Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

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I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.

Til reviews The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell by Kate Brauning

the cover of The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell

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This is the sort of review best begun with a caveat that I intend no ill will toward those who enjoyed the book… but maybe they’ll want to give it a miss, because I really do not like this book. In fact, I found the reading experience so thoroughly a misery that I resent myself for sticking with it—and I have a bit of resentment left over for whoever approved that misleading summary.

Ostensibly, The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell is a futuristic revenge story in which a girl seeks justice for her deceased family. That does happen—but summarizing it this way is like describing Cinderella as the story of a girl who needs new shoes. Both are technically accurate descriptions of stories focused on a girl’s romance with her prince charming. That’s not inherently a bad thing, loads of people enjoy Cinderella, but it’s dishonest.

And I don’t like Cinderella.

Or this.

I chose this book because I love a morally grey badass heroine and I was excited to see a main character from the Ozarks. There are too few dynamic country girls leading YA adventures. Learning that said country girl was pansexual was a pleasant surprise, and as I continued reading, I even looked forward to reviewing this for the Lesbrary—positively. The villain, Gabriel Gates, felt appropriate to the heroine, too: not a President or a world dictator, just a capitalist baron ruling a few counties. He was a big enough bad to matter, but a small enough one that a girl might take him down.

Quickly, the shine came off. Dinah wasn’t a badass at all. This could have worked, too, but it only served to get to what seemed like the point of the story: Dinah’s romance with Johnny. Johnny is your stereotypical dreamboat love interest. He lives in a cave—but it’s a nice cave, and he has traplines so he never goes hungry and a hot spring for warm baths; he’s a musician and luthier; he’s a talented, ethical bootlegger; he’s got connections everywhere and inexplicable devotion to Dinah. Johnny is the real main character. The most emotional conflict even occurs when his little brother is taken in by Gates and begins parroting his rhetoric. It’s not a particularly well-executed conflict; I found it predictable, probably because the book focuses (inexplicably) on Dinah.

This goes back to my Cinderella complaint. The summary only mentions Johnny in the third paragraph, so I expected some romance. I did not expect the entire plot to put itself on hold for what felt like at least half the page count. It quickly became clear that the setting and plot served the romance, at massive detriment, because the plot still tries to happen. The result is a conflict that wants to be complex but instead is rushed, a denouement that someone forgot to write, and a romance that I didn’t want to read, all spearheaded by a character who thinks her grief entitles her to other people’s lives.

Yeah. People die in Dinah’s little revolution, and she doesn’t really seem to care, and nor does the narrative. It protects the characters it deems worthy—the ones who merit page time. In a way, I respect this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sweeter-than-bitter ending. When paired with the amount of time spent on the romance, though, it begins to seem like the author really didn’t want to write the plot.

A few positives, to end on. The sex scene was good. It was awkward and required communication, that set a good example. I appreciated the worldbuilding—things like advanced tech being available only if people have resources to afford it.

Finally, I liked the metaphor of the pears. Near the beginning of the book, Dinah looks at three buckets of pears traded to her family for access to their well. Angry, she kicks over one of the buckets. She immediately regrets this and gathers up most of the pears, but so much happens that she misses one. There’s no closure on those pears—not once her mother and brother die, kicking off the plot—except that one outlasts the rest, crushed in the road, broken but still present. And had Dinah actually been a single thing like that pear, had she ended the book broken or even scarred instead of on a happy road to everything, it would’ve been a really strong metaphor.

Trigger warnings: animal death, child death

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.

Danika reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light

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As I was reading A Scatter of Light, I saw a tweet from Malinda Lo discussing how hard she’s finding summarizing this book into tropes and graphics to advertise it. I completely understand. This is a book about slowly unfolding self-discovery, the practice of making art, and the beauty of astronomy. It’s about grief and messy first love and different ways of looking at time. It’s a quiet, moving coming of age story that explores complex and difficult emotions–it’s definitely not something that can be distilled easily into a few hashtags.

A Scatter of Light follows Aria as she spends the summer between high school and university (in 2008) with her grandmother, Joan, in California. I think this is such a rich setting for YA novels, because while every summer as a young person feels like a strange, transitionary, surreal time, nothing epitomizes it more than being done high school but not yet starting the next stage of your life. This is the perfect backdrop for Aria’s story, who is in a pivotal point in understanding her own identity.

This wasn’t how Aria planned her summer. She was supposed to split the time between staying with her two best friends, Haley and Tasha, while her father is at a writing retreat and her mother (as usual) is overseas–she’s an opera singer, so she is rarely home. But then a boy posted topless photos of her on Tumblr without her permission, and she faced sexist slut-shaming backlash not only from classmates but also from her friends’ parents. That’s how she ended up spending the summer with Joan instead. And that’s when she meets Joan’s gardener, Steph.

It’s through meeting Steph (who is probably nonbinary, but is still figuring out her gender identity) that Aria realizes that she’s not straight—and also that there’s so much more to attraction that the emotionally-distanced fooling around she’s done with boys in the past.

Steph’s queer friend group immediately adopts Aria, even before she comes out to them, and she is swept into a queer community celebrating the recent defeat of Prop 8 in California: gay marriages are happening all around them. I really appreciated the queer community and friendship showcased, and I especially loved Tasha and Aria’s friendship, which feels like a breath of fresh air among all the messy, complex emotions and relationships. With these new friends, Aria attends a Dyke March and a Queer Music Festival. She falls hard for Steph. Of course, the problem is that Steph already has a girlfriend.

This is definitely a story about a messy first love and about coming out: her attraction to Steph is top of Aria’s mind this summer. But it’s also far from the only thing happening. Joan is a respected artist who Aria has always been proud to be related to. This summer, she’s helping Joan with a project related to her late grandfather’s astronomy work–Aria is going to school to pursue the same field. She finds her grandfather’s old lectures on tape and watches through them. But capable, creative, inspiring Joan is beginning to lose her memory.

The process of making art and prioritizing it in your life is also woven throughout this story. Aria begins to work on her own painting to try to sort through her emotions, with influences from Bernice Bing, a Chinese American lesbian painter, as well as Adrienne Rich’s poetry. (Aria is mixed race: her mother is Chinese American and her father is white.) Meanwhile, Steph is a musician who is deciding how much time and attention she should be putting into her own art. Aria’s mother has always made her art a priority in her life–over Aria, she feels. Aria’s father is an author struggling through years of writer’s block after a successful novel.

The motifs of astronomy, time, and art weave effortlessly through this pensive coming of age story. Despite everything going on, this is a quiet story about Aria coming to terms with herself–not just the label of being queer/bisexual/lesbian/other, but with her own emotions. A Scatter of Light captures the tumultuous, heady feeling of teenage first love: how it’s all-consuming, illogical, and often ephemeral while feeling like the most important thing in the world.

For Last Night at the Telegraph Club, there’s a brief update on the main characters, but it’s only a few pages, so don’t expect this to be too closely tied to that one!

I was 18 in 2008, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this took me back to my teenage self and my own messy first love. Despite this being a quietly unfolding story of self-discovery, I was rapt and couldn’t stop flipping the pages. If you appreciate introspective, character-driven YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough, whether or not you’ve read Last Night at the Telegraph Club.

Note: some of these content warnings are spoilers, but I know they’re also dealbreakers for some readers, so consider that before reading.

Content warnings: cheating, hospitalization, stroke, death of a loved one, grief. Content note: on page sex scenes.

Danika reviews Slip written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Aatmaja Pandya

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Content warning: This review contains discussion of suicide.

This is a YA graphic novel about Jade, who is preparing for her future as an artist by going to a summer art intensive. She knows this opportunity is make or break for her chances of building a portfolio, getting a college scholarship, and following her dreams. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting and inspiring.

Just before she leaves, though, she gets devastating news. Her best friend, Phoebe, has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. Phoebe and Jade have always been incredibly close, and Jade can’t even process this information. But Phoebe doesn’t want visitors and is concentrating on her own recovery, so Jade has nothing to do but go to the Art Farm, even though her art is now the farthest thing from her mind.

This is, unsurprisingly, an introspective and melancholy story. Jade is struggling to process all of her emotions: she’s sad and afraid for Phoebe, she’s angry, she feels betrayed that Phoebe didn’t tell her what she was going through, she feels guilty for her anger—and on and on. Now that she finally has this opportunity to build her portfolio, she has no inspiration for what to create. While the people around her make beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that intimidate her, she feels completely stuck.

The colour palette used is limited and muted: mostly blue, with pops of red. I think this style communicates well Jade’s state of mind: she feels disconnected and numb, and those flashes of red are the moments when she can really connect, especially with her anger.

There is a touch of fantasy or fabulism here as well. When Jade burns her drawings of Phoebe, they briefly come to life in the flames, and she can speak to her best friend to try to understand how she got here. Later, her sculptures come to life and fight back against her or run away—which, apart from making her feel like she’s hallucinating, also makes it even more difficult to complete her portfolio in time.

Meanwhile, she’s also beginning a romance with another girl at the art collective. Mary is upbeat and confident, and Jade quite abruptly finds herself kissing her. But this adds a whole new layer of confusion and guilt: how can she be happy when Phoebe is suffering? How can she be crushing on someone and flirting when her best friend is going through something so huge and awful?

This is one of those tricky books to recommend, because it’s not an upbeat or exciting read. It’s fundamentally about a teenager stumbling and raging and weeping through something really difficult. She lashes out at others. She makes bad decisions. Her journey through this is messy and nonlinear. But that’s also what makes this feel real and what made me feel for her so much.

I hope this is one that makes its way to classroom and library bookshelves, because I can imagine that a lot of teenagers especially will appreciate this honest portrayal of what it’s like to love someone who is going through a mental health crisis—the helplessness and grief and anger and every other tangled, overwhelming emotion that comes with it.

Sheila reviews Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist

Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist

I wanted to read something shorter, that I could put down and come back to as my attention comes and goes these days. I was very happy to pick up (or download, whatever) this work of poetry, Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist.

This isn’t to say that these poems are of a lighter subject manner. Many of the poems deal with sexual trauma and the ramifications of racism, so readers should be aware of that. But Arielle’s words are so impactful that there doesn’t need to be many of them to be moving. I also don’t mind reading about the hardships of others, especially when I myself am going through a harder time. It was comforting to read these poems, which reflected upon themes of grief, trauma, identity and metamorphosis. I understand that many readers won’t find these appealing during a global pandemic, and ultimately what is happening in the world right now is probably shaping the way that I am reading Arielle’s writing as well.

Particularly, her poems “The Girls,” “In Dying I Become” and “Who Will Save You Now?” really stood out to me as gripping and emotional. Of course, “Who will save you now?” is a question that may have crossed many of our minds since the current pandemic started. That piece really got me to thinking about how our interpretations of events and art can change depending on where and who we are at the time. This collection of poetry has many themes of changing and rebirth, which I found very meaningful. If you can, I encourage you to not only read this work but to also consider purchasing her book, especially during this time.

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

Danika reviews Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujllo

When I finished Fat Angie, I felt a bit conflicted about it. I liked the character and thought the language use was interesting, but it was so dark that I felt like I couldn’t find even a glimmer of hope. Despite the many strong elements of the novel–who can resist queer girls kissing to the theme song of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?–I finished it feeling exhausted by the emotional weight of Angie’s life. It felt like there was no area of her life the was spared from cruelty.

So when I picked up the sequel, I was wary. I wanted more from Angie’s story, but I couldn’t handle another storyline that felt so unrelentingly hopeless. I didn’t need her to have a fairy tale ending, but I wanted there to be some element of hope in her story. Luckily, Rebel Girl Revolution delivered that. Angie begins the book much the same as she started the last one. Her next year in high school is not looking much better than her last. Her main tormentor has started dating her best friend, and Angie is not buying her sudden change of character. She is seeing a better therapist, thankfully, and her relationship with her brother is slightly improved, but her mother is still The Worst, and Angie is still lonely and deeply grieving. When she defends herself from a football player attacking her, things go from bad to worse. We do see some of the progress that Angie has made, though, because instead of channeling that into self-loathing, she spontaneously reaches out to an estranged childhood friend, Jamboree, and they go on the road trip that Angie’s sister wanted to take her on.

This was just wanted I wanted from Angie’s story. It’s still difficult, and she is still in a lot of pain. She’s also angry, and she’s questioning a lot about her life, including the relationships she has. Everything is tangled, complicated, and so raw–but it feels worth it. Angie hasn’t given up. She’s gone on trip this with Jamboree, Zeke, and (oops) Darius, and all of them have multilayered relationships with each other. They fight, they mess up, they threaten to abandon each other on the side of the highway, and they have dance parties together.

Some of my favourite things to read about are complex relationships, whether romantic, familial, or friendships. I love stories that can communicate the depth of conflicting emotions you have about a person: the kind of people in your life who you can be the most angry at, but who are your most treasured connections. How toxic relationships can feel, at times, as if they’re the best things in your life, and how that can be the most dangerous part. Or the relationships that can be so much work, but that are nourishing, sustaining. Rebel Girl Revolution wrestles with the complicated connections that every character has with each other, in a way that feels very real.

Not only does Angie develop more connections, she also pushes herself to grow in the ways that matter to her. This trip is partly following her sister’s lead, but it’s also a chance for her to take control of who she wants to be. She throws herself, sometimes with intense fear, into new situations. Sometimes she gets spat back out. But sometimes, she shines. It suggests that there is a future for her, and that there are more options available to her than she imagined.

This isn’t a Disney movie ending. It’s not Angie all better, popular, or becoming prom queen. But it’s her making progress. It’s Angie feeling as if, sometimes, she’s doing okay. If you’re looking for YA that doesn’t shrink away from despair, pick up Fat Angie, for sure. But even if that seems too much for you, I definitely think this is worth the read (and I feel like it could work as a standalone?) I hope to see more from Angie in the future.

Trigger warnings: cutting, suicide ideation, parental abuse, violence, bullying/harassment, grief, PTSD, war flashbacks

Danika reviews Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-TrujilloWhen I initially picked up Fat Angie, I was put off by the language. At first, I thought it was outdated slang, cringingly unrealistic. As I kept reading though, I realized that it wasn’t dated, because I don’t think anyone has ever spoken like that. Instead, it has more in common with buffyisms–a kind of fictional teen speak that somehow represents teen slang without reproducing it. It makes sense, since BtVS is mentioned several times. As I kept reading, I got acclimatized to the language, though it definitely adds a distinct flavour to the text.

[trigger warning: discussion of harassment, hatred, emotional abuse, cutting, suicide] This is not a light read. Yes, the main character is referred to as “Fat Angie” the entire time. And body image is a part of what she deals with, but that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Angie faces hatred and harassment from all sides, constantly. She is relentlessly mocked at school, sometimes also being shoved or physically bullied. Her sister was a solider in Iraq who was captured, and her hostage situation was televised. She has been missing for many months, and everyone except Angie thinks she’s dead. Unable to deal with the grief, Angie cut her wrists with the intention of killing herself. She ran out in this state during a school assembly. She is targeted for being “crazy” as well as being fat. At home, things are no better. Her brother regularly levels the worst insults and harassment at her. Her mother is negligent at best and often emotionally abusive as well. She says, “No one is ever going to love you if you stay fat.” Angie’s therapist is a font of judgement. There seems to be no break from the hell that is Angie’s life. [A note during this trigger paragraph: Angie does lose weight during the book. She doesn’t end skinny, and it doesn’t really solve her problems, but it is seen as a positive, to do be prepared if that’s triggering for you.] [end trigger warnings]

The only bright spot is when a new, cool, rebel-type girl–KC Valentine–transfers into their school and befriends Angie. She doesn’t seem to mind that Angie is hated by the rest of the school, or that she’s anxious and awkward. To Angie’s surprise, their friendship develops into a romance. But they are in a conservative town, and Angie doesn’t know if she can handle the backlash she’d get for being openly “gay-girl gay” on top of everything else dragging her down.

To be honest, I found this a little bit exhausting to read. Angie is so isolated, and she faces a wall of relentless harassment. There are small moments of connection and support–the gym teacher, Jake (Angie’s neighbour)–but they are muted and far between. Even the romance isn’t an entirely happy one. I wasn’t expecting this to be fluffy, but it far exceeded how dark I was prepared for it to be. I will be picking up the sequel as well, but I will cross my fingers that there’s a little more hope mixed in with the despair in that one.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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