Grief in Utopia: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep cover

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This review contains spoilers.

The Seep might be one of the most refreshing takes on alien invasion I’ve ever read. This novel follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, as she and her wife Deeba, along with almost everyone else in the world, are forced to live with something called the Seep. The Seep is an alien unattached to concepts like linear time and physicality that invades humanity and simply… makes life perfect. People can alter their appearances at will, ingesting the Seep feels like getting high, and there are restaurants that only give you good-tasting food that will help your body out, along with a bunch of other seemingly-awesome changes. After a few years of living under its power, Trina doesn’t love the Seep as much as her friends do anymore—and then her wife Deeba decides she wants to be turned back into a baby and give up the life they’ve built together.

Trina does what I think any of us would be tempted to do in that situation: she drinks herself half to death. Living under the Seep, though, means that her actions don’t go unnoticed, and what really kicks the story off is someone coming to Trina’s place and telling her that she’s hurting the entire community by not taking care of herself or her house. This sends her on a mission to hunt down an old friend of hers and to save a boy she meets along the way who comes from the Compound, one of the only places untouched by the Seep.

What I really liked about this story is how deep Trina is in her grief. It’s been about five years since Deeba left, but the way Porter writes Trina is like it happened yesterday. Deeba isn’t dead, not really; she is a small child being raised by a lovely couple far away from Trina. However, to Trina, it’s like she is, and that comes through spectacularly through Porter’s writing. Trina hasn’t moved on at all in those years after Deeba’s departure. She could move on: she could let the Seep erase her memory of Deeba, or she could let it change her feelings into something more manageable. But Trina is all about the old days and the old ways. She misses what art was back when humans still routinely felt things like pain and sadness, and she doesn’t get the appeal of having an all-knowing alien rooting around in her skull and changing her brain chemistry every second of every day of every week.

So when she meets this kid from the Compound who wants to know about the world outside and wants to join with the Seep, it’s like her brain finally has something to focus on that isn’t Deeba. It’s never really about the kid; in the end, Trina doesn’t really care about him, not like she tries to convince herself that she does. It’s a distraction from the pain she has carried with her since Deeba’s departure. All of it leads her to a friend (ex-friend) who goes around wearing his dead boyfriend’s face and pretending that he is a different race than he actually is. It takes Trina finding him again and confronting him for any real change to happen within her, and Porter goes exactly where you want her to go when Trina is shoved back into the past for a little while. She watches her wife from the same place she watches her in a scene from the beginning, caught in a memory, and the pain of losing that part of her wife hits Trina all over again. She’s been lost in her grief, and she has been for a while now. This is simply when she finally realizes it.

Trina’s conversations with the Seep are also a high point of the book. The Seep talks to Trina by changing the writing on a pamphlet she is given, then by changing the writing on a pamphlet that the boy drops, and then it actually speaks to her from the pamphlet cover and heats up in her hands when it wants to tell her something. Trina tries to get the Seep to understand that sometimes humans need to be able to choose bad things or things that hurt, but it takes the Seep a long time to grasp that point. If the Seep isn’t there to make life perfect and wonderful, then what is it for? The relationship between Trina and the entity known as the Seep is the thing that drives the story onward when Trina’s previous excuses and distractions run a little thin. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, Trina and the Seep talk to each other in a sort of talk show style set-up where every person in the audience is a different iteration of Deeba. Deeba left her because of the Seep; we know that, the story literally begins with that. Seeing it laid out so viscerally, though, with the Seep wearing somebody’s face and talking to Trina while every version of Deeba she ever knew laughs out at her from the background really made it hit home. That’s what this sort of grief is like, and Porter captures it so perfectly. I’ve been thinking about that scene for days since I put the book down. It takes having this conversation with the Seep for Trina to decide to try to move past everything with Deeba, and the story ends optimistically with Trina beginning to take care of herself and the house she used to share.

I know I’m a little late at finding this story (it was published in 2020), but I’m just glad I found it when I did. It’s moving, thought-provoking, and exactly the sort of thing I’m into. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because there are a couple plot issues it took me a minute to get past (she’s on a Do Not Admit list to her ex-friend’s shows, but she’s able to go in anyway?), but other than that, I really liked it. The way that the novel is bookended by “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” is really cool too and ties the story together. I would absolutely recommend this.

Triggers warnings for: death, slight suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy, and drug use (kind of).

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane

the cover of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

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I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself follows Kris, a recent widow, as she navigates the world of Shadester and NoShad while raising the child that her wife, Beau, died giving birth to. She has to deal with her own two shadows and with the baby’s two shadows as the kid grows up. Along the way, we get to see what a speculative dystopia where any sort of crime, even accidental, is met with an additional shadow being tacked onto your person would be like.

What initially drew me in is the novel’s point of view. It is told in first person, but a lot of the time, Kris is addressing Beau directly using the “you” pronoun. There are also sections that aren’t really a point of view at all. Formatted as quizzes and impossible crosswords, Crane paints a picture of grief and its aftereffects. The child Kris and Beau have together is simply referred to as “the kid” in most instances; the reader doesn’t find out her actual name until close to the very end of the novel. At first, I was wary of this choice to not name her, but Crane wound up pulling it off spectacularly, coinciding the reveal of the name with Kris’s personal growth from “person who is taking care of this child” to “person who accepts their role as mother to this child.” It really drove the point of Kris’s grief home, and the reveal happened at the perfect time, both for Kris and for the reader.

The world being split into Shads and NoShads was also really interesting. Championed by a president who mirrors a particular former president of ours, the system of shadows is just a way to punish people publicly. Make one mistake—like Kris, who won’t tell us how she got her extra shadow until she’s practically forced to—and you’re marked forever, gifted another shadow in front of everyone who comes to watch the ceremony. Shads are looked down on in society. They only have one day a week where they can grocery shop; Kris is told multiple times that homeschooling the kid is the better option to keep her away from everyone else; and it is all too easy to gain more shadows after you’ve been given your first. The kid receives her second shadow nearly the moment she is born due to Beau’s death, and the world is made so much harder for her to navigate due to something she wasn’t even consciously aware of doing. The government installs cameras in every house and every business, watching twenty four/seven for anyone to make a mistake worthy of an extra shadow. Kris is pretty anxious even before she gets hers. She struggles with her desire for sex that involves BDSM, but that’s the only real issue anyone faces in the sexual identity department. Another thing I liked: everyone in this book is just unapologetically queer. Despite being made of Shads and NoShads, the universe here is a reflection of our own, so it was nice to read about gay and queer folks finding ways to be happy in crappy situations. Honestly, it felt sort of refreshing.

This world is so full and detailed, and I loved getting to explore it with Kris and her rebellious kid who refuses to listen to the rules. However, there was one particular part of the writing that tore me out of the story time after time after time, and it’s how the story is told. In the beginning of the book, we bounce from paragraph to paragraph. There is hardly a single page without some kind of section break for the first one hundred pages; for most of those pages, there’s multiple section breaks, seemingly for no reason. A lot of the story is told through one paragraph at a time. It was disorienting as a reader to bounce from place to place like that so often. I get why Crane did it. They wanted to write in a way that mimicked Kris’s grief. Kris goes back and forth between addressing Beau, along with her past with Beau, and telling the story of her growing child. Maybe, for that reason, it’s meant to be disorienting. Kris can’t tell a cohesive narrative yet because she doesn’t know how to without Beau next to her. However, I had to continuously take breaks from reading in order to digest everything and to get to a point where I wanted to read it again. As the story progresses, the formatting becomes more standard, and we eventually transition almost entirely to regular paragraph and section breaks. Again, this is a reflection of Kris’s grieving process. The easier it gets for her to live in a world post-Beau, the easier it is to read. I just wish I had known about it before I started reading. I don’t think it would have kept me from picking up the book; it just would have been nice to know what to expect.

Spoilers for ending:

The ending of this book was also pretty lackluster to me and felt super rushed, but someone who likes endings where everything turns out great and perfect all of a sudden would be a big fan. I am simply not the person who likes those. Everything just fell in place too perfectly for me. We go through all of these specific trials and tribulations with the world that Crane has built, and then some of the problems just…disappear. However, it’s a happy ending; I can’t be mad about that.

Trigger warnings for: death, bodily harm, drug abuse, homophobia, and BDSM. There is also a chunk of the book dedicated to the kid’s attempt to find out who her biological father is with some tense family dynamics related to her wants.

A Vampire Pandemic: Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

the cover of Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

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Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin isn’t your ordinary vampire book. In this world, vampires are known as Saras: people who are infected with Saratov Syndrome, a brutal pandemic that changes how society functions. You can’t get into a place without first pricking your finger on a scanner meant to identify anyone who is a Sara, and if you go out on your own at night, you’re taking your life into your own hands. Mia is a young woman in her twenties whose mother was turned into a Sara when Mia was a kid, and we follow her as she navigates the codependent, abusive relationship she has with her mother throughout the years.

The best thing going for this book is the world. I was instantly enamored with the concept the moment I started reading, and when things lagged, I stayed because of how interesting I found the Saras. Mia is her mother’s bloodletter. They have a daily ritual: Mia draws her own blood and pours it into her mother’s cup, and that is how her mother gets by without murdering other humans in front of Mia. Treating Saratov Syndrome—treating vampirism—like a pandemic is an inspired idea. I could see the bones of the Covid-19 pandemic shaping the story through curfews, isolation protocols, and an emphasis on people leaving the house at their own risk. As a healthcare worker, this resonated with me and gave the story meaning that I hadn’t expected to find. It’s also such a fresh take on vampires. Saratov Syndrome is probably one of my favorite depictions of vampirism. It’s a disease with no cure. It produces both Saras and people bent on killing them in the name of self-defense. Caffeine, alcohol, and rusted metal become known deterrents to Saras, and you see how the world is changed from our reality in order to make room for that.

The relationship between Mia and her mother is also a high point for Night’s Edge. The book oscillates between present Mia and past Mia, showing us their fraught relationship beginning with her mother’s death/subsequent Sara-turning through where they are now after more than a decade. This is the strongest relationship in the entire book. There’s a love interest, of course—her name is Jade, and she’s everything Mia is not. However, I found myself more intrigued by whatever was going on between Mia and her mom. Throughout the book, you have to watch as Mia slowly figures out that her mother is an abuser, and it hurts when a promise her mother made in the past is broken the next time we switch to the present. When her mother first becomes a Sara, you see her try to avoid hurting Mia for a while, but that soft edge is gone from her in the present. The mother she had before is not the mother she has now. Mia’s life is shaped completely around not exposing her mother’s secret and always being there for her every need or whim. She thinks that she has to spend all of her time protecting her mother from a world that doesn’t understand her the way Mia does. She’s never dated anyone. She doesn’t do anything with her life. She works morning shifts at a bookshop, and she attends to her mom every other moment. This is it. This is Mia.

Then she meets Jade at the coffee shop next door, and her life slowly begins to change. Mia feels an instant spark of connection with Jade. Jade is nice, bright, and seems to feel that same spark for Mia. Their relationship takes shape quickly. Suddenly, Mia is seeing a world outside of her mother’s control. You would think, then, that their relationship would be really interesting. However, Jade is a cardboard cutout of a person. That sounds harsh, I know. She’s supposed to be a stark opposite to Mia, a fun-loving, colorful-eyeliner-wearing, rocker chick who shows Mia what life could be like if she got out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s all she is. There are no moments of growth for her, no character development, nothing. Jade is the same person at the end of the novel that she is at the beginning of it. While Mia starts to seriously consider and make an effort to leave her mother behind and go with Jade across the country, Jade is just kind of there, an escape plan, a plot device to move Mia’s story forward. Anytime the two interacted, I found myself wishing that Jade would give me something more to hold onto. I wanted Mia to see Jade and figure out what her life could be herself, without Jade telling her what she could do and where she could go. (Spoilers follow) Jade offers to let Mia come with her when she leaves to go on her next adventure, and Mia agrees, following someone else’s plan for her life again. Mia eventually choosing not to go with her is one of the few times Mia makes a decision for herself, and I saw her growing as a character when she did that. She doesn’t make a lot of her own choices, so I cheered for her whenever she did.

All in all, this was an okay read. The end of the story is a bit of a letdown to me (Mia fails to make a decision, and something happens anyway), but other readers might not see it as such. If you want a refreshing take on vampires and codependency, give this a shot! Trigger warnings for: child abuse, blood, death, violence/injury (including domestic violence), and a scene involving active shooters at a musical event.

How to Un-Princess: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

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When I first picked up the fantasy novella Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir in 2020, I knew that I’d be coming back to it for more. Because I’m more of a science fiction person, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought it; I knew I liked Muir’s writing, and the premise sounded fun, so I took a chance. Given that this story has been read more than once, I’d say it paid off.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower follows Princess Floralinda as she tries to escape the tower a witch has trapped her in. She starts out the book as storybook princess as a princess can get. She dutifully watches for princes to come and save her from her fate, she obediently remains confined to her room, and she doesn’t make any attempts to free herself at first. A diamond-scaled dragon guards the bottommost level of the tower, and Floralinda waits and listens as each and every prince is gobbled up until the princes and their horses stop coming.

Now, in a different fairy tale kind of story, the princess might continue to mope about, doing nothing to try and free herself from her tower prison. A prince might finally come and save her…or she might end up like the princess who came before Floralinda, flinging herself out the window. Floralinda, however, starts shucking off the role of princess in order to become something bigger than that, beginning by leaving her room to check out the thirty-ninth floor. This story, while at first appearing to be a fairy tale, is actually a story about change. Floralinda changes throughout the book, so much so that other characters make mention of it. I found myself on this read trying to tally up every time Floralinda grew, little by little, into something that no longer resembled a princess. The Floralinda who ends this short book is not the same as the Floralinda who starts it, and I was constantly cheering her on because of it.

Her fairy companion changes alongside her. The secondary main character, Cobweb, is a fairy who gets blown into Floralinda’s tower during a storm and is forced to stay until the next full moon comes, due to the storm having ripped one of their wings off. The biggest change in this character comes when Cobweb chooses to become a girl because Floralinda asks them to do so. At first, Cobweb is referred to using “it” or “they” pronouns, but Floralinda presents them with the choice to either be a boy or a girl because it’s easier for her to wrap her head around it. Cobweb doesn’t want to be a girl; she expresses more than once that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But she chooses to become one, at least for a little while, joining Floralinda in her metamorphosis. Both of these characters grow tremendously from where they start, and it’s so much fun as a reader to watch these changes unfold, especially as a queer reader who understands the idea of choosing how to present in front of other people. Cobweb is an almost refreshing take on a character who is nonbinary or genderqueer, and was also a big surprise to me on my first read because I did not expect to encounter a character like Cobweb in this short of a piece.

Because it is a novella, Princess Floralinda has a lot to cover in its short length. The world is expansive, the monstrous threats that wait for Floralinda and Cobweb on every level of the tower are both intriguing and confusing, and it could have become a much longer work if Muir had not reigned it in. While the pacing does feel off at times—we spend the first half of the novella stuck on the first two floors, then run through three floors in one short chapter later on—I found myself being okay with it because of the way the pacing reflects Floralinda’s character development. Floralinda rolls through the story like a boulder down a hill. Once she receives the initial push towards change, she loses bits and pieces of her princess-hood at an exponential rate. Muir keeps the focus of the story on Floralinda’s journey to un-becoming a princess, leaving some of the world around her unexplored in order to maintain that focus. If you’re looking for a story that gives you tons of lore on the universe and that doesn’t move at breakneck speed, this maybe isn’t the novella for you.

The romance between Floralinda and Cobweb was handled in such a good way too. At the point in their relationship that Floralinda realizes she is in love with Cobweb, she betrays her in a very specific way in order to keep her close. Reading them navigating that relationship after Floralinda’s betrayal was so riveting and interesting to me as someone who reads a lot of enemies to lovers. While I won’t go so far as to say that Floralinda and Cobweb are enemies, their dynamic after this scene mirrors that sort of romance and fleshes out both characters in ways that they could not have been fleshed out without exploring these feelings. If it was hard to see Floralinda as a complicated, well-rounded character before, from this point on, Floralinda is no longer a princess archetype and is instead a character capable of much more than was first expected of her. When I say that she changes, I mean that she changes. Through her relationship with Cobweb, her life experience grows, her ability to defend herself grows, and she finds herself transforming in ways she would not have on her own. Their growing relationship is not something Muir shoehorned into the narrative or put there just to have it in the story; their relationship to each other is the basis for both of their metamorphoses, and it is as important to the novella as the tower itself is.

Something else worth noting is the way the story is written. The narrator has fun telling this story. There are so many lines that had me laughing, not because they were necessarily funny, but because they were so specific and aware of the story that was being told. The narrator knows that this is supposed to be a princess story, but it’s like Floralinda is steering it off a pre-determined course. Floralinda finds her way out of the fairy tale destined for her, and the narrator tells the story to us with a bit of an attitude about it. Having read Tamsyn’s Locked Tomb series, it was refreshing to get a taste of her playful prose again in this novella. Her narrators usually hold some sway over the way lines are delivered to the reader, and I enjoyed having more of that in this story.

All in all, this novella is probably one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the role of princess get turned on its head.

Trigger warnings for: death (both human and creature) and some gore to go along with it. Floralinda also gets an infection in her hands that is described in detail, so be mindful if reading about infected wounds makes you squeamish.

Gory, Queer Cosmic Horror: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

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This plunge into cosmic horror follows Julie, an almost-thirty-year-old woman with a diet mainly consisting of alcohol and whatever brand of drug she has lying around, through the streets of New York as she tries to keep herself afloat doing odd monster-hunting jobs. What really kicks the story off, though, is her best friend from forever ago bouncing back into her life with the desperate need to hide from her abusive husband, forcing Julie to reckon with feelings she never really thought she’d have to grapple with again. Julie also has to hunt whatever horrific creature keeps killing everybody at her crappy ex-boyfriend’s firm, and it turns out she might have helped bring it into the world. Fun!

First things first, this novel doesn’t shy away from the “cosmic” or the “horror” elements of its genre, something I greatly appreciated it. We have eldritch-style creatures around every corner, three of which have pretty big influence over the plot: The Proctor, The Mother Who Eats, and Akrasiel. Before we get to any of them, we are introduced to Julie during one of her grand misadventures as she attempts to rid a bride-to-be’s body of the monstrous eggs that a horrid creature is trying to implant inside of her. Yeah. It’s as gruesome as it sounds.

That’s another thing this book does right. If you want gore, you have found the right place! This book did not disappoint at all in that regard. Detailed descriptions are given to every awful, bloody thing that happens in this book. Every action has a consequence, and Khaw and Kadrey make sure that you know it. Where I might have expected other stories to refuse to look at the carnage, one of the strengths of The Dead Take the A Train is that it refuses not to look. If someone is eaten, you see the blood get splattered on the walls. If a monster wears a human skin suit, you see the way they acquired that human skin suit. There isn’t a whole lot that is simply left to the reader’s own devices; this is horror that believes what it describes is much worse than anything you could think of on your own. And it’s right—so many times, I thought I knew the extent of the gore I was about to witness, and so many times, I was decimated by what was actually on the page.

I also appreciated the romance… mostly. (More on that later.) Julie is ride-or-die for Sarah the second she sees her again, and their friends to lovers approach to being together is so romantically stupid that even two side characters, Dead Air and St. Joan, call them out on it multiple times. Everyone wants them to kiss. It is so apparent that these two need to be together, and I kind of love how quickly they get attached to each other again after not talking for so long. When Julie does what she inevitably was always going to do in order to beat her big bad in this book, it felt perfect for Sarah to be there with her. Right before she does it, we see Sarah attempt to stop her, and she’s smart about it in a way that surprised me—Julie and I figured out what Sarah had done/was trying to do at the same time, and I absolutely loved it. I wasn’t entirely sold on Sarah’s side of things until a few chapters before this scene, and this is the part that really pulled the romance together for me.

One thing I found interesting about the structure of this story was the multiple points of view. There are, to be entirely truthful, too many points of view. However, a lot more of them worked well for the story. Julie is the main character and the main POV, but we also routinely get a peek into how Tyler, Julie’s ex, is doing as he works on things adjacent to the main plot. Some characters only come into play for one section or two, but I was mostly fine with those, and I absolutely adored the tiny bit of story we got from a small character named Clarice. The bits and pieces we saw from inside characters who were about to die or from the monstrous entities that set out to kill them worked extremely well most of the time, but by the end of the book, I felt like I should have been keeping a list of all the characters who got some POV time because I had forgotten half of them. The world both feels too big and too small at the same time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but what I mean is that I know a lot about how magic functions in this world, but everything is also kind of written like I’m familiar with the rules way before I reached that point in the story. Something would happen, and I would have to put it in a stack with the rest of the things that happened without adequate explanation. Then something else would happen later to explain it, and I would finally have a new rule of the world, but by then, it was too late for me to apply it.

Spoilers ahead.

Another part of the story I found interesting is Sarah herself. She is interesting to me because she didn’t become a fully-developed character until we got to the end of the book. I didn’t really expect a lot out of her in regards to the monster-killing side of things—she is new to all of this, and she’s shown a remarkable amount of guts for looking scary things in the face, but she’s never actually fought one of them. However, when she stuck her neck out for Julie at the end and tried to save her without caring about the consequences she’d face, it hit like a wake-up slap to the face. I found myself wondering where this version of Sarah had been the whole time. Instead of being this demure angel, suddenly here she was with substance. When she proceeded to try and give her life up for Julie’s, I was surprised because that was something I had never expected her to do. She calls herself Julie’s spouse when she goes to look at her dead body; she uses the monkey’s paw to bring her back to life, side effects be damned. She became so much more at the end than she had been throughout most of the novel, and I kind of wish we’d seen more of this version of her before the last, like, hundred pages. While we’re on it, I’m all for major character death with a resurrection, but Sarah bringing Julie back seemed to happen too quickly and too perfectly. I wanted Sarah, Dead Air, and St. Joan to have to deal with Julie’s death in a real way. She kills herself in Sarah’s arms in order to kill the angel-thing that wants to eat New York. That’s a lot to handle, and it seemed like the writers didn’t want Julie’s people to have to really and truly accept that fact.

End of spoilers.

Despite all of this, I found myself really enjoying this book, and I will definitely be ready to read the sequel when it comes out. Trigger warnings for: lots of gruesome death (multiple self-inflicted), Lovecraftian abominations, and vivid descriptions of dead and dying bodies (seriously, if you aren’t comfortable with maggots, eggs, and/or eyes, stay away).

A Dramatic Supernatural YA Horror Read: Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

the cover of Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

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Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson is a young adult fiction novel that follows sixteen-year-old Olive as she navigates unwitting friendships to save a ghost that she accidentally-on-purpose brings into the material plane in order to find out if the Nothing that she saw when she “died” after an allergic reaction is really all there is at the end. She is constantly thinking about the Nothing; it becomes such a preoccupation and such a big source of anxiety for her that she abruptly ends her friendship with her best friend Davis, and she has to figure out how to be by his side again post-Nothing when his new girlfriend pulls both Olive and Olive’s school enemy Maren into his life.

I’m not usually a YA person, but the premise of Here Lies Olive was so good that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did! I liked this story a lot more than I expected. The author really captures the drama of being a teenager in a way that I found myself able to get into. At times when I typically would have started rolling my eyes or DNF-ing any other YA novel, I instead found myself able to accept the over-the-top reactions to the dramatic situations Olive and her friends find themselves in due to the way Kate Anderson set up the story. Of course Olive is dramatic; she’s a teen who died, came back to life, and is now terrified about the dark, lonely fate that she thinks awaits her and everyone she’s ever cared about. Of course she stopped hanging out with her best friend and thinks that losing his friendship will hurt less than losing him to the Nothing; she’s a teenager. She doesn’t know any better. I completely understood where Olive was coming from. It reminded me of how big every emotion felt during my own teenage years, and I didn’t even have ghosts or the Nothing to deal with. Olive is definitely the sort of character I could see a younger me finding a lot of solace in.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the budding relationship between Olive and Maren. I’m a big fan of enemies to lovers, and while their rivalry wasn’t as strong or visceral as I typically like my rivalries to be, it still seemed plenty important to Olive and Maren, and that was good enough for me to keep reading. A slow-burn has to be a very specific brand of slow-burn for me to love it, and I think Olive and Maren almost hit that mark within this genre.

What really kept me reading, though, was the supernatural aspect of the book. I really love the way Kate Anderson made sure to keep the ghostly details going throughout the story. I was worried that, at some point, the ghost stuff would drop off to be replaced by just regular teenage life, but the book’s supernatural element was up and in your face until the very end. Even the town Olive lives in is spooky! Nearly everybody has a job somehow associated with death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one hundred percent of the population claimed that Halloween was their favorite holiday. Olive always thinks of the Nothing once she comes back from it, and the moment she brings Jay’s ghost into the fold, she stays with him, intent on righting her wrong and getting the confirmation she craves about what truly happens after death. Olive never loses her curiosity with the thing that led me to pick up the book in the first place, and that kept me holding on when I could have dropped off.

Here Lies Olive still contains some of the regular qualms I have with the Young Adult genre: a villain revealed in the third act who the main character could have figured out was the villain in the first act, parents who talk to their teenagers like they either have no time for them or like they’ve all gone to therapy, and a solution to a problem at the end that feels way too perfect. But I still enjoyed it, and I would easily recommend this book to anyone who wants a YA novel with a bit of a dark twist.

Content warnings for death (obviously), ghosts, and some gore that I didn’t expect but actually really liked.

Empire for Beginners: The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa

the cover of The Splinter in the Sky

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The Splinter in the Sky by Kemi Ashing-Giwa is a debut science fiction story about Enitan, a teamaker and scribe who finds herself thrust into the heart of the empire that controls the moon village Koriko after her sibling Xiang disappears. Her on-again-off-again girlfriend, the governor of Koriko, turns up dead while attempting to help Enitan find Xiang, leaving Enitan with only one solution: volunteer to be the village’s hostage for the empire and try to find them herself. Along the way, she becomes involved with a group that seeks to undermine the same system Enitan wants to destroy. She learns more about the new Imperator, the empire’s figurehead, and the way the government really works than she ever thought she would.

I really thought I would like this book. “Characters who dive into the meat of the empire and attempt to destroy it from the inside” has been my favorite kind of story for years now. I’ve loved most versions of it that I’ve seen. I just didn’t love this one. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to someone who is first stepping into books like this and doesn’t want to go into the deep end yet. This story doesn’t push the boundaries of what an empire can do to its people, and as a reader, this was frustrating and an aspect of the book that lost me because of how unrealistic it is. It’s like the empire is there, looming over the horizon, but it never quite pushes its way past the narrative. It exists because the story needs it to exist, and that is all. If a reader doesn’t think they’re ready to encounter the worlds of A Memory Called Empire or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, then The Splinter in the Sky is a way to gauge how they feel without investing much emotion into the story.

Spoilers below.

This world feels less oppressive than it’s supposed to be. People walk around with enamel pins on their chests that showcase their gender identity. There is no imperialist issue that comes up due to Xiang’s use of they/them pronouns or due to Enitan’s sexuality. Enitan literally stumbles into the answers she needs on multiple occasions. There is no conflict regarding the Imperator as a love interest because Enitan does not feel any particular way about her until the end, after the reader knows the Imperator is fully on Enitan’s side and that she has clearly been smitten with Enitan from their first meeting. The characters use “therapy speak” in a way that feels unnatural and confusing. None of the stakes are real because there is no threat of permanent consequences. Xiang is gone, then Xiang is back. Enitan is ridiculed as the “Imperator’s mistress” due to the attention the Imperator shows her, and Enitan never strays or deals with the ramifications of making that claim a reality. Enitan goes into danger; the Imperator always, always gets her out, and if the Imperator isn’t there, then Xiang is, filling the same role.

To be blunt, Enitan doesn’t do much as a main character. The interesting things happen around her, and half of them, we never even get to see. Throughout the whole book, I couldn’t help wondering what this story would look like told from the Imperator’s perspective, in the point of view of a figurehead ruler who falls in love with their quasi-political hostage. The Imperator is the one who contributes the most to the plot, and we don’t even get to see her do it except when Enitan notices. I kept expecting the book to deliver on its premise, and it never did. If I am reading a book whose pull is that it is a sapphic criticism of empire and imperialism, I want it to give me that, and I want it to hit me where it hurts. This book did not meet any of my expectations. I was rooting for it to pull me in. A couple of my favorite plot movements were used in this novel, and I felt let down every single time. I never once feared for Enitan; I never feared for the Imperator or really for Xiang either, and Xiang’s disappearance is supposed to be the entire push into the novel. Enitan is written as the main character, but she is held at a certain distance from the ravaging of the empire for the entire book, even when we are supposed to believe she is not.

So: if you’re scared of stories that focus on a character’s infiltration and destruction of an empire, you can start here without worrying about a thing. Everything is easy, and coincidences appear for Enitan throughout the whole story. The three main characters you follow will always stay alive, and they will always get the things that they want. If you’ve read any heavier takes on empire before, though, I would suggest skipping this one.

For trigger warnings, this book includes military violence, xenophobia, and derogatory terms for sex workers.