Meagan Kimberly reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-MohamedThe following review contains spoilers!

The Labyrinth’s Archivist, the first in the Broken Cities series, follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds, and the Residence, where the Archive is housed, is a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before more Archivists are lost to the killer.

Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. It’s never stated whether or not this world is set on the Earth as we know it, but enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different planets and worlds will make the story strongly resonate with fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, is referred to as the souq, giving readers just enough detail to know this world is inspired by an Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.

My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions though by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, who is coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.

The Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities can be interpreted as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the differently-abled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.

But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Another character named Handsome Dan is portrayed as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.

Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways, but her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer, despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.

The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns and can’t be ignored. It’s stated that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent, and as a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.

This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization, as it shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea has put herself through so many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.

Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. There were so many places that felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which could have been accomplished if the story had been written as a full-length novel.

Even the Labyrinth that’s in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city came to be built around it, and the role it plays in their world. Much time is spent on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.

That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

In the first of the Amazons series by Hedyth, Kylla is rescued from imprisonment and thrown into an otherworldly adventure on the mythical island of Themyscira, home of the legendary Amazonian women. However, the paradise of a land ruled by women, away from the patriarchal world, is not all it seems. Kylla soon learns the history of the Amazons, as well as their secrets and regrets, and what role she plays in it all.

I had a hard time getting into this book, as the language felt awkward and out of place, not only in the dialogue, but in the exposition. I do recognize though that this was written in translation, so it could simply be a matter of that. It seems like such a small detail to nitpick, but the constant repetition of certain words, like “grandiose” to describe everything that left Kylla in awe or “piercing” to describe everyone’s eyes, is distracting when trying to follow the story.

The language also felt stilted and unnatural, as if the author/translator tried to create a lofty voice for the Amazons. The problem this creates is one in which not a single Amazon is discernible from another. Even the main character sounds like this, but she comes from what can only be described as “the real world,” so there isn’t a clear reason as to why she speaks this way.

There’s a lack of setup for the world Kylla lives in before she’s rescued and taken to Themyscira. It’s a vague context of an overly patriarchal world that uses and abuses women, but not enough time is spent developing that world to show why Kylla is whisked away to safety and refuge. Throughout her time on the island, there are a few details sprinkled about her clan, giving the reader the idea she might come from indigenous people, but it’s never made clear.

As the story unfolds, more and more characters are introduced. There are the Amazons Ines, Cynthia, Lorelei, Re’gan, Johanne, the Queen Iris, and so many more. There is such a wide cast of characters that the reader never has enough time to get to know any one in particular. In fact, it’s even hard to remember that Kylla, the main character of the novel, is indeed the main character. She fades too easily into the background of what’s going on around her, never making a lasting impression.

Because of this lack of character and relationship development, the stakes fail to land and leave a meaningful impact. By the time the reader gets to the end of the book, they’re left wondering why they should care. Between the overwhelming number of characters and fast pace of sequence of events, it’s easy to tune out while reading and miss so many details. It felt like the author tried to make one book out of two or three.

The story doesn’t focus on any specific w|w pairing, but there are a couple main ones that take place throughout the novel. But again, there was such a lack of development between the characters that these romances fell short of the potential they had to bloom and depict a healthy, loving example of queer women relationships. This underdevelopment is detrimental to the inclusion of people of color among the characters as well. Brief, surface descriptions when a new character is introduced are the only indicators that this world even has black and/or brown women. Their ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds are so minimally important that it reads more like the author was working off a checklist of diversity.

The most compelling content in the novel is the second section, which goes into the history of the Amazons. For those familiar with Greek mythology and the mythos of the Amazons, this part of the story holds strong. It relies so much on familiarity with the myths, that without it, the novel as a whole could not stand on its own. However, within the section about the Amazons’ history, there is a standout character named Phoebe. Her story and her character are by far the most developed in the book, which keeps the reader engaged and interested to see how it all ties together.

Overall, I’d rate the book somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. There are moments that kept me reading and intrigued, but on the whole, I felt it needed more development.

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.