Kayla Bell reviews The Offset by Calder Szewczak

The Offset by Calder Szewczak cover

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Cards on the table, Angry Robot is one of my favorite publishers. Ever since I started getting into science fiction and fantasy, they’ve consistently published some of my favorite books. The Outside by Ada Hoffman, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, and Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng are all some of the best books I’ve read in the genre. So when I had the chance to read an ARC of The Offset, I jumped at the chance. Luckily, this book continued the streak of being extremely entertaining!

In the future, as climate change ravages the earth, survivors are hyper-aware of their impact on their environment. Because of this, they’ve created the ceremony of the Offset, where, to counteract new birth, one parent is selected to die. While this is happening, scientist Jac is working on using genetically engineered trees to make Greenland habitable and protected. Meanwhile, her wife Alix is dealing with their daughter Miri, who is extremely depressed and angry about being born into a dying world. Things get worse when Miri is selected to choose who dies for the Offset. She must decide between one parent, who is emotionally distant and saving the world, or her other parent, with whom she loves and has a close relationship.

This book kept me reading. In a lot of apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, I get bored by the misery and hopelessness of it all. Not so with The Offset. Don’t get me wrong, the world is extremely dark and upsetting. But the heart of this book was the difficult, complicated relationship between Miri and her mothers. I saw a lot of my climate anxiety-riddled self in Miri. This book was a science fiction version of an argument I have in my head all the time: is it truly ethical to have children knowing the problems that the world will face due to climate change? Will future generations hate us for subjecting them to the worst consequences of our and previous generations’ actions?

[This paragraph contains vague spoilers.] I wish that the book’s ending had kept up this focus on familial relationships rather than going fully into grimdark territory and being, in my opinion, unnecessarily brutal. I also didn’t fully grasp why Miri made the choice that she had made; it felt like she just chose who she did to be dramatic. Other things that bothered me about this book were how one-dimensional the anti-natalists, those who oppose reproduction of any kind, felt and some of the time skips. I found the book to be paced exceptionally well, but I did feel a little confused when the narrative would move into the characters’ memories without warning.

Other than that, as I said, I found the book to be quite entertaining. The world was rich and the authors did a great job of establishing worldbuilding. Even without a full understanding of the science, I definitely felt the importance of Jac’s work. This is a book that I would classify as part of my favorite genre of sci-fi: climate fiction (sci-fi novels that explore climate change and how humans adapt to it). I also loved, and honestly don’t see this often enough in SFF books, how casually the lesbian and nonbinary representation was handled. Queer people were just a normal part of the world. In the future, I would definitely read another book set in this same universe and hope that the two authors collaborate again. If you’re looking for a quick, dark, science fiction exploration of an interesting ethical question, pick up The Offset.

Sinclair reviews The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

A friend recommended I read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison, saying it was one of her favorite novels, and I trust her taste, so I picked it up. I was hooked immediately.

I didn’t know a ton about it going into it, so I don’t want to say too much about the plot so as to give you that same satisfaction of watching the events unfold.

I will say that it’s a speculative fiction novel, with a woman main character who is bi, and a lot of feminist commentary about surviving in a post-virus US. There’s a fair amount of survival skills and navigation happening throughout, too. I read it early on during sheltering in place, and while it was eerie to think we might be heading there, I still just could not put it down.

If you love speculative fiction that is queer, feminist, very thoughtful, and badass, this is the one for you. Just a warning, though — it was very violent in parts, and sometimes disturbingly so.

The book is the first of in a trilogy, and it only gets more queer, and the violence continues, as it goes along. I loved the last book, called The Book of Flora, and it goes even deeper into what it means to be a woman, to have a place in culture, if it’s possible to be redeemed or forgiven, how choices bring similar people to vastly different conclusions, and more big human themes.

What was so great about it? The entire world that Elison built is fantastic, and I love how much it reads like a historical document because of how she’s set up the unfolding of the timeline. (You’ll see what I mean when I read it.) It’s incredibly well written; I adore these characters and I feel the way I felt after finishing the TV show Six Feet Under: that I miss these characters and want to hang out with them. Perhaps I feel they have something to teach, or I have something to learn from them?

Speculative fiction (particularly books geared more toward YA, but adult too) is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve read it more than ever this year, despite our world feeling like we are in a novel like that sometimes. I go to it for escape and entertainment, but also because it grapples with big questions, particularly around trauma, survival, and psychology, and I love sitting with them and pondering. Now more than ever, we have to figure out how to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and take care of the planet. The cutting edge writers of speculative fiction have been pointing us toward motivation, inspiration, and action for a long time, and it’s time to listen.

In short, there’s some horror in this book. Nasty behavior of a sick, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, racist, and colonialist society. But there’s hope, too, and beauty, and love, and illumination of so many things worth fighting for, and worth living for.

Danika reviews Love after the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

Love After the End edited by Joshua WhiteheadLove after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories by Indigenous authors. It’s edited and introduced by Joshua Whitehead, the author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. In that introduction, Whitehead reflects on the intersection between Indigeneity and queerness: “How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?” He goes on to explain that originally, Love after the End was going to be a collection of dystopic stories, but they pivoted towards utopias: “For, as we know  we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.”

The introduction alone is thought-provoking and sometimes intimidating. Whitehead brings his study of theory to this work, and some of the ideas went over my head. I appreciated being introduced to these ideas, though, and it definitely left me thinking, including his mention of “contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.” Besides, this is an anthology by and for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people; as a white settler reader, I know I’m not going to understand every reference. The authors are from many nations across North America, and many stories include untranslated words from different Indigenous languages.

Although the introduction is academic, the stories themselves are written accessibly. They cover a lot of different topics, but many come back to the idea of space travel, and especially of evacuating a dying Earth. In one story, a portal is made that allows travel to an almost identical, uninhabited planet. The main character has a white partner who doesn’t understand the main character’s reluctance to leave, or her distrust of the supposedly peaceful government’s settlement of a “new world.” The Earth is ravaged, and left for dead by most–Indigenous communities are some of the few people who are willing to stay. Another story has the characters’ escape hinge on space travel that will use the Earth’s kinetic core energy to fuel it, leaving the planet destroyed. Each character has to decide whether they will stay or go, and what that means for their identity and relationship with place.

As I was reading Love after the End, I was reminded just how colonialist SFF often is as a genre, whether it’s about “conquering new worlds” and literally establishing colonies, or centring Medieval England in fantasy stories, or just holding up white, straight, cis, male protagonists as the heroes. This collection is such a refreshing change of perspective. These stories include a relationship with the land that isn’t common in science fiction stories. They assume a greater responsibility for protecting the Earth than I’m used to from a dystopia. The question of whether to stay on a planet that’s been destroyed by (white, wealthy) human activity is very different here than in a typical white space travel story.

“How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” is about a “Native girl who loves other girls” writing a manual on how to survive in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s also an exploration of what systems would replace the white colonial system once it collapsed. She explains, “See, when the borders broke, people decided that Kinship should be our main law instead. Except the problem was that Kinship means different things to different people. And sometimes people who should see each other as kin, inawemaagan, reject each other.” She loves and respects her culture, but is also critiquing this new system of power: who is left out? She find that Two-Spirit people, including her friends, are not always respected the way they should be. She grapples with the idea of what it means to be kin, and who decides.

Many of these stories use Nation-specific language for identity, which doesn’t neatly map onto white, European categories:

“The boys made fun of Kokomis ’ shirt. They said I’m a girl and girls shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. They said I’m wrong.” Her mother crooned. She gently grasped her face. “When you were born, your Kokomis held you in his arms and he looked at me with tears running down his face because he had been waiting his whole life for another îhkwewak like him, and there you were, I gave birth to you, and I was never more grateful for anything else in my life. You are a gift, Winu. And people are often jealous of gifts that are not for them.”

Reading this collection also reminded me of what I’ve read about Indigenous survivance. Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe scholar who coined the term, says: “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.” I recommend reading more about it, including at survivance.org. The stories in Love after the End position Indigenous people in the future, instead of the past. They frame Indigenous nations as not only subsisting, but using traditional knowledge and culture as strengths in current and future societies.

… There’s also an m/m romance story between a teenage boy and an AI who is also a cyberengineered super-intelligent rat! (In this story, same-sex relationships are accepted, but human/AI romantic relationships were the “the sort of thing that was whispered about, something that lived in the shadows.”)

I really enjoyed this collection, both as an addition to queer lit and as a much-needed collection of SFF. This is a great way to be introduced to a lot of talented authors, some of whom also contributed to Love Beyond Body Space and Time and some who are new to this collection. Usually in an anthology, I concentrate on the sapphic stories, but because Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer identities don’t neatly fit into white western categories of sexuality, I’m not going to try to separate those out. I will say that I think this collection is definitely relevant to Lesbrary readers, and it left me hungry for more Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer SFF!

anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.

Mary reviews Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and trying to figure out what it will look like. Will this blow over in a couple of months and will things steadily return to normal? Or is the future forever changed and doomed? I guess it’s nice to think that even if it is the worst-case scenario we’re heading towards, there’s still hope for the LGBTQ+ community.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey takes place in a future southwest where society is under the control of a fascist, religious, and patriarchal regime. The protagonist, Esther watches her best friend and lover Beatriz hang for deviant behavior and having “unapproved materials”. She runs away in the back a wagon owned by a couple of librarians, planning to join their group and somehow find a way to get rid of what she believes is a horrible part of her. She wants to become what the posters proclaim them to be, upright women.

What she instead finds is an underground LGBTQ+ community, bandits, violence, many secrets, and women that are leagues better than what the posters described.

Esther is a very real character in that she has a lot of issues and internal confusion to work through. It was interesting getting to see a character work through that in real time with the story and see her gradually overcome with it the help of people around her.

The characters were just as real. There was Bet and Leda, the couple’s whose wagon she initially snuck onto. Bet is gruff and tough, but has a heart of gold and genuinely cares for everyone in her crew. Leda is just as tough, but also shows more of her compassion externally than her partner. Finally, there’s Cye, who goes by they, is an apprentice to Bet, and doesn’t initially like Esther too much, but the two of them eventually grow to like each other and more.

The world building was wonderful. Every inch of struggle that would come with such a harsh environment is included here, no short cuts taken. This really is a post-apocalyptic future where our current comforts are not to be found. The author clearly did a lot of research and this comes through beautifully.

My one complaint is that the plot felt a bit rushed. There were a few beats and character developments that could have taken more time and build up. The characters, concept, and world building is great, and I just wish the plot had taken the time to give them to time they needed.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed this, and if you’re looking for a western story with adventure and romance, this is just for you

Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Danika reviews Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]

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.