Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

I was excited about this book, and worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It's gotten a lot of hype, and controversy, neither of which I particularly care about, but the premise of a Chinese-history-inspired sci-fi with giant fighting robots just sounded too fun!

Well, Iron Widow is a wild ride of a book, every bit as intense and entertaining as promised. (Note that if you think giant fighting robots are dumb, you may not enjoy it as much as I did!)(I mean, giant fighting robots are dumb, I am objectively aware of that. I have no idea why I think they are cool, but all the coolness is well and truly explored in this book!)(Also, familiarity with and appreciation of various anime tropes make it more likely that you'll enjoy Iron Widow.)

Xiran Jay Zhao has a clear and emphatic Message being conveyed through all the fun mayhem, but I never felt like I was being hit over the head with it—probably because I was too busy cheering Zetian while she hits lots of obnoxious things over the head, metaphorically and literally.

Zetian is about as bad-ass as they come. She's loosely based on the only female emperor of China, whose ascension to (and retention of) power is pretty mind-blowing when you consider the society she lived in. Xiran Jay Zhao recreates that society for us, exploring all its systemic misogyny through Zetian's visceral daily experience of it. Zetian's anger is the moral compass she uses to navigate this world so impossibly stacked against her, and it's so refreshing! (I'm not a violent person, I promise! I was actually a little worried that this book would be too dark and edgy—and yeah, it goes darker places than I was hoping, but, well, history.)

Too bad. I am exactly the kind of ice-blooded, rotten-hearted girl he fears I am. And I am fine with that.

May he stay unsettled.

 I'm all for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in the real world, but the real world also has some pretty horrific things in it and we should be angry about them. This book is that anger. 

With giant fighting robots. 


Monday, November 15, 2021

Aetherbound, by E. K. Johnston

No E. K. Johnston book is like any other book in existence, including any other E. K. Johnston book. She has very specific stories to tell, and each book is told in the just right way for that story, which probably won't conform with any standard structures or tropes you're familiar with. So you have to come to each new book with an open mind and trust that Johnston is going to give you the story you need that you didn't even know you needed.

All that is preamble to say I didn't know I needed a retelling of the Fisher King myth, set in space with magic, but now my heart is wrung and my mind is slightly blown and I'm not sure how to review it. (Full disclosure: I have only the vaguest understanding of the Fisher King myth, and a quick google search is not helping me understand it any better; I didn't recognize this as a retelling until a reviewer mentioned it, even though Johnston specifically tells the Fisher King story in the middle of the book!) (To achieve healing you have to ask the right question—that's as far as my understanding goes.)

Right. The review. There's some harsh stuff in this book, no doubt about it, and it's very spoilery to tell you what it all is, but if you're concerned my Goodreads review has the spoilers. The reason you don't want to be spoiled is that we start with Pendt as a five-year old to whom all this is normal, and we only gradually discover, along with her, that it's unbearable. This is a book about autonomy, freedom, choice, and I think it's important to be in Pendt's head as she grows into a person who can make choices, who sees her opportunity and escapes, and sees her next opportunity and grabs it. I think the first section of the book is brilliant in the way Johnston controls POV so that we are a little appalled, then more appalled, then fiercely excited and terrified when Pendt escapes. (That's not a spoiler: it's on the book jacket!)

Then we get part 2, and another set of characters who are imprisoned in an entirely different way. The way Pendt's need to escape leads to a unique solution to all of their dilemmas is weird and strangely affirming. And all that is told as more of a background to the developing friendship among three young people who are essentially good and kind and trying to do the right thing in a very twisted universe.

One of the things I love about E. K. Johnston is her ability to portray goodness and kindness. In the end, I think that's what all her books are about, and the plots are just vehicles, scenarios in which goodness and kindness can play out. All the more highlighted when the universe is so completely the opposite of good and kind. I can't tell you how much I love Pendt and Ned and Fisher! (And there had better be a sequel, because that Stavenger Empire needs to be taken down!)(She hints at a sequel at the end, so here's hoping!)

Johnston's pacing is always odd, because she tells you what you need to know when you need to know it, and only shows you the things she thinks are important. Things can seem rushed and abrupt because she trusts her readers to keep up. She's doing it all very deliberately, so pay attention to where she spends her narrative time. (She definitely doesn't tell the story that most authors would tell and most readers would expect.) I need to reread and pay more attention myself to see all I missed the first time around.

Oh, and don't ask what the LGBTQ+ rep is, because you don't want to be spoiled! I thought the way she dealt with this particular character was quite brilliant and fun, and also very pointed. (It's never explicitly stated, because it shouldn't have to be.)

This isn't a book for everyone: the reviews will tell you that! But if you've liked more than one of Johnston's books (or if you like Patrick Ness—he's maybe the only comparable author out there*), and you're willing to go along for a very interesting ride, I can highly recommend this. (I think it's my second favourite of her books, after Exit, Pursued by a Bear.)

*If Johnston and Ness ever collaborated on a project, I'm pretty sure the universe would collapse into a singularity from so much originality and depth.

Cross-posted on Goodreads, and I should really post my other E. K. Johnston reviews there too.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

This is a debut novel?? Unbelievably tight, emotion-packed writing, gripping plot, compelling characters. Just, wow.

There are some books where characters do stupid things and you roll your eyes and throw the book across the room. Then there are books like Bad Witch Burning, where you spend the whole time saying, "Noooo! Don't do it, Katrell, you know this won't end well!" but you completely understand why she's making these really bad choices and you think you might even make the same choices in her shoes.

Lewis depicts with searing, heart-wrenching intensity the physical, mental and emotional toll of poverty. When Katrell finds out she can raise the dead, and people will pay her for it, we feel her utter conviction that There Is No Way Out for her and of course she has to keep performing necromancy despite the terrible consequences. And what interesting consequences: the story is slow-burn creepy and it will surprise you. The pacing of the reveals is particularly well-done.

This is a paranormal book but it isn't about the magic: we don't find out why Katrell has this power, there aren't other witches around, there isn't a magic system. It's a very focused story that uses the horror of the paranormal as a brilliant metaphor for the very real horrors of Katrell's life and the impossible choices she has to make. Lest I scare you off, thinking it's a dismal, depressing read, there are some wonderful characters who are There for Katrell, and Katrell herself is an engaging narrator with attitude to spare. It's a hard book to read, but I couldn't put it down. I loved Katrell to pieces and her journey was fascinating.

Trigger warnings for physical and emotional abuse and violence against a dog. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna


The Gilded Ones is a fierce tale of friendship and loyalty in a strikingly original world. In Otera, "impure" girls bleed gold, proving their demonic nature, and yet no girl knows if she is impure until the Rite of Purification, when, if she does turn out to be impure, she is summarily given the Death Mandate. What a powerful metaphor for the impossible double standard used to repress and control women in so many cultures!

When Deka finds out that she is impure, she is given the opportunity to escape a truly horrific fate, only to face a possibly even more horrific life training to defend the empire against monsters. There is a lot of quite brutal violence and abuse in this book, so much so that I became desensitized to it, which I don't think was Forna's intention. (Apparently she based a lot of the book on her childhood experiences in Sierra Leone during a civil war. Considering the reality of what women do face every day in many parts of the world makes this book extremely difficult to read.) 

The nature of these gold-blooded girls, or alaki, is very strange, and I wasn't sure I was convinced at first, but Forna develops her mythology solidly and keeps us invested in the characters. The training school scenes focus on the developing friendships between Deka and the other alaki trainees, and I loved these interactions and relationships. There are some great magical beasts, too. There are perhaps a few too many really significant revelations in the last part of the book—things are suddenly moving very fast and everything gets turned upside-down pretty quickly—but it all mostly ties together, and there are some great fist-pumping moments for all the characters we care about.

Great themes of what makes someone monstrous, and wonderful, empowering female friendships.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Mr. Impossible, by Maggie Stiefvater

It took me a while to get to this sequel to Call Down the Hawk, because I didn't love Hawk as much as I wanted to, and I didn't want to keep not loving the story about Ronan. Because, Ronan! And Matthew and Declan! I guess there was just too much plot in the first book, maybe? Lots of really weird stuff happening and I wasn't wrapping my head around it.

Mister Impossible sorts out all that plot and makes me care immensely about it. And I guess we needed Hawk to set everything up so that all this amazing character growth could happen in Mister Impossible. Character arcs like you wouldn't believe, people!

Brief backtrack to set context: Ronan Lynch (and his brothers Declan and Matthew) are beloved characters from Stiefvater's Raven Boys series, which I highly recommend, and which you don't exactly have to read before you read this series, but I think you'll care a lot more if you do. 

Mister Impossible is the second book in the Dreamers series, which focuses on Ronan's ability to bring real things out of his dreams—and the consequences of that ability, for both Ronan and his family and for the world. The magic of it is really cool, and I love that Stiefvater makes the consequences so real and Ronan's dilemmas so impossible. Lots of great discussions of identity and personhood and what is reality, anyway? Jordan and Hennessy weren't my favourite new characters in Hawk, but now I love them both intensely.

Excellent twist at the end, I must say! We need a happy ending for all of these characters, dear Maggie: please give us a happy ending for all these deeply flawed, hurt, desperate characters who are so busy blowing themselves up that they can't see how loved they are. Now I have to wait for the third book, arrgh!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Defy the Night, by Brigid Kemmerer

Defy the Night is a fun, fast-paced fantasy that adds a bit of nuance to the tropes of good-hearted outlaws and cruel-by-necessity monarchs. The plot device of an illness that only a rare ingredient can cure is perhaps more topical than you might want to read about, but it did make the book resonate a little more than it might have otherwise. 

The strength of the book is in the character relationships, and Tessa, Wes, King Harristan and Prince Corrick are all compelling characters with believable, complex tensions between them. I wanted them all just to trust each other and be able to work together, and there are so many reasons why they can't.

The world-building is fairly scant, just a background for the plot to happen in, and the politics were pretty simplified, but really, it was all just an excuse for Tessa and Corrick to face off against each other in various settings, and I was all there for that! I did appreciate that the ending looked for different solutions than the all-or-nothing battles typical of fantasy.