Danika reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

Audre loves her Trinidad home, and she is heartbroken to leave it–and her love, and her friends, and her family–behind. Her grandmother assures her that Spirit lives in America, too, and that she can find meaning in this change in her life. There, she meets Mabel, the other main POV of this story. They quickly bond, and that only gets stronger when Mabel begins to get sicker and sicker.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. It begins with a poem, and then: ‘Yuh fa’ and arrow and sensual and mango,’ Queenie tells me, ‘so, Audre, please put some molasses in yuh feet for dis walk, it ain’t supposed to go fas’.’ … My heart feeling like it get bus’ up for calling somebody mother a jagabat. Because of the slang and style in narration, I found it difficult to get started, but after a few chapters, I acclimatized. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

The focus of the book is on Audre’s adjustment to life in America and Mabel’s acceptance of her terminal illness, and the relationship that develops between them. On top of that, though, there are a lot of other elements being juggled: spirituality and astrology permeates the whole story. Mabel finds meaning and comfort in pursuing astrology, and Audre’s connection with Spirit and what she learns from Queenie (her grandmother) allows her to know how to help and comfort Mabel–without suggesting that she knows best or that she has any quick fixes.

Poetry is also interspersed between chapters, all with an astrology-themed title (Gemini Season, Capricorn Season, etc). Mabel finds comfort in Whitney Houston, and the text affirms Whitney Houston also having a relationship with a woman. Another aspect is that Mabel finds comfort in reading the prison writings of someone named Afua. His book is what leads her to astrology, and his grappling with his life on death row helps her come to terms with her own struggles. We also get a few chapters with Afua’s point of view, illustrating how he ended up in jail, and how he finds meaning in his life.

I of course loved the character of Queenie, Audre’s grandmother who is accepting and teaches her spirituality and medicine. Queenie is the definition of a free spirit. I did find it a little awkward, though, that we get flashbacks of Queenie’s life in Mabel’s chapters–the idea is that through Audre’s “dreamo therapy,” she is developing a link to Queenie’s memories. These are written exactly as if they were just from Queenie’s perspective, though, and I found it confusing to imagine Mabel having these prolonged, detailed flashbacks. I would rather have had them be their own POV chapters.

Near the end of the book, we find out what happened to Neri, Audre’s Trinidadian girlfriend. [Mild spoilers:] I appreciated that she still is reaching out to Audre. I feel like usually in these stories, especially since Audre found another love interest, it would turn out that Neri had rejected their earlier relationship. Instead, Neri finds her own queer community in Trinidad after running away from a hateful home situation. I really appreciated that although most of the story takes place in the U.S., we get this glimpse of how queer teens in Trinidad might build their lives. [end spoilers]

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life. Although she is outgoing, she’s also hurting–she begins being in her new home thinking “Most adults I know want you to say just the right thing to them, in just the right way, so they can love you.” The relationship that was a source of joy and light in her life has been torn away from her, and labelled as immoral. “All I know about love is how to find its hurt and its endings after I find its sweetness.” I appreciated seeing Mabel and Audre grow together. This is a powerful story, and I’m grateful that we’re beginning to see more stories like this getting the attention they deserve.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.