Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

the cover of The Roommate Risk

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Cath reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

the cover of That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston is a servant to Eliza Hamilton — yes, that Eliza Hamilton — and most of her work consists of assisting Eliza with her research into preserving Hamilton’s legacy. Her life is boring, quiet, and predictable, and at this point she prefers it that way. She’s been burned too many times by letting herself love and care about others, and she’d rather not make that mistake again.

But when Andromeda Stiel arrives at Hamilton Grange for an interview her grandfather can’t attend, Mercy’s immediate attraction to her throws all her carefully-laid plans into chaos. Andromeda’s charismatic, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer personality doesn’t help, and Mercy quickly finds herself spending more and more time with her and doing exactly what she’d promised herself she’d never do again — falling in love.

This is a really sweet story, centered around two queer black women and their journey from vague antagonism to love. We learn a surprising amount about both characters for such a short story, and we get a few glimpses into their work and into their relationships with others beyond the romance. They both feel like fleshed-out people with their own lives, which change and stretch as they get to know one another rather than contracting to only the two of them. Both of their relationships with others also changed as the story went on, and especially Mercy’s with Eliza and Angelica (Alexander and Eliza’s daughter).

The romance between Mercy and Andromeda is cute and engaging, but because this is a very short piece, some aspects of their relationship felt quite rushed or skipped over. They write letters to one another, and while you can absolutely (start to) fall in love with someone through letters, the time period over which this takes place doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the pacing of the story. They seem to move from “admitting they’re attracted to one another” to “and we’re totally in love” very quickly, and while that’s often a mainstay of romance novels, it stuck out from the rest of the story for me.

I did struggle a little with how “easy” some of the problems of issues like homophobia were glossed over. Mercy is deeply afraid of how people will react if they find out she likes women, compounded by the way some of her previous partners reacted to her desires for commitment and their incredulity that they could have a life together as two women. Andromeda does not exactly dismiss these fears, but the way she soothes Mercy’s worries and the way others reacted to the two of them felt a little too accepting. I do recognize that this is likely my own fears and worries coming to the forefront, and while this felt out of place in the story, it was not a bad thing, and I did appreciate that they had a variety of supports around them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and mostly wish that it were longer!

Content Warnings: sexism, homophobia, racism, parental death (past), sibling death (past), partner death (past)

Kayla Bell reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Have you ever wished for a sapphic romance that isn’t all about angst and homophobia and actually focuses on the development and drama of the characters? Look no further, because Alyssa Cole’s excellent novella Once Ghosted, Twice Shy has you covered. This entry into the Reluctant Royals universe follows Prince Thabiso’s assistant, Likotsi, as she navigates a romantic relationship with another woman, Fabiola. It’s a second chance romance full of tropes, but the genuine connection between Likotsi and Fab makes it truly unique. 

A lot of people might avoid this book because it takes place as part of the Reluctant Royals series, so they might not want to read this without having read the first book. I can safely say that this is nothing to worry about. I haven’t gotten to A Princess in Theory yet (it’s on my list) and I could totally keep up with the story. Reading the first book will obviously give you a little bit of background into Likotse’s life and make the story richer, but you definitely can read this as a standalone and keep up. 

The best part about this novella, in my opinion, is the characters. Likotsi’s type-A, methodical mindset plays well against Fabiola’s more go-with-the-flow type personality. The banter between the two women was lively, natural, and fun to read. Personally, I love the second chance romance trope, so I thought the ups and downs of the relationship were very fun to read. As with most romance novels, I found the love at first sight, conflict, and lack of communication at some points in the novel to be pretty irritating, but that part resolved quickly and the two ladies returned to their healthy, loving relationship. I also thought that Fabiola’s plotline was very authentic and relatable. I won’t spoil it, but it rang very true for me as someone who has been through something similar. Overall, it is so fantastic to see a book come out about a loving relationship between two queer, Black women, rich characters, that isn’t about trauma or angst. 

Another thing that was really fantastic about this novel was the setting. I’m born and raised in New York City, so I can be pretty particular about books that portray New York in an extremely romanticized and unrealistic way, or that paint New York as some sort of Disneyland for other people to come to and pursue their dreams without examining the lives and struggles of those of us actually from there. Luckily, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy does none of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very fun, romantic moments at iconic places in the city in this book. But Cole’s New York felt incredibly authentic and alive. Far from using New York as a generic stand-in for any major urban area, as many romances do, in this book it was like this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. Plus, Fab and Likotsi end up at the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. 

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy surprised me with how rich of a story it told in just ten chapters and an epilogue. I immediately became invested in Likotsi and Fabiola’s love story, and felt that warm, fuzzy feeling where most other romances make me roll my eyes. In the future, I will definitely be picking up more of Alyssa Cole’s romances and commend her for writing a book highlighting the experiences of two characters who wouldn’t often get the spotlight. 

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

the cover of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]