Carolina reads The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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Buckle up, old sport! The Great Gatsby has entered the public domain, leaving the door open for any author to submit their take on Fitzgerald’s classic. A myriad of sequels, prequels and retellings of the novel have already been published in 2021, or are slated to be released in the near future. Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful dares to stand out from the other boats beating ceaselessly into the past, and charts a unique course as a trailblazing debut full of heart and originality through the eyes of The Great Gatsby’s enigmatic side character, Jordan Baker.

Amidst the glitz, glamour and gossip of the flapper scene, a magical Manhattan materializes in Nghi Vo’s debut, deftly weaving historical fiction and urban fantasy into a treatise on queer Asian American womanhood. Professional golfer and socialite Jordan Baker feels disillusioned with her peers of the upper echelon of New York society; as a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, Jordan must steel herself within a cool and collected façade to cope with her oppressive surroundings. As her friend Daisy Buchanan begins to fall for the mysterious Jay Gatsby, Jordan questions her place among her patronizing white friends as she discovers her true self and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Through Jordan’s perspective we lose the sugar-coating of Nick’s rose-tinted lens, exposing the true vanity and monstrosity of The Great Gatsby’s main characters. Daisy becomes an irredeemable white saviour while Gatsby’s incessant stalking and unquenchable lust for power is laid bare, offering an intriguing critique of white womanhood and masculinity. The novel acts as a character study of the intersections of identity: Jordan must reckon with each side of herself, as a woman, as a Vietnamese immigrant, and as a bisexual in the 1920’s to determine who in her life loves her for who she truly is, as microaggressions and blatant exoticism boil over the course of the novel. In this way, The Chosen and the Beautiful acts as a true retelling and re-imagining of the so-called great American novel: Jordan’s story is a reflection of the prosaic contemporary state of Americana, touching upon timeless themes such as  white fragility and model minority with candor and precision. 

The Chosen and the Beautiful is deliciously queer: Jordan refuses to hide her sexuality and regularly parties at gay speakeasies as Nick and Gatsby fall for each other, further subverting the iconic twisted love triangle of the original novel. The novel also goes further in depth into the social struggles of the 1920’s that create the context and worldbuilding for The Great Gatsby, including racism and homophobia, crossing lines that Fitzgerald steered clear of. By touching upon contemporary issues eugenics, Asian exclusion laws and early 20th century gay bar culture, the world of West Egg becomes infinitely more real and fleshed out. 

The world of The Chosen and the Beautiful is quietly imbued with magic: dandies sell their souls to the devil for a chance at wealth, performing troupes craft dragons out of  paper and ghosts and the undead walk among the living. Although I would have preferred a more concrete understanding of the magic system and a deeper exploration of the subplot regarding Jordan’s magic, I appreciated the infectious whimsy of casual magic built with beautiful prose, constructing scenes that will stick with the reader long after the book is over. 

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance copy!

Content Warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, internalized homophobia, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, death, cheating, abortion

Meagan Kimberly reviews “Every Exquisite Thing” by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

Every Exquisite Thing by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson

This story is part of a collection called Ghosts of the Shadow Market, another installment that takes place in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. For those unfamiliar with this world, the short version is this: A race of people with angel blood running through their veins, known as children of the Nephilim, keep demons at bay working as Shadowhunters. They are raised in this way of life, and their purpose is to protect the mundane world from getting taken over by evil.

Okay, now that you have a little background, let’s dive into the story proper. Warning, there be spoilers ahead!

It’s 1901 in London, and Anna Lightwood is learning how to be a Shadowhunter, along with her brother and cousins. When she’s training, she gets to wear comfortable, sensible clothing that allows her the movement a warrior needs to properly fight off demons. It’s when she’s made to wear ladies’ clothing among civilized company that she feels misplaced.

Anna spends many hours stealing her brother’s old clothes, dressing up as a dapper young woman, and pretending to dazzle the ladies in the privacy of her room, where no one knows her secret. When I say dapper, I mean, seriously, just look at that book cover!

Then one fateful day, the Inquisitor (a high-standing political position in the Shadowhunter world) visits with his daughter, Ariadne. Anna is immediately smitten, and so it seems is Ariadne. Now when Anna pretends to dance with an imaginary young lady in her room, she takes on the image of Ariadne.

Anna is more than enthusiastic and happy when Ariadne suggests they begin training together. Still, with the thrill of growing so close to her new crush, Anna worries about her family’s and society’s reaction to her true feelings: that she will never want to marry a man.

It’s never explicitly stated how Anna identifies in terms of gender. She doesn’t object to being called she, but in her imaginary dancing with Ariadne, the fantasy version of the girls tells Anna she is “the most handsome person I have ever known.” In Anna’s own make believe world, the girl she has a crush on doesn’t identify her by any specific gendered term. Readers could interpret Anna as nonbinary or genderqueer.

One night, her cousin, Matthew Fairchild, invites Anna to a night on the town, as he seeks the company of a fellow mischief maker. Anna is all too happy to don the stolen suit she sewed up to fit her and take it for a spin to a notorious club in Soho.

Never once does Matthew object to his cousin wearing men’s clothes. In fact, he even offers her one of his own ascots, as he states, “I could never let a lady go out in inferior menswear.” The acceptance of one of her peers gives Anna a confidence she’s always longed for.

During their escapades, Anna and Matthew stumble upon trouble in the form of a warlock woman named Leopolda Stain. They don’t quite know just how much trouble she is until Anna invites Ariadne out to the same club a week later, when events take a turn for the worse.

Once more in the menswear that makes her feel confident and comfortable, Anna introduces Ariadne to the London nightlife of poets, writers, and artists that her cousin had shown her. The two young ladies’ flirting gets cut short when the warlock Leopolda is found leading a demon summoning.

Anna and Ariadne are first and foremost Nephilim, so they do what they do best. They jump into action to put a stop to the danger and rescue the mundanes in the club. In the midst of their battle, Anna realizes how in love she is with Ariadne. That’s when she sustains a terrible wound and Ariadne must come to her rescue.

It’s an absolute treat getting to see two bad babes fight back to back and then take care of each other. Back in Ariadne’s bedroom, where she took Anna to recover, the girls finally have their moment of truth and share a sweet and passionate kiss that turns into an adorable scene of cuddling.

Anna leaves back home, her family none the wiser to the night’s escapades. The way Johnson and Clare describe Anna’s joy at finding someone who reciprocates her feelings is absolutely genuine. It’s that sweet and warm, fuzzy feeling of a first love that every reader of YA can appreciate. But that sweetness is short-lived, as the next day Anna returns to Ariadne’s house to find her parents have arranged a marriage for her to another: Matthew’s brother Charles.

Anna begs Ariadne to buck with tradition and societal expectations, and to be with her instead. Ariadne though feels her only choice is to marry a man she will never love, so as not to cause any ripples or bring dishonor to her family.

Though Ariadne will not see Charles again for another year and tells Anna they can share their secret happiness for that time, Anna turns away, knowing that she no longer wants to keep hiding behind the mask that society has chosen for her.

The end of the story is really what made me tear up. Upon learning the truth of Anna and Ariadne, Anna’s mother Cecily shows nothing but support and acceptance for her daughter. Cecily, it turns out, has always known that Anna had no interest in men, but she never wanted to push her daughter to speak before she was ready.

When Anna laments that she will never be allowed to marry another woman, Cecily reminds her that many marriages in their family were said to be forbidden, but that they found ways, despite what society and Shadowhunter laws expected.

Anna’s mother further shows her support in presenting Anna with a new suit designed specifically for her. She knew all along that Anna had been stealing her brother’s old suit, and decided she needed a proper men’s suit of her own. Taking courage and strength from her mother’s support, Anna takes a knife to her hair and cuts it down to a masculine style.

When she joins her family at a picnic in her new attire and hairstyle, her father, Gabriel Lightwood (a familiar face to fans of The Infernal Devices series), hints that the blue waistcoat was his idea. To the haircut, her mother simply remarks it is more sensible for battle. Her brother merely smiles his acceptance of her.

Though Anna is still heartbroken over Ariadne, she is finally free of the invisible restraints of society now that she knows she has her family’s unconditional love and acceptance. It’s this ending that makes the story of a broken heart so worthwhile. While the two female leads didn’t get to live happily ever after, Anna got something more: a newfound sense of self that won’t be shaken.

For those that only want to read this story or don’t have access to the full collection, it is available as its own ebook through Amazon.

Audrey reviews Maplecroft: the Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest

maplecroft

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and then she killed her father and stepmother, and then she used her inheritance to buy a big house called Maplecroft. Parts one and three of that sentence happened in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. Part two is debatable. She was acquitted.

In Cherie Priest’s world, there are strange goings on in Fall River. The Bordens knew it. Their family doctor knew it. Outside investigator Simon Wolf (who does he work for, again?) might know it. And Lizzie is determined to save the town that turned its back on her. The story is told through the main characters’ journal entries, and chapters alternate among voices.

Penguin labels this paperback original a fantasy. You might find it in horror. It’ll be in some genre section. This was my first Priest book, and it boasts the holy trinity: Lizzie, Lovecraft, and lesbians. Once Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraftian horror, there is really no going back. The actual Lizzie’s story is creepy enough, as is the actual Maplecroft. Add the words “Miskatonic University” and a full-blown relationship between Lizzie and Nance O’Neill (the actress with whom Lizzie was rumored to have had an affair), and this takes off into the stratosphere.

Priest’s Lizzie is…more physically able, perhaps, and attractive, perhaps, than Lizzie Borden historically was. This Lizzie is straightforward and capable, if a little liable to fly off the handle (sorry), and she makes a good monster fighter. This Lizzie would make a fascinating addition to, say, a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (in print, not onscreen). She’s complemented by her older sister Emma, who’s chronically ill but mentally exceedingly sharp and fit. Emma makes a lousy monster hunter, but a great scientist. Unfortunately, it’s not quite 1900 in New England. Thus, while Lizzie fights monsters, Emma coolly assumes a male persona who carries on academic correspondence and publishes research papers in respected journals. It is this correspondence that serves as a catalyst for the adventure in this book, although the evil that comes to Fall River was already creeping in. Emma simply helped unleash it sooner.

The household is tense. Emma’s very happy with her counterfeit persona (almost excessively so–this is fascinating, but unexplored), and she disapproves of Lizzie’s romantic relationship with young actress Nance. Nance is indeed somewhat of a flibbertigibbet, which will complicate things for everyone, but her affection for Lizzie is real. And Lizzie’s love for Nance is real, too. But that’s not the primary concern here. There’s a Big Bad in town, and a Bigger Bad on the way, and we get to see what our new heroine is made of.

Chapelwood: the Borden dispatches (#2), is due in September. Lizzie’s next adventure takes her to Alabama. The setting doesn’t make my pulse race, but Priest has already done the New England thing, and she’s done it well, so why rehash? I get it. And I’ll still read the second one. Maplecroft offers a fresh take on the monster hunter concept, and more importantly, the take-away message here is this: it was terrific fun.