough autistic friends to know that this isn’t right.
The synesthesia is also portrayed inelegantly. My own form of it is not one that gets written about a lot. It’s mild, and not usually visual (though once, when an industrial fire alarm went off directly above my head, my vision filled with glorious expanding silver geometry).  Usually it’s that I smell and taste things which aren’t there for other people to perceive. Everyone I am close to has a scent, and their voices have a color–but I don’t *see* the color so much as know it is part of the person I’m talking to. The sound of an ice skate cutting fresh ice tastes like cherry hard candy, for instance, and my partner smells like snow clouds, and my old friend Gin’s voice has almost precisely the color of light through a good whiskey.  But the thing about all of these impressions, all these bits of knowledge, is that they’re not interruptive.  This is not a disability, and it doesn’t impact daily life negatively. And I’m not just speaking about my experiences, here. Many people don’t even realize that they have synesthesia until they’re adults. I was in my twenties before I found out that walking under the stars doesn’t taste like spearmint to everybody. When it’s how it has always been, there is no need to talk about it, and so there’s no way to know that anything is unusual. But Helen’s synesthesia, descriptions of which constantly interrupt the storytelling, are definitely what I would class as a disability. It blinds her, it fills her ears with raucous trumpets and gunshots and her mouth with foul flavors. Bluntly, it’s not the synesthesia I, any of my siblings, or any other synesthete I have ever met experiences. It seems likely to me that Ferrara did some research about synesthesia, but probably didn’t consult anyone who actually lives with it.
This work had some of the benchmarks of a self-published piece without a paid editor. There are a handful of grammatical errors which probably would not have survived a professional second pair of eyes, as well as a tendency to repeat the same verb or phrase too closely, sometimes twice in two sentences. The pacing is strange, from slow-motion sameness to a host of quickshot dramatic events in the last quarter of the piece.  But it must also be said that a lot of self-published works are in genres or portray characters which would not find mainstream publication, so I tend to consider these errors and issues to be basically the entry fee to getting to read imaginative fiction.  So while I wouldn’t use those problems as an excuse to write off the book on its own, one should go into reading it expecting them.  And honestly, it was thinking about that that ultimately led me to a better understanding of the book.  I went to the author’s homepage, where there’s a brief description of the characters’ appearances as she imagines them.  Discussing the husbands, she says “You can think James Stewart or Gary Cooper or whichever traditional American man you can envision, though I know you probably won’t even bother…” and I realized all at once that this book is more or less stripped down to just the parts she wanted to write, anything she considers superfluous consigned to the wayside. It doesn’t matter what the men look like, they’re only here to drive the angst  and get in the way of the porn. It doesn’t matter where that container of acid came from, or where the clean room with genetic experimentation tools might be, it doesn’t matter what their husbands are actually up to.  Like a nightmare, only the high points are important. To that end, if you’re looking for a beach read  that doesn’t have the hero riding in to save the day of the heaving-bosomed heroine, or maybe a book where the day isn’t saved at all, this might be for you.
WHAT I LIKED: The relentless pressure and horror of the situation was, to me, pretty believable for the era. It was nice to see any representation of synesthesia at all, even if so unrealistic.  There were some really fun ideas now and again. It’s not common to see an author really commit to such an unlikable main character, so I had to tip my hat to her for that.
WHAT I DISLIKED: The thing which knocked me out of immersion in the narrative worst was that there were many instances of what John Scalzi refers to as Flying Snowmen.  For me these were events and actions which were scientifically impossible in a way I found very distracting. I don’t mean the genius, the telekinesis, the super senses.  I don’t even mean the obviously magical element of her being able to fly for no stated reason but that she “figured it out.” I’m talking impossible like the way it is repeatedly noted she can move “at the speed of light,” the real-world physical consequences of which would be catastrophic to her body and, well, the planet. She’s capable of things which if possible at all would require a great deal of time in a clean lab, but no such place or expenditure of time is ever hinted at. A single container of fluoroantimonic acid “three times the size of a bullet” is sufficient to dissolve an entire human corpse in moments, and so on. This strained my willing credulity a bit too far.
CONTENT WARNINGS: Infant death. Repeated instances of violence against women, brief mentions of horrific childhood and institutional abuse, possible rape, murder, desecration of a corpse, gore and temporary dismemberment, drug abuse, fat-shaming from the POV character. Sexually explicit.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: The mundane setting, 100% unreliable narrator and sort of creeping, inexorable dissolution of normality into something much darker reminded me a little bit of Violet LeVoit’s spectacular and very-recommended horror “I Miss the World,” available in electronic format from Kingshot Press and Amazon.
 FINAL SCORE: 3/5 .

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

First things first, to get it out of the way: a delight in certain sorts of campy horror is in me at the bone-marrow level. My mother went into labor with me early, and I came squalling into the world a bit after eight PM on a Friday Halloween, under a full moon. This led to me being raised to be as passionate about the holiday as you might expect, costumes and sweet tooth included. I stand way, way too close to this subject material to be really impartial in any strong sense, and that is going to strongly color this review.

The movie Hocus Pocus was released in 1993, and starred Bette Midler, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters, cannibalistic, child-stealing witches hanged in the 1600s and accidentally brought back from the dead by the protagonist, Max, a kinda-mansplainy teenager. There’s pretty blonde love interest Allison, sweet but precocious younger sister Dani, and poetically-handsome youth who’s stuck for 300 years in the body of an immortal black cat, Thackery Binx (which is just so much fun to say out loud. Try it).  All the kids have to do is last out through the night, and the Sanderson sisters will return to the grave, but that’s still a lot to ask of a trio of kids when none of the adults in their lives will listen to them. Standard 1990’s movie fare, basically, and though it made a fair amount of money, it didn’t do well in the reviews.  However, its later life on television made it into a cult classic, and I’m pretty sure it’s still running on the Disney Channel every Halloween. I know that I watched my VHS copy of it so many times that it’s got a couple of permanent audio track wiggles here and there.

But while I loved the movie as a young Halloween fanatic, there are two things I identify as that weren’t at all represented in it: 1) a person of color, and 2) queer as the day is long, twice as queer on Sundays.  I have to admit that I probably sympathized more with the counter-culture witches, evil though they were, than with the milkskinned blonde girls or early colonists depicted as the protagonists.  This is all to say that when I heard that the sequel had a black lesbian in it, I made an actual, audible noise, to my cats’ consternation.

The book turned out to be two stories in one cover. First, there’s a novelization of the original movie, and while I admit I didn’t linger here, out of a hurry to get to the good stuff, I was surprised and pleased at several points.  There are things in the original that would put a frown on my face today (casual sexism being the strongest contender), and while the novelization is entirely true to the source material, it also gives us something we couldn’t have in the original: a view into the protagonist’s head, where he editorializes and makes judgments that go a long way toward smoothing out all those rough parts.  At the same time, it still maintains a very 90’s flavor, even in the incidentals, like young Dani swearing to herself that if she makes it out of this alive, she’ll never make her brother watch DuckTales with her again. So if you have the leisure, even if you too have seen the movie a hundred times over, I do recommend giving it a read.  That said, if you’ve seen the movie even once, you can skip to the sequel without missing anything important.

The sequel is unnamed, probably because if they manage to make it into a movie it would just be Hocus Pocus 2 anyway, and it starts on Halloween morning after a 25-year timeskip.  The protagonist is high school sophomore Poppy, Max and Allison’s daughter, who is feeling stifled by what she thinks of as her parents’ paranoia about the holiday. Despite growing up hearing her parents and aunt tell the story of that by now long-ago Halloween, she doesn’t believe it in any visceral fashion. Along with her best friend Travis, and Poppy’s straight-A, totally cool crush Isabella, Poppy more-or-less accidentally treads in her father’s footsteps, and brings the Sanderson Sisters back again, with a twist.  Instead of merely having to make it through the night, they have to defeat the sisters before dawn, or else spend the rest of their lives in a world given over to evil witches.

I genuinely don’t want to spoil you, here.  Usually I’d talk about trigger warnings, about violence or assault or things that threw me out of the narrative, but let’s be honest, this is a Disney novel. The things Disney does that are worth trigger warnings, it usually does by accident, and I’d spill a thousand words of digital ink on those alone.  This novel is deliciously free of such complications.

That said, it was deeper at points than I expected.  If the overarching theme of the original is that scoffing and refusing to listen to others’ concerns will land you in hot water, the second half’s theme is a lot more complex. There are a lot of callbacks to things done in the first half which still have repercussions 25 years later, and a strong understanding that this is the same world. For instance, Max left a bully in the hands of the witches on that Halloween night, and now that ex-bully is the Principal of the school where Max teaches and father of the biggest social irritation in Poppy’s life. If this book is about anything in particular but giving the reader a good time, it’s about overcoming the willful mistakes made by those who came before us, and learning to do better than they.  “You, all of you, despise me for things you believe me to have done—and yet I knew the greatest mark upon my soul was doing nothing at all,” says a character punished for another’s crimes, and that grief reverberates through the centuries until Poppy and Isabella have to learn from it.

How do we make up for what our predecessors did, without at the same time being weighed down with guilt for their crimes? How, in short, do we do better?  The book seems to suggest that the answer is twofold.  First, be willing to recognize those acts in the first place and refuse to repeat them. Accepting that something horrible did happen doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the idea that it will do so again through you.  And second is to eventually be able to allow the next generation to take over.  “What’s the value of youth?” a character chides Winnie Sanderson.  “You were meant for greater things than being young.” Pit that against the ones who want to hold power with their teeth and fingernails if necessary (“Who needs a line of succession when you’re immortal?”) and you’ve got a conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in a greater literary work.

All in all, I gobbled this book like a bag of single-serving Snickers, and I enjoyed every chomp.

Things I liked: Representation! Isabella and Poppy are queer. Isabella and Travis are both black, but really different in personality, without either of them being written in a fashion that struck me as at all stereotypical. Their differences extend even to their conflict-management techniques, with Travis stating that his mother taught him to ignore bullies, and Isabella laughing that hers believes in the power of lawsuits.

There are multiple other people of color as incidental characters who nevertheless are presented with personalities of their own, from a Latinx classmate to their teacher, Miss Chen, with her penchant for black T-shirts. I feel like it’s hinted that one of the young men in their class is interested in other boys, but that’s a squint-and-you-miss-it sort of thing that I might have been wrong about.

I appreciated that Poppy is actually able to learn from the experiences of those who went before her, and while the book necessarily starts with her making the same mistake her father did, she’s able to navigate it more deftly, thanks to being able to draw on his old stories.

I liked that even though this is a YA Disney novel, it doesn’t talk down to the reader. It’s not grimdark and hopeless, it’s not a post-apocalyptic nightmare story, it’s a popcorn novel, but it’s a very fun representation of the genre that respects its reader’s intelligence.

Things I disliked: This is another Disney story with a PoC who gets turned into an animal. I could do with fewer of those in the universe. WoC need to be able to have their faces in view for the representation to be real.  That said, since this is a book and not a movie (for now?) the problem might not be as serious as it is in visual media.

I found myself frowning over the fact that the author’s name appears nowhere on the cover.  I know that this is a thing Disney frequently has done to its creators in the past, traditionally preferring to give generic thanks to their creators instead of specific acknowledgments.  While the author’s name does show up on one single page inside, it would have been nice to see it on the cover, and in at least as big a font as the company’s, as opposed to entirely absent.

And while it’s not actually an outright dislike, it’s just a little odd to have a movie novelization for a movie that doesn’t exist.  I don’t mean that it’s odd to have a new story, but that this reads very clearly like the novel version of a script. There’s a musical interlude, for instance, with lyrics interrupting the action—I’ve never heard the music, so it comes off a little bit like the early-oughts songfic craze that so many fanfic authors were prone to indulging in. But as complaints go, that one’s really, really minor.  I have no qualms about recommending this book to more or less everyone who enjoys reading YA, and recommending it very strongly to anyone who enjoyed the original movie.

Final Verdict: A chipper, Junior Mints-flavored four stars out of five.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.

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.