Vic reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth cover

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Ever since I discovered Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I have hesitated to read it for the sheer fact that it could only be a book that I loved or that I hated.  It looked so tailored to my own personal tastes that if it did not deliver, it would have actively made me kind of angry about the wasted potential.  But fortunately, this book was everything I hoped it would be and more.  Funny and brutal, it was absolutely wild from start to finish, but in the best possible way.  I laughed and I gasped and were I capable of expressing normal human emotions, I probably would have cried.

To start off, the review on the cover describes it as “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space,” and I mean, what’s not to love about that?  More specifically, it centers on Gideon Nav, a skilled swordswoman and ward of the Ninth House who has already tried to escape numerous times.  After yet another foiled attempt, she agrees to pose as a cavalier to Harrowhark Nonagesimus — the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer who has made Gideon’s life hell since childhood — in order to help Harrow survive a trial that could end with her ascension to immortality serving the Emperor.  

Between the necromancers and the cavaliers, this book does have a fair few characters to keep track of, but they are so distinct that it does not take long to learn who is who.  And though they are many, I loved every single character in this book — as a character if not necessarily as a person.  The morals are, after all, somewhat questionable at times.  In particular, I have never understood the appeal of the damaged-asshole-hot-guy trope, but I have officially been won over by damaged-asshole-hot-girl Harrow (and, in all honesty, every other woman in this book).

On that note, Gideon Nav is one of my favorite protagonists I have ever had the pleasure to read about.  Her narration is amazing, and her dialogue is hilarious (I think I could have read this book in half the time if I didn’t stop every five lines to read aloud every funny thing Gideon said or thought), but she’s also so much more than that.  She surprised me constantly, though I always felt like I understood why she did what she did.  Chaotic as she is, there is such specificity to her that she felt like a real person from the very first page.

Really, that is true in just about every aspect of this book.  I have heard that this book is confusing, and while I will admit that I don’t think I ever quite grasped all of the fundamentals of necromancy, I also don’t think that was to the book’s detriment. Because we receive this book through Gideon’s perspective and because she understands necromancy in this world about as well as we do, I was able to follow along easily and trust that if she did not understand, I did not need to either.  Anything I did need to know would be revealed eventually, but whatever questions I was left with, the author did have an answer.

The thing about this book is it’s so out-there that it very easily could have been a mess, weird for the sake of being weird, but everything about it is so specific that it always felt completely intentional.  Even at its most wild, everything fit together perfectly in a way I can’t quite describe.  I would trust Tamsyn Muir with my life (or at least my next read!).

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

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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.

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

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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.

Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars cover

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage