Danika reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

About three years ago, I saw a post on tumblr from Hank Green, which read: “Remember when I said I was writing a story about a bisexual girl and a robot?” I was, of course, immediately intrigued. I’ve been following the Vlogbrothers for many years, and I’ve read almost all of John Green’s books (though they aren’t favourites of mine). I would already be interested in a book from Hank Green, but of course it having a bisexual girl main character really upped it. By the time An Absolutely Remarkable Thing came out, I had heard lots of excitement around the book, but nothing else about the queer content. Did it get written out? Did I only imagine that tumblr post?? I then began my usual research when I stumble on a book that maybe-possibly has queer women content. I’ll save you the Goodreads scrolling and assure you: yes, this book has a bisexual woman main character, and it’s not even a one-off line. Her relationship with another woman forms–I would argue–the emotional centre of the book, and frankly, it’s a little irritating that it took so much searching to confirm this.

On to the book itself! I listened to the audiobook, and I would highly recommend that process. The narrator was great. Before I say anything else, you should know that this is not a standalone book. I believe it will be a duology, but it’s definitely not the only book in this story (I wish I had known that before I reached the ending!)

If you’re a fan of Hank Green and Vlogbrothers, I would definitely say that this is worth picking up. Despite being a story about first contact and robots and a bisexual woman’s complicated relationship with her roommate/girlfriend, Hank’s voice really comes through. It’s a thoughtful book that has a lot to say about fame–internet fame in particular. April finds herself suddenly famous, and she leans into this. She makes herself a brand and has a media presence strategy. She becomes more and more invested in having her voice her, and trying to sway the general conversation. As that process continued, I became more and more uncomfortable, but never ever to say exactly where she might have crossed the line.

But if you are reading this review, you’re probably more interested about the representation. There is, understandably, some suspicion when a man is writing a queer woman character. Hank speaks to this in another tumblr post, which I recommend checking out if you have questions. I won’t deny that I went in with a more critical eye than I would from an #ownvoices author, but I don’t have any big objections to the representation.

[mild spoilers] There was a moment where I raised an eyebrow: April’s agent asks if there’s anything else they should know, anything that might come up… something that may be controversial, or secret… and April does not even think about bringing up her sexuality. When she is directly asked, she is open about it, but she doesn’t think of this as something that her agent might have to consider, which I personally felt would be pretty obvious for a queer woman.

After that, though, her agent asked: couldn’t you just be gay? You dated men, but you were gay all along? It would be easier. That seemed accurate to me. April says, “It was easier for her to sell a quirky lesbian than a quirky bi girl, so I was a quirky lesbian for her.” [end spoilers]

As for April herself, she is definitely a complicated character. She is deeply flawed, and although she acknowledges this, she’s not very apologetic about it. She can be ruthless in pursuing her goals, and callous when it comes from other people. She is insecure and pushes people away. She denies her own feelings. She is selfish and reckless. But she also has good intentions, and she feels so real and relatable. Her flaws feel personal, and her bad decisions are understandable, if not defensible. If you don’t like “unlikable” characters, you probably won’t like her. Personally, I kind of loved her.

[spoilers] The romantic relationship here is… painful. April is not a good girlfriend, though she is clearly in love. I really like her girlfriend, and I hope that April improves herself in the next book enough to be able to have a more stable and mutual relationship with her, because right now, she doesn’t seem capable of a healthy romantic relationship. [end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this! It gave me a lot to think about. Although I liked the audiobook narration, I feel like I want to reread this in a physical format just to have some time to process and think about the issues that it brings up. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

I’ve got to say, with a title like “The Cybernetic Tea Shop,” I expected this to be a fun, silly, quick read. Instead, it was thoughtful and quiet, seeming to take up more space than the pages it occupied. This is set in a world where sentient, sapient robots were once mass-produced, but given the ethical problems they raised, they’re now illegal to make. Hundreds of years later, some of those original robots are still around, with questionable legal personhood and a lot of animosity aimed at them by a public who wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.

But it’s not about the sci fi world, really. That’s just backstory for Sal, who has been running a tea shop for more than 200 years, continuing after her old “master”/partner died, while facing constant harassment and even violence. She meets tech Clara when she visits the shop, and despite Clara’s wanderlust and Sal’s complicated situation, they hit it off.

Although the word isn’t used, both Sal and Clara are asexual. Clara explains that she doesn’t have sexual attraction to people, even when she has a romantic relationship with them (and Sal isn’t programmed for that):

[Sal:] “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”
“That’s okay. Me neither.”
“Oh, but—”
“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara said firmly, willing Sal to understand. It wasn’t something that needed explanation, but something that too many people had wanted one for. Love, romance; those were things she’d felt before, even if she wasn’t often inclined toward them. But she didn’t need anything from or with that person, never felt attracted to them even with the addition of love. If her body wanted something, she could spend five minutes with her hand. Another person never needed to factor into that for her.

(I include that quotation because before reading this, I saw that people referred to it as having asexual representation, but that it didn’t use the word “asexual.” I wasn’t sure whether there was just no sex on the page, or whether there was more textual rep, so I wanted to put the paragraph out there for anyone else wondering.)

I really appreciated how character-based this is. In a small amount of time, I felt like I really got to know both the character and how they complemented each other. I’m interested to read more by this author! (Especially when I found out after reading this that we live in the same small city! What a fun coincidence!)