Serena’s Review: “A Desolation Called Peace”

Book: “A Desolation Called Peace” by Arkady Martine

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher and Edelweiss+!

Book Description: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Previously Reviewed: “A Memory Called Empire”

Review: I made the mistake of waiting over a year after “A Memory Called Empire” was published before reading it. Not this time! The second I saw the sequel pop up on Edelweiss I requested it. And then I had to diligently wait to read it so that I could cover more recent books in a timely fashion. That took some self-control, let me tell you. But the time finally came, and the payoff was definitely worth it! I think I may have enjoyed this book even more than the first.

The war that Mahit started to save her station has begun. Back home at Lsel Station, however, she thinks her part in this story is over, even with the reminder of what she’s done flying past in the form of Teixcalaan war ships. But soon enough, she’s called back into action. Three Seagrass arrives with a request: join her in making first contact with these strange aliens. With no coherent language and the mysterious ability to appear suddenly, these creatures are nothing like the Teixcalaan Empire has faced before. Maybe a barbarian is the only one who will understand them?

In the way of good second novels, “A Desolation Called Peace” is bigger than “A Memory Called Empire” in pretty much every way. Not only does the story expand outwards from the single city/planet that it was localize within in the first book, but the narrative itself expands to encompass not only Mahit’s storyline, but also Three Seagrass’s and several other new (and familiar) characters. These efforts to broaden the scope of the story result in an expansion that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the first book. And this is particularly impressive given how detailed and precise the world-building was there, already.

The culture, language, history, etc., of Teixcalaan felt fully realized in all of the little ways one doesn’t think about but that stand-out when you really step back to appreciate an author’s work. From its emphasis on poetry and literature in its speech and protocol, to the cloudhook technology that seems a natural extension from where our own smartphones are headed. And here, Martine takes that strong foundation, and blows it up to add not only a more detailed look at Mahit’s home, Lsel Station, but adds in an entire new species/culture of the aliens our main characters are interacting with. All while still exploring the ins and outs of the Empire itself, with a closer look at the different religions within it and at the inner workings (both technological and political) of Teixcalaan’s powerful military. Frankly, it’s incredible.

The expansion of character POVs was also really impactful. I loved Mahit in the first book, but in this one, she was probably the least interesting character. Now, don’t read that wrong! I still loved her and her arc, it’s more to say that the additional characters were just that interesting that the more familiar Mahit faded a bit into the background in comparison. I particularly enjoyed getting to see into Three Seagrass’s mind. She was a huge character in the first book, so getting to see finally through her eyes was amazing. Beyond her own interesting story, I was particularly impressed by the duel views that Mahit and Three Seagrass brought to similar issues. Three Seagrass is clearly not a malicious character, but being in her head was a great opportunity to witness a character recognizing and confronting their own privilege and biases.

Beyond Three Seagrass, we also had chapters from the leader of the military front, a powerful, female general, and from Three Antidote, the young partial clone of the previous emperor who we met in the first book. I won’t go into much regarding either of their stories as there are some spoilers there, but, needless to say at this point, I really loved them both. Perhaps, particularly, Three Antidote’s chapters were impressive for how well they capture the thinking of a young boy approaching maturity but still a child at heart. With all the complicated, fleshed out adults, it can be hard to write a compelling child character alongside them, but Martine perfectly captured the thinking and actions of a kid in Three Antidote’s unique position. Again, incredible.

I also really loved the twisty way the story unfurled, with pieces that you didn’t even realize were pieces falling together in the end to resolve many mysteries all at once and illuminate themes you thought were only brought up as passing anecdotes. This review is already long, but if I let myself, I could probably go on and on. Fans of the first book are sure to love this one, too, and any sci-fi reader who hasn’t jumped on board this train, really needs to!

Rating 10: A masterpiece of a space opera! All the more impressive for expanding so effortlessly from the highs of the first novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Desolation Called Peace” is on these Goodreads lists: Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021 and 2020/21 Space Opera.

Find “A Desolation Called Peace” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn”

Book: “She’s Too Pretty To Burn” by Wendy Heard

Publishing Info: Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: An electric romance set against a rebel art scene sparks lethal danger for two girls in this expertly plotted YA thriller. For fans of E. Lockhart, Lauren Oliver and Kara Thomas.

The summer is winding down in San Diego. Veronica is bored, caustically charismatic, and uninspired in her photography. Nico is insatiable, subversive, and obsessed with chaotic performance art. They’re artists first, best friends second. But that was before Mick. Delicate, lonely, magnetic Mick: the perfect subject, and Veronica’s dream girl. The days are long and hot―full of adventure―and soon they are falling in love. Falling so hard, they never imagine what comes next. One fire. Two murders. Three drowning bodies. One suspect . . . one stalker. This is a summer they won’t survive.

Inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray, this sexy psychological thriller explores the intersections of love, art, danger, and power.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

While I have a vague working knowledge of the main themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde thanks to pop culture, I haven’t actually read the book, nor have I seen any source material stringent adaptations. I figure I should probably get on that at some point, but man, the To Be Read pile is so big that it just keeps falling by the wayside. That didn’t stop me, however, from being totally interested in “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard when I read the description. Sure, the “Dorian Gray” adaptation is already kind of a tantalizing detail, but when you throw in teenage girls, sapphic romance, AND what sounds like a “Velvet Buzzsaw”-esque pretentious art scene/bloodbath? Baby, you got a stew going.

This movie is a mess, but it’s a mess that I couldn’t stop watching. (source)

“She’s Too Pretty To Burn” has two perspectives. The first is Mick, a shy, awkward, friendless teenage girl who lives with her narcissistic mother. Her self esteem is low and she hates having any attention on her. The second is Veronica, a budding photographer from a privileged home who has dreams of art school after high school, and who pals around with Nico, a passionate political performance artist who is always on the edge with his art. After Mick and Veronica meet at a party, their connection is immediately forged in passion as well as boundary treading, in that Veronica takes Mick’s picture without her knowing. This, of course, sets off a disturbing and highly readable chain of events. I liked having both Mick’s and Veronica’s perspectives, as I feel like we got a really good sense for both their passions, their hopes, and their insecurities, as well as how they both are deeply into each other, but know how to hurt each other. There were moments where I loved each of them, and moments where I would get so mad at each of them, but I was wholly invested in them, their relationship, and their fates. I also really enjoyed how Heard explored their differing levels of privilege, be it based on race, class, home life, what have you, showing that while Mick may have the upper hand in one way, Veronica may have it in another, and neither of them can see past their own issues to REALLY understand how their varying advantages manifest. Nico is a bit of a wild card in all of this at first glance, until he starts to manipulate both girls in different ways to suit his own purposes, and as that slow burn threw in a whole other dynamic to this story, I went from hooked to lined and sunk as well (does this metaphor work? I don’t care, I was all in is what I’m saying).

The plot, which I’m going to keep a little vague, is a slow build of suspense and dread as to what is going to happen. The unease is apparent from the get go, but you aren’t totally certain as to why you feel that way. Is it because of Mick’s unease with everything around her? Is it because of Veronica’s obsession with that photo she took of Mick and what it drives her to do? Is it the two of them, is it something else? Since I haven’t read “Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you as to how well it fits the narrative of that story, or how it reinterprets those themes, but what I can tell you is that this book is just off and unnerving enough that you will be on edge even before things really start to go south for all of our characters. And then when it does go that way, the tension is massive. At least it was for me. I was ripping through the final chapters, nearly breathless as I waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t know what it was about this book, but it really laid its talons in my brain and I am still shaken up. The only reason that this didn’t get a ten out of ten is because I felt like it went a LITTLE long by the end, extending past the climactic events and laying a little last minute groundwork that I don’t think was fully explored. That said, if it was laying groundwork for a potential sequel? I would be chomping at the bit to see what happens next.

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is going to be on my mind for awhile. Deeply disturbing but compelling as hell. Definitely check this out if you like YA thrillers, or even just thrillers in general.

Rating 9: A twisted and unnerving thriller that had me hooked almost immediately.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She’s Too Pretty to Burn” is included on the Goodreads lists “2021 Sapphic Releases”, and “Dorian Gray”.

Find “She’s Too Pretty to Burn” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

Find “Flamer” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Surrender Your Sons”

45154800Book: “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass

Publishing Info: Flux, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Connor Major’s summer break is turning into a nightmare.

His SAT scores bombed, the old man he delivers meals to died, and when he came out to his religious zealot mother, she had him kidnapped and shipped off to a secluded island. His final destination: Nightlight Ministries, a conversion therapy camp that will be his new home until he “changes.”

But Connor’s troubles are only beginning. At Nightlight, everyone has something to hide from the campers to the “converted” staff and cagey camp director, and it quickly becomes clear that no one is safe. Connor plans to escape and bring the other kidnapped teens with him. But first, he’s exposing the camp’s horrible truths for what they are— and taking this place down. 

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Let’s give some high praise to the 1990s cult lesbian dramedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” starring literal goddess on Earth Natasha Lyonne. Natasha plays Megan, a naive cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp because her parents are convinced she’s gay. There the very idea of conversion therapy is lampooned and satirized, and Lyonne is able to discover and accept herself, as well as her eventual love for camp bad girl Graham (played by 90s Goth Queen Clea Duvall). It’s great. It’s very 1990s. It has RuPaul as a counselor. It’s witty and big hearted. It makes fun of conversion therapy and how ridiculous the concept is, and hits that point home hard.

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(source)

But I do think that one aspect that gets a little lost in this movie is just how truly horrifying and evil conversion therapy is. Children are traumatized, abused, and tortured because of their sexuality and/or gender identity, and parents willingly send their children to this kind of treatment that can be incredibly damaging. “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass sends conversion therapy to another extreme (though honestly, probably not too unrealistic), and produces both a rightfully horrifying story…. as well as, ultimately, an uplifting one at its heart.

Adam Sass starts this book off with a content warning and contextualization of the content in this book, noting that while it very much is a story of queer pain, he isn’t promoting that kind of thing and is trying to handle it as best he can. Normally these kinds of spoon fed disclaimers rub me the wrong way, as I think that a work should speak for itself and a reader should have their own interpretations, but in the case of “Surrender Your Sons” I think that it’s probably a good idea. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is damaging and all too present, and this book could absolutely be triggering for the intended audience. But heavy and upsetting content is necessary in this tale as our protagonist, Connor Major, is kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp in the Costa Rican jungle. The things that Connor and his ‘campmates’ go through are horrifying, ranging from physical abuse to mental abuse to emotional abuse, it really runs the gamut, and it is a VERY hard and emotional read. It really needs to be hit home that conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. Connor is a very relatable, realistic, and in some ways incredibly funny main character, and his sharp wit helps make this story a little easier to handle in its unflinching portrayals of conversion therapy. I really loved Connor’s voice, and I also liked how Sass slowly built him up and fleshed him out as his life is thrown into turmoil. It never felt unrealistic or unearned, and his voice still felt true to him as he evolved. I also really appreciated that Sass points out that the act of ‘coming out’ is still very dangerous for some people. Connor is pressured to come out to his religious zealot of a mother by his boyfriend Ario, who says that coming out will set him free. I do think that there is a well intentioned belief that coming out means that you get to speak your truth, and that that in itself is the best thing that you can do for your own happiness. For some people that’s absolutely true. But for people like Connor, coming out puts a target on one’s back, and Sass did a really good job of bringing up how complicated it can be.

And with these themes we also get a well plotted and interesting mystery thriller! Connor soon discovers that the recently deceased man he was doing Meals on Wheels for, Ricky, has a connection to the Nightlight program, and to it’s leader, The Reverend. It never feels like this mystery is tossed in for good measure, as Sass lays out the clues in a deliberate and careful way. As Connor and his fellow campers begin to investigate, the stakes get higher and higher, and they may need to start plotting a revolt and escape not just because they are being tortured for their sexualities and gender identities, but because they may now know too much. Mixed in with the mystery are the backstories of some of the higher ups at the camp, and how some of them were campers there at one point, which therein leads to the very sad reality that sometimes people who suffer from trauma and abuse end up abusing and traumatizing others later in life. Sass is sure to never excuse the actions of these characters, he does grant them a little bit of empathy, and hammers the point that conversion therapy is truly horrendous because of many unforeseen consequences and outcomes even beyond the violent and abusive root of it.

“Surrender Your Sons” is by no means an easy read, but I think that it’s one that brings up very important conversations. After all, conversion therapy, while perhaps falling out of favor, is still legal in many states in the U.S. Hopefully the more light that is shed on the practice, the more states will ban it until it’s no longer legal anywhere.

Rating 8: An emotionally gut wrenching and suspenseful thriller, “Surrender Your Sons” explores the evils of conversion therapy, the dark side of families when they don’t accept their children for being themselves, and the strength we sometimes have to find within ourselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Surrender Your Sons” is included on the Goodreads lists “Queer Fiction Set on an Island”, and “2020 YA Books with LGBT Themes”.

Find “Surrender Your Sons” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn”

51182650._sx318_sy475_Book: “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, July 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Book Description: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

Review: Here was another book I requested based mostly on cover lust. But the description itself, particularly the original fairytale-ness of it all, was another sure a attraction. It’s also yet another book that seems to feature siblings, though this one is only from Soraya’s POV, which is a nice change of pace in my reading lately. The story took a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, but most of them turned out for the good, and I enjoyed this read!

Soraya is a forgotten princess. With a power that kills at her touch, she’s spent her life sequestered in shadows, separated from her family, friends, and people. She’s spent her life watching her brother pass all of the milestones that she herself has missed out on. And now it is coming to a head with his marriage to a lost friend from Soraya’s childhood. In unexpected places she begins to find new allies and new pathways, opening doors that she never dreamed possible. Some of them lead into the light, and some further into the dark. Which will she choose?

I ended up really enjoying this book. It was an original fairytale, something I always love, and it took a few unexpected twists and turns as it was told. On top of all of that, it’s a standalone novel. One small criticims there, however, was the story did feel like it had to distinctive arcs that may have been better suited to their own books, making the story into a duology. But even typing that feels wrong as I love standalone books so much and they’re hard to find! It’s kind of a mixed bag thing, here, I guess. The two storylines work well enough, and I don’t feel like either was truly lacking much. Just that as a complete work, it did feel oddly balanced with the first half telling one tale and the second another.

I really liked Soraya herself. She had a great narrative voice, and she was easy to become immediately invested in. This was important as the book took a twist down an antihero path that I hadn’t seen coming from the book description. Looking back now, yeah, it’s kind of there. But it was another nice surprise for me when going through this book. It’s always tough to sell a true antihero story, as often your main character is doing some pretty questionable things and walking a very narrow line. This made the likablity of Soraya’s character incredibly important. It was easy to understand her struggles and even some of her more questionable decisions, especially in the context of the life she had lived prior to this story.

Another surprise for me was that Soraya was a bisexual and the main romance ends up being a f/f one. For the book itself and its story, I really enjoyed this romance. I’ve read a bunch of f/f/ stories recently, and really liked them! Just last week, I reviewed a book by Django Wexler who is known for almost always giving his heroine a female love interest. My problem with it being a surprise here isn’t the book’s fault. It’s the marketing.

Looking over the book description, it’s clear that it’s intentionally deflecting away from using gendered pronouns in places, and then goes out of its way to place interest on the male love interest. The male love interest is a thing, so that’s fine. But there should be mention, clearly, of the female option. I really dislike these type of marketing techniques. It seems clear that its done out of mistrust of one’s audience, and that’s never going to work. Either your reader is game for a f/f romance, in which case readers like me would like to know ahead of time what to expect without having to delve into Goodreads reviews to get basic information like this. Or your reader is not down and once it becomes clear that you tried to hoodwink them with your marketing, they’ll put the book down. It’s bad faith marketing, and we need to get past this.

Overall, I really liked this book. If you’re looking for an original fairytale story with a morally grey main character, this is definitely the book for you!

Rating 8: A great standalone fantasy novel featuring an interesting anti-heroine!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 YA LGBT+ Sci-Fi/Fantasy” and “Magical Realism.”

Find “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The City We Became”

42074525._sy475_Book: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin

Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

Review: I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s since years ago when I first read “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” But my love for her didn’t really set in until after I read the “Broken Earth” trilogy. Those books blew me away with the sheer scope of imagination and dexterity of language that were required to pull off such a feat. With those in mind, I went into this book knowing that if anyone could handle the strange set-up that was offered in the book description, it would be Jemisin. And she definitely does! Sadly, this book didn’t hit quite the same mark as the others of hers that I’ve read, but I suspect much of that is just down to my own reading preferences.

Birth is a painful, messy business. It can be as frightening as it is beautiful. A city’s birth is no different, especially for one such as New York City, a behemoth whose very soul can’t be contained in one vessel. Instead, when things begin to go wrong as NYC strives towards its own new life, five individuals are selected to represent the myriad of faces and lives that make up this one spirit. Together they must become the protectors the city needs and fight off a great evil that threatens this new life.

Even though this book wasn’t the huge hit for me that I was hoping for, there is still a lot to praise it for. As always, Jemisin’s creativity is without bounds. The idea of great cities developing souls is just fantastic, and the book takes that theme and runs with it into some crazy and unexpected places. The strength of writing needed to make some of these completely foreign fantasy elements make sense is mind boggling, and it’s here that Jemisin has always shined. There were a bunch of lines that not only jumped off the page, but more so slammed into my unprepared mind with all the beauty and shock of a firework. It was truly impressive.

Part of my struggle, however, also had to do with the writing. Not so much maybe the writing, but the way that it was so clearly an homage to New York City and the many cultures made up within that huge city. I’ve only visited NYC on one frantic, 24 hour period visit. So I know very little about the actual city itself. And for a book so focused on the heart of this city and the pieces that make it unique and tick, I was often left feeling like I was an outsider looking in. Many of the stronger pieces of writing I could see objectively as great, but I couldn’t connect to personally as it was so clearly talking about a specific place and people that I personally don’t know much about. And, unlike most second world fantasy where all readers are “newbies” learning about a world they don’t understand, this was clearly written to some extent with the idea that readers would know and connect to some of these elements, without the book itself needing to do that extra legwork. So, in this way, some of the mileage of this book might depend on the reader’s own familiarity, and to a lesser extent, interest, in New York City itself.

I also had a hard time feeling truly connected to many of the POV characters. The story starts off quite quickly and doesn’t spend much time laying out many details for readers. In some regards, this is a staple trick of Jemisin’s and one can have faith that the answers will come eventually. They do here as well. But this trick then depends on the reader connecting to and investing in the main characters themselves early on to carry one through until plot details begin to clarify. I’m not sure quite what the problem was here for me. Perhaps there were just too many characters, and combining that with the slow moving pieces of putting the plot together, was just too much.

Jemisin is also well-known for putting diverse characters first and foremost in her books, often strong women of color. And here, too, the cast is diverse across all kinds of lines. But there were also moments where I felt like the message (for lack of a better word) was a bit more hamfisted here than the incredibly powerful observations and mirrors that were held up in her previous works.  Really, it felt in some ways like this entire book was a bigger statement (particularly in response to the Lovecraft stuff that has pervaded SFF for so long) that the author needed to get out into the world.  And that’s a good thing! But it also, again, left it a bit harder for me to fully sink into this book as a reading experience.

Overall, I think this book is incredibly powerful and highlights again the strength of Jemisin’s skill as an author, both in her masterful world-building as well as just the strength of her writing. That this one didn’t really hit home for me could, in part, simply be due to my own lack of knowledge of (or real interest in) NYC itself. But for those with a stronger connection to that city, I’m sure some of these elements in particular will strike a much stronger chord. Fans of Jemisin’s work should definitely still try this out and those looking for an urban fantasy novel that breaks the mold for what urban fantasy typically offers are sure to be intrigued!

Rating 7: Incredibly unique with a widely diverse cast, but it was a bit harder to become invested in than other works by this author.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The City We Became” is on these Goodreads lists: “Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Releases of 2020” and “SFF Set in Global Cities (No YA).”

Find “The City We Became” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The House in the Cerulean Sea”

45047384._sy475_Book: “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

Review: Cover art alert! Cover art alert! Yes, again, I selected a book almost completely based on the cover art itself. I’ve never read any of TJ Klune’s work before, though I believe he was largely a self-published author before the break-out into big publishers with this title. I did see a few references to “The Umbrella Academy” thrown around, so that was the last bit of justification I needed for placing a request for a book just because I thought the cover was pretty! But it is! Look at all of those colors! For some reason, the cover art put me in mind of the covers for “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Not a bad thing at all, as I enjoyed that series for the most part. In the end, I did enjoy this book quite a bit.

While not ecstatic about life, Linus Baker is quite content with the solitary existence he’s created for himself. A stable job, a small, cozy house, and, of course his beloved cat and records. But this quiet life is suddenly interrupted when Linus finds himself given a peculiar assignment: to travel to a remote orphanage and evaluate the state of things. Once there, Linus discovers six wondrous, but dangerous, children and their charming caretaker Arthur. As Linus learns more about these wards and Arthur himself, he finds himself more and more drawn to this small family, danger and all.

I’m not typically a fan of contemporary fantasy (though I will concede that that’s a pretty catch-all subgenre so my preferences therein aren’t particularly well-defined), but this book was a great opportunity for me push my comfort levels a bit. And it was a bit of a stretch, as the fantasy elements were fairly low, other than our magical children. But they were delightful enough that the parts of me that was missing world-building and magic systems was satisfied enough.

The comparisons to “The Umbrella Academy” (only watched the Netflix show) is very apt, and, similar to story, this one lives and dies on its characters. The collection of bizarre orphans are where Klune’s work really shines. They were all perfect blends of heart-wrenching and heart-warming, misfits and fitting perfectly together, witty but hiding deep emotions behind their words. The dialogue for these character in particular was quite good, and I found myself really speeding through the book once Linus met up with them.

Linus himself was a solid main character and his slowly built relationship with Arthur and the kids was lovely to explore. There was a lot of exploration around themes of found families, trust, and how we judge those around us. The romance was definitely more on the sweet side, and I would say that the book overall would appeal to a varied range of ages from middle grade to adults (a very good thing, as the cover definitely speaks to a younger audience, I think).

There were a few moments where the story did strike me as trying a bit too hard, just a bit too bizarre for its own good. But readers will have different experiences with this, depending on their preferences for fantasy writing and modes of humor. The book was also a tad longer than I would have liked. Most of it read very quickly, but I felt that there were times when Klune was simply having fun with his characters and the book got away from him a bit. I mean, the characters are a blast, so I can easily understand getting carried away with all of these moments, but it did end up with the book having a bit of a bloated feel. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and fans of contemporary fantasy, found family stories, and ensemble casts of characters are sure to have a blast!

Rating 7: A bit long, a bit silly at times, but its characters were so heart-warming that they carry it through.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The House on the Cerulean Sea” is a newer book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Books released in 2020 I’m curious about.”

Find “The House on the Cerulean Sea” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “City of Stone and Silence”

34640582._sy475_Book: “City of Stone and Silence” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: After surviving the Vile Rot, Isoka, Meroe, and the rest of Soliton’s crew finally arrive at Soliton’s mysterious destination, the Harbor―a city of great stone ziggurats, enshrouded in a ghostly veil of Eddica magic. And they’re not alone.

Royalty, monks, and madmen live in a precarious balance, and by night take shelter from monstrous living corpses. None know how to leave the Harbor, but if Isoka can’t find a way to capture Soliton and return it to the Emperor’s spymaster before a year is up, her sister’s Tori’s life will be forfeit.

But there’s more to Tori’s life back in Kahnzoka than the comfortable luxury Isoka intended for her. By night, she visits the lower wards, risking danger to help run a sanctuary for mage-bloods fleeing the Emperor’s iron fist. When she discovers that Isoka is missing, her search takes her deep in the mires of intrigue and revolution. And she has her own secret―the power of Kindre, the Well of Mind, which can bend others to its will. Though she’s spent her life denying this brutal magic, Tori will use whatever means she has to with Isoka’s fate on the line…

Review: After blowing through the first book in this trilogy in about two days, I immediately nabbed a copy from NetGalley. What a joy to find a new series that you absolutely love and have the second book come out the very month you finish the first! While I think the first book stills ranks ahead of this, I was quite pleased with the direction the series seems to be headed in and the surprises that were in store here!

It seems that the ghost ship, Soliton, has finally reached its port. But answers here are as illusive as they were on the mysterious ship. In a land riddled with the walking dead, Isoka must untangle the complicated history of the ship and its makers if she has any hope of returning to her beloved sister, Tori. Back in her home city, Tori has been getting out and about much more than Isoka knew or would have wanted. She spends much of this time volunteering at a hospital for the poor, but her own street instincts have not been lost or forgotten either. With her eyes constantly on an exit strategy, Tori has been carefully cultivating her own connections. But when the city begins to teeter on the bring of revolt, Tori finds herself thrust into the spotlight in a way that may expose secrets that she’s kept even from her own sister.

The introduction of Tori was quite the shift for this book, with the chapters now alternating between the two sisters and their experiences. I enjoyed the addition of this new character quite a lot, though I will also admit that Isoka was still by far my favorite character and I found her story here the more intriguing of the two. But it’s a brave choice to make, and I think it was pulled off well. Tori’s story lays a lot of groundwork for the final confrontation in the third book and brings some complicated themes into a story that, before, was pretty solidly a fun adventure fantasy.

Isoka is still as brilliant as ever. Brave, straight-forward, but with a hard shell that she is only beginning to shed. In the first book we saw her confront her own ability to care for others, both in the immediate and personal, as well as in the whole, as she leads the other Soliton residents to the last remaining safe space on the ship. In this book, she confronts the challenge of lasting leadership when the goal is not so obvious or so black and white in what needs to be done to achieve it. More than anything, she learns what it means to trust others to help her. She’s just the sort of prickly, gruff, super competent hero I like.

The mystery of the port of Soliton is also incredibly intriguing. In the first book, we really only scraped the surface of the ghost ship, knowing just enough to know that we didn’t know anything. This book takes that one ship and now explodes it out to an entire lost city with mysteries that reach back thousands of years. There are answers here to more than just the strange ship and its solitary mission to collected young people with access to magical Wells. There were a lot a lot of legitimately creepy elements. The crabs from the first book read like the type of exciting monsters that one finds in Japanese monster flicks. But here an element of horror is painted over top it all. And I’ll just say this…dinosaurs. Take from that what you will.

As I said above, while I still enjoyed the adventure of Isoka’s story and her own character arc best, Tori was overall an excellent addition. It becomes clear early on that Tori’s own experiences of life on the street were not so effectively wiped away as Isoka had hoped. But, being a very different girl than Isoka with very different gifts, Tori has taken her own route in building up a life for herself, one that is still always prepared for the worst. Through her story, we get a much deeper look into the geo-political state of the Empire Isoka left behind. And the story of growing unrest, a tipping point, and the uprising of the common people against an Empire that has pushed too far is very compelling.

Tori’s own role in this revolution was a very interesting contrast to Isoka. Both have been thrust into leadership roles that they feel ill equipped to manage. Both have incredible power that others can both admire and fear (though Tori’s is kept under wraps from those around her for much of the book). The classic “with great power come great responsibility” motif is explored thoroughly from both angles. But the book takes an interesting approach to the idea. The power itself isn’t in question, it’s more what does responsibility actually look like when one has power? The story explores how power can bring out both the best and worst of people. And that similar experiences of having power, and more importantly here, responsibility thrust upon a person can have very different outcomes, depending on the person. Power alone does not good or evil make.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel. Tori was a fantastic addition, adding new themes into the story as well as creating more shades of grey to the ones already being covered. The world-building and magical history seemed to multiply in this book, and what had been contained to a strange ship, expands out to provide insights into the entire world and magical system itself. And, of course, I love Isoka. I have no filter for this type of powerful, yet emotionally walled off, heroines it seems. If you enjoyed the first book, be ready to kick into the next gear!

Rating 8: A fantastic second outing that highlights the author’s meticulous story-telling techniques, leaving so many goodies and reveals for the second book that one can only wonder at what will come in the third!

Reader’s Advisory:

“City of Stone and Silence” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2020.”

Find “City of Stone and Silence” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Ship of Smoke and Steel”

34618380Book: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.

Review: Our bookclub has been doing a Secret Santa book exchange for the last several years (have we mentioned how awesome our bookclub is recently??). It’s great because A.)more books! and B.) having librarians as friends means you’re sure to get a great new read that has been careful tailored to your own reading preferences. I’d seen the sequel for this book coming up on “most anticipated” lists for a few months now and am not sure how I missed this first one when it came out last year. But this has now been rectified, and I’m now halfway through said sequel. So, spoiler alert, I loved this book.

Reigning as a crime lord on the streets of Kahnzoka may not be an ideal life, but it’s a living, and one that Isoka is particularly skilled at. With her Well of Combat, she can be as brutal as she is efficient. But behind her cold exterior, her true purpose is one of love, the protection and future of her beloved younger sister Tori. But it all goes awry when she is captured and sentenced to an almost sure death on the mythical ship Soliton. There, she realizes that what once had seemed only a fable is all too real, and the powers that had made her almost legendary on the streets may be only a drop in the bucket against the new foes that await her.

I’ve only read one other book by Wexler, a military fantasy fiction novel which I quite enjoyed. This was the author’s first foray into YA fantasy fiction, and I have to say, I think this might be the key to it. Having been an adult fantasy author first, there seems a decent chance that Wexler was less influenced by the pervasive YA tropes that all too often undercut many potentially good YA fantasies these days. This book has all of the originality, spunk, diversity and grimness that one would find in an adult novel. The only thing that makes it YA is the age of our main characters. And that’s what makes it so good.

Isoka may be a teen, but she is completely believable as young woman who grew up on the streets and whose sense of morality and survival have been worn down to just the basics. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality that would take over a character who has had to fight for her own, and her much younger sister’s, very survival almost from infancy. Isoka is a bringer of death, and while over the course of this book she learns to take others under her wing as well, her lack of angst over the harshness of her life was incredibly refreshing. She may not be a “good” person by the standards a modern individual would set, but she’s a survivor and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is necessary to protect those she loves.

The magic system was also very compelling. It’s simple enough to be understood easily, with a variety of Wells that users can pull from that grant them different abilities. But as the story progresses, we learn that not all is fully understood about these Wells. And even by the end of the story, there are mysteries still to be unraveled here. Isoka’s own power, the Well of Combat, is an excellent choice for our main character. The action is riveting, feeling almost cinematic as Isoka battles monstrous beasts with her twin power blades and armor. There are also those with powers such as speed, fire, and shadow, and the greater battle scenes paint an epic-feeling picture of these incredible individuals battling alongside one another.

Most of the action takes place on board the mysterious ship Soliton. I don’t want to spoil anything, as discovering the horrors and wonders of this ship was half the fun of the book. Just as you feel you understand one layer of this creepy place, another unfolds. Again, like the magic system itself, by the end of the book the reader feels as if they have only scraped the surface of what is really going on behind this secretive ship.

This was an excellent read. I blew through it in only two days. It’s a fast read, full of action and creepy fantasy elements. There’s also a lovely romance between Isoka and her friend Meroe, a girl with her own barely understood abilities. I already have the second book loaded up on my Kindle, so expect a review for that one up soon. If you’re looking for a fun new fantasy series, definitely check this one out!

Rating 9: Epic, action-packed, and best of all, the start of what promises to be an exciting trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ship of Smoke and Steel” is on these Goodreads lists: “2019 Queer SFF” and “Best Fantasy 2019.”

Find “Ship of Smoke and Steel” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Reverie”

46299614Book: “Reverie” by Ryan La Sala

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

Review: Another gorgeous cover, another intriguing book description! To be honest, I really had very little to go on when requesting this book. Part of it may have spoken to my withdrawals from “The Starless Sea” with some of the similar-sounding descriptions of mystical worlds each with their own story. December always seems to be a bit thin in the pickings, too, so anything that sparks interest is usually a go around now. Alas, even no expectations were too many for this book.

Kane knows very little about himself or his life. Found half dead on the side of a river, he only feels a sense of…difference. About him?About the world? About the mystery behind what happened to him? So when three others show up claiming to be his friends, he jumps at the opportunity to learn more. But he quickly realizes that this mystery is much greater than a near-drowning. Now, worlds are opening in the middle of the ordinary places in the world, each with their own stories and histories. How does his own experience connect with these mysteries? And is that even the biggest problem Kane faces now?

Ah, too bad. Another story that falls into the too simple and too common box of “missed potential.” These types of books are almost the hardest to review because there is nothing overtly wrong or offensive about the book, and, more often than not, they still have good qualities that hold them together. But by the final page, I’m left with an overwhelming sense of indifference and a fixation on the hours spent reading this book instead of some other book.

Amnesia stories, to start with, are very hard to pull off. The main character of the story is a necessary blank, having no point of reference of history, prior relationships, ongoing emotional struggles to draw upon. This leaves their observations and reactions feeling hollow. It’s hard to feel connected to a character who isn’t connected himself. This is the problem with Kane in a big way. Through the entire book, I just never really cared about him. He was instead mostly just a blank slate around which to build this story and magical world.

The world-building and writing was both a hit and a miss for me as well. On one hand, several of the descriptions of events and places were beautiful and new. But on the other hand, they weren’t the type of descriptions that read easily. I’m not sure how to put my finger on this. But I found myself having to re-read several lines to really put together how a particular metaphor was being used or what was being described. Perhaps having just read “Starless Sea” made this particular misstep hit home a bit harder than it would have at other times. That book, too, used very unique language to describe strange and new imagery. But there, somehow, the words flowed in a way that wasn’t distracting and didn’t throw me out of the story quite as badly as a similar style did here.

I also struggled to fully understand the rules of the world. How exactly do reveries work? What are their boundaries? There was definitely an interesting idea to be found here, but between the blank that was Kane and the distracting writing, I was already too out of this story to be able to turn my brain off and just go with the flow.

All of that being said, I did like Kane’s love interest, and in many ways, he had a lot more character building given to him than Kane himself did. And, while the writing style did kick me out of the flow of things every once in a while, there were also some legitimately lovely pieces of word play. But, in the end, my main takeaway was that this book didn’t accomplish all that it set out to. It was too bad. Others, however, might still enjoy this story. If you’re looking for a unique, LGBT fantasy, this does do well on all of those counts. Just not really my cup of tea, I guess.

Rating 6: Nothing terrible, but amnesia strikes again at taking down its main character and the unique word play hurts the flow of the story more often than it helps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Reverie” is on these Goodreads lists: “2020 Queer Sci-Fi Fantasy” and “Oooh Shiny! December 2019.”

Find “Reverie” at your library using WorldCat!