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.

Marthese reviews The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

secondmangocover

She also picked up a mango, and then, after thinking about it for a moment, bought a second as well.

The Second Mango is the first in the Mangoverse high-fantasy series. It felt so good to read fantasy again! Especially a book that I have been meaning to read for a while and now that the series has finished, I started. I had forgotten what the book was about, I just knew I wanted to read it so some things came as a surprise.

The series is set in a tropical setting but within a Jewish religious background which I had never read about in such a combination before. The plot follows Shulamit, a princess recently turned queen and Riv, her new appointed guard – after Riv saved her from being kidnapped after she visited a bawdy house to visit willing women. The rescue is the start of the book, so you can guess it was funny.

Queen Shulamit is skinny, of average looks and has black hair. Riv is tall and comes from the north. The two develop a friendship based on grief, trust and in my opinion, mutual book-nerdery. Riv becomes Shula’s traveling companion along with a horse that is sometimes a dragon. Riv is offered the position of head guard if Shula finds a sweetheart on their journey. Shula doesn’t know how to find other women that like women, after her ex, Aviva bailed on her so she has the idea that anyone wanting to avoid a husband would probably join a religious order… and they set off to visit these orders.

They run into adventures on the way. We see how Shula is quite the detective and intelligent and acts to save herself. Riv also has a painful past. Since it’s in the description of the book, I can reveal that Riv is actually Rivka, a woman that passes as a man for convenience. Rivka is a great warrior that fought to be the way she is. Rivka also lost her partner, the wizard Isaac. We get to see both Rivka’s and Isaac’s past and Shulamit’s and Aviva’s and I have to say, although this book is short, the four characters are developed and human.

The book subtly addresses gender identity and sexual orientation, although how gender identity is explored at one point is a bit problematic (it’s not just cross-dressing). There’s also a touch of biphobia in a comment meant to hurt but it’s not by our protagonists. I believe it also addresses the sexuality spectrum. Rivka isn’t someone that loves a lot and she only started feeling for Isaac, I believe, only after forming a connection with him. Perhaps because of the lack of ace and aro representation in literature but I believe that Rivka falls in the asexual spectrum (perhaps as a demisexual). I think there’s also a misunderstanding of what a sex drive is but, perhaps I over-analyzed. There are non-explicit sex scenes written between two women and a man and a woman that I think focus more on the emotions felt.

Although the adventures may seem as simplistic at times, they are fun and there are badass moments from our protagonists. Both Riv and Shula help each other grow and face insecurities. It’s a lovely start of a series.

I’d definitely recommend this book to fantasy lovers, people that have eclectic book tastes, people that like to see positive growing relationships and also great relationship material between a man and a woman, with it not being the main focus.

Danika reviews Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Elizabeth E. Lynn’s first novel, Watchtower, is a fantasy that won the 1980 World Fantasy Award for best novel. I haven’t read a lot of fantasy books, but I’m trying to broaden my horizon for the Lesbrary. Watchtower is about Ryke, a commander who defends Tornor Keep. When Tornor Keep is invaded (don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything, that’s on the first page) and the lord of the Keep is killed, Ryke does everything he can to defend the prince, Errel. Eventually he does this by joining two women travelling (aah, now you understand why I’m reviewing this book here). The women are clearly a couple, but although the characters are the second most important, after Ryke and Errel, their relationship isn’t fussed over much.

Most of this book was traveling. There’s a fight in the last 20 pages and the first 20 (or less) pages, but most of the rest is spent on horseback. I actually didn’t mind that, because presumably the book is mostly about developing Ryke’s character. The problem was that I didn’t really see it develop. In theory, Ryke learns new expectations about women and about the role of war, etc, but I never actually remember Ryke reflecting that. These opinion-altering things happen around him, but you don’t really get much of a sense of how he’s dealing with it. I liked that not a lot of emphasis was put on the fact that the women were in a relationship, and I liked how their personalities came out more and more.

To be honest, I had one big problem with this book: I felt that it was really choppily written. The sentences were so short, and consistently so, that I was distracted from the story by the writing style almost the whole way through, making it sort of a struggle to finish. For example: “They walked down a street, the only street. The well stood in its center. The village looked deserted. No children hung about the buildings. […] They walked into a cottage. A woman sat at a table. A square window opened at her back. The room smelled of dust and ink and light” (page 99). Maybe it’s just me, but the sentences seemed really abrupt, and the things that were described in detail seemed to be totally random, like a clip in some woman’s hair.

Have you read Watchtower, or any of Elizabeth A. Lynn’s other books? What did you think of them? Have you ever found a book a struggle to finish solely because of the writing?