Review – Wolfsbane Winter

Posted 10 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Wolfsbane Winter by Jane FletcherWolfsbane Winter, Jane Fletcher

Wolfsbane Winter is mostly a reasonably unremarkable fantastical love story, with some hints that this world is one we should be recognising. Not being great on the geography of the US, I only got some of the most obvious ones, like “Ellaye”, but I think there’s others for the more discerning among us. And then, of course, there’s the fact that this unremarkable fantastical love story is remarkable because of one major thing: both protagonists are women.

If you’re looking for relatively traditional fantasy without the crappy gender roles and homophobia, tahdah, you’ve found it! Women are capable soldiers and scouts, in this world, and are mostly allowed to do it. I think I remember some commentary from some characters that was less happy about it, and maybe some gendered insults, but it’s relatively free of that. The character arcs are fairly traditional too: from a damaged, traumatised child to one who can accept love, or from being broken down by a strange new ability to slowly coming to terms with it… It all feels very traditional, except minus the inevitable Guy Getting The Girl (and there are no kitchen boys who become kings, either, if you want to be really pedantic).

Given that fantasy is relatively devoid of non-straight love stories of any type, it was kind of charming to have a traditional one like this to read. If you’re looking for something groundbreaking, this isn’t it, except that it portrays a world a little more broad-minded than your average medieval fantasy novel. (Which this isn’t quite, see also “Ellaye”, but it feels it.) But it is fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Darkest Part of the Forest

Posted 3 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly BlackThe Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black

I’m having a hard time putting together what I thought of this book, but perhaps it boils down to one thing: communication, damn it! Between brother and sister, between friends, between parents and their children, between faerie princes and the people they hope will help them. And especially with people you want to kiss.

Seriously, half the issues here would be mitigated by communication; if Hazel talked to Ben, if Ben talked to Hazel. Jack’s the only one I somewhat let off the hook, because he’s part faerie and geasa/odd restrictions are part of the stock in trade. (Actually, I mostly liked the portrayal of the faerie people; cruel and wild and sometimes beguiling, with bits of traditional fairy stories all over the place, and fairytale narrative styles as well — things coming in threes, for instance. The portrayal of people, in general, the suspicions of Jack, the apathy regarding anything that doesn’t touch directly on the community — that all worked quite well.)

I can’t help but feel that I would’ve been more interested in Ben’s story, because Hazel is so necessarily divided from herself by the plot. There’s stuff happening to her, and you don’t really know what or why, because even though she’s the focus character, there are gaps and omissions. It makes sense, but I kind of wanted Ben’s story more — probably especially because he’s not straight, and he is in the end the most entangled with the faerie world.

I do enjoy Jack’s characterisation a lot; his resolution to get the best of both worlds, to be a human while he can. His caring for his brother (double), his human parents, and the call to the faerie side of him as well — his insistence on living a mortal life while he can and appreciating his human family, his human connections, because he has all the time in the world for the rest.

I think ultimately, the book didn’t stand out enough for me, but it is interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Carry On

Posted 23 March, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Carry On by Rainbow RowellCarry On, Rainbow Rowell

Ever since I heard Rowell was actually going to write this, I’ve really wanted it. I mean, it explicitly features two boys being idiots in love, in exactly the same way as Rowell’s other books portray heterosexual couples being stupid (and sweet, and impossible, and teenage). And people were so excited about it — it seemed pretty mainstream. So that was cool. And then of course it takes an adversarial relationship a la Harry and Draco and develops it into love, which is one of my things.

Did it live up to my hopes? Hell yes. I was worried about a couple of things: in Fangirl, the world of Carry On was basically created to take the place of Harry Potter. I don’t actually like Harry Potter (sorry), and I was also worried that this would just turn out to be a serial-numbers-filed-off version. That didn’t happen: I was actually impressed with the way Rowell constructed her fantasy world, especially the power of words — and the way that pervaded the whole narrative: the worst thing to do to a mage is to steal their words, and at one point Simon says something trying to make it true. Perfect.

Another concern was, well, I didn’t like Draco. I thought he was slimy and cowardly. Now, Baz isn’t perfect — but he’s a worthy lead, flaws and all. He doesn’t always do the right thing, and he has opinions that we might not 100% endorse, but he’s in a difficult position and he works with what he’s got.

Finally, I was worried that Simon and Baz being gay (or bisexual, or demisexual as some people suggest, in Simon’s case) would be a Big Thing. Actually, it shockingly isn’t. There are a few points where Simon isn’t sure about it, but it isn’t a Big Angsty Issue. And Rowell writes them well; I love the way Baz only calls Simon by name when they’re “being soft with each other”. It all feels pretty boyish.

As for the rest, well — Penelope Bunce, guys. She’s all the great things about Hermione and Ron in one, without the annoying pettiness. And she has an amazing friendship with Simon — yes, a boy and a girl being friends in YA without complications, without romance. Hurrah!

Despite the fact that Agatha got to have a voice, I didn’t feel like it was quite fair to her. She seemed fickle and cowardly, when wanting to have a life of her own was a perfectly reasonable wish, and wanting to be loved now and for herself, not as the Happy Ever After In Waiting. Still, the way it examines the tropes of the Chosen One and the Happily Ever After are welcome and interesting.

I didn’t want it to be over, and I am definitely reading it again in future.

“It’s okay,” Baz says. “It’s all okay now.” One arm is tight around Simon’s back, and the other is smoothing his hair out of his face. “You did it, didn’t you?” Baz whispers. “You defeated the Humdrum. You saved the day, you courageous fuck. You absolute nightmare.”

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Posted 15 March, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante WilsonSorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson

I was all braced to love this, based on the reviews that I’d read. I wanted to, especially because the world is interesting, the relationships and the fact that it features a gay love story, and because it’s written half in vernacular, half in something more formal, which keeps it very much alive.

However, I had two problems. One was with the structure of the story. The last fifty pages were frenetic and packed full, exploding with stuff. The first hundred-fifty, however… barely went anywhere, and the story itself seemed to hide all the things that would have hooked me — the aforementioned relationship, more details about Demane and where he comes from… And the other problem is just that: there seems to be fascinating background to how the world was colonised? terraformed? is it Earth? It’s so hard to tell, and I wanted to know. I get that this is a novella and thus limited, but still, I wanted more than just that tantalising sense of what was going on — I wanted it to apply to the story more, I guess.

Something about the narration just bounced off me — it reminded me of Nnedi Okorafor’s writing in Lagoon, actually. I might try rereading it and see if it makes more of an impression, but I’m not in a hurry. Still, I’d be willing to try something else by Wilson.

Rating: 2/5

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The lesbian dies (again)

Posted 4 March, 2016 by Nikki in General / 10 Comments

This morning, I woke up at five AM because I needed a drink. I found a note on the floor from my sister, telling me how heartbroken she was about recent developments in The 100, which she’d excitedly stayed up to watch via a stream. For weeks she’s been telling me about this show: Clarke and Lexa this, Clarke and Lexa that, the team promise good queer representation, etc, etc. She was happy and hopeful and it was nice.

In last night’s show, they killed the lesbian. (And as I said on Twitter the first time, if you’re annoyed about the spoiler, cry yourself a river and use it to get in the sea.)

Me and my sister are both queer. We both attended a conservative little private school where we were, as far as I can tell, the first kids to be openly gay while at school since it was founded in the 17th century. You better believe we received threats and constant harassment, from the moment we got onto the school bus in the morning to the moment we got off it at night — and sometimes longer, since people realised it’d be fun to start calling my sister up to continue with it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, homophobia is definitely not dead. I’m 26 and my sister is 21, and mostly things have got better for us. But you can bet we haven’t forgotten it, and that every time I think I see someone from my old school, I still feel a frisson of fear.

But we’re talking about fiction, right? Doesn’t harm anything.

It used to be a rule: if you have a lesbian character, they have to either go straight or come to a tragic end. Queer Tragedy. It had to be there: queer people don’t get to be happy (because they’re deviant). The Well of Loneliness counts as great queer literature — you can tell from the title it’s not going to be happy, and I can assure you it isn’t. It ends with the queer couple breaking up, and one partner going off to be part of a straight relationship, because that’s “safer”.

So no, your decision is not “bold“, Jason Rothenberg. It’s not narratively necessary, because you write the fucking narrative. You can choose. And you chose to look at the excitement around the queer representation on your show, the whole fandom climate with people shouting that a queer character should die so they could have their straight ship, the sheer bubbling hope that maybe this time, maybe this time, people would finally have a lesbian heroine who can kick ass and save everyone and be with the person she loves.

And you chose to say no.

Let me emphasise this: it was not forced upon you. You could’ve made a whole new narrative.

Instead, you killed the lesbian and my sister cried for over an hour. Not just because it was sad, not just because she’d got invested, but because she’d hoped that this time it’d be different and she’d get a love story written for her.

Now I’ve already seen the excuses.

  • It was necessary for the narrative. Covered this one. Next?
  • Lots of characters die. And? It still means something each time. And this time it filled a shitty, shitty trope.
  • The actor had to leave anyway. And character death is the only way to leave the show?
  • It was heroic. Heroic don’t keep anyone warm at night.
  • The show never mentions discrimination by sexuality. It doesn’t have to. We live in a world where that exists, and we experience the story framed by our world.
  • You should be grateful for what you’ve got. When what we’ve got is a reaffirmation of a shitty outdated narrative, why should we be?

When you kill a queer character, you’re killing a disproportionate amount of our on-screen representation. Sure, the diversity was there for a moment, but now the list of queer characters on TV is shorter by one. And it wasn’t that long to begin with. And these are people who need to see themselves in the world, who need to be treated as if they matter. Queer youth have ridiculously high suicide rates compared to their straight peers. You’re much, much more likely to get kicked out by your parents for being gay than for being straight. Schools turn a blind eye. People actively try and tell you that you’re evil and you’ll come to a bad end.

The 100 chose the easy option. The well-trodden path. It doesn’t matter if the lesbian had a heroic end. It doesn’t matter if her death furthers the plot, or even if her partner goes on to do great things without her. The key thing is: without her. The key thing is: queer people die.

We do. Every day. And it’s high time that stopped being our only story.

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Review – Arrows of the Queen

Posted 8 February, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes LackeyArrows of the Queen, Mercedes Lackey

I’ve always vaguely known about Mercedes Lackey’s work, but rarely read any, so this was my first experience with Valdemar. I’m aware that there are tons of problematic things about Mercedes Lackey’s body of work, though I haven’t looked at details. Still, Arrows of the Queen is a book I wish I’d had when I was younger. It has a couple of queer characters, who are treated pretty much like the other characters — okay, things aren’t all rosy for them, but not for other characters, either. And the main character is a young girl who loves books, and turns out to belong to something bigger than herself — that scullery maid to (almost) princess sort of transition which can be so fun (and which so often brings forth cries of “Mary Sue” when the character is female, and yet no such complaint is made if the character is male).

It’s fun, and Talia is capable and compassionate, while also learning and growing throughout the book. There are some things which jar a little now, for example her casual use of corporal punishment with the spoilt young princess, even after coming from a rather abusive background herself. It’s pretty commonly agreed now that corporal punishment doesn’t really go any good, but here it’s treated as a valuable tool in the arsenal of unspoiling a child. I’m dubious, and I’m sure there are people who would hate that section, but at least Talia has a general common sense approach to dealing with the Brat.

On the less positive side, the writing seriously falls down in places. Large chunks of time fly by, without any real framing, so that you think she’s been at the school for a month and it turns out it’s been a year, and such things. Worse, Lackey is — at least at this point in her career — very prone to “telling, not showing”. This sometimes wrecks the pacing and makes sections seem rather dry and didactic.

Still, I read it in one go and did enjoy it, and I’m planning to read more in the Valdemar universe. And I still wish I’d actually picked this up as a kid, and given it to my sister too. It might have made us feel less alone.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How Not To Summon Your True Love

Posted 27 January, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Not to Summon Your True Love by Sasha L. MillerHow Not To Summon Your True Love, Sasha L. Miller

Received to review via Netgalley

How Not To Summon Your True Love is apparently part of a project at Less Than Three Press to include more asexual and aromantic characters, which is awesome. It is under the title “Solitary Travelers“, which does raise my eyebrow a bit — why are ace/aro people associated once more with being alone, when it looks like these stories celebrate queerplatonic and asexual relationships too, if not in all of them? But still, it’s a nice idea for a project, and I was pleased to see Sasha L. Miller’s book on Netgalley, since I’ve enjoyed her work before (The Errant Prince).

The story itself is a pretty quick read, with a fairly generic magical world set-up — territories, official relationships between those, magical politics, etc. The main character uses a “true love” spell, which summons a naked, soapy, and rather irritated young man into his dorm room. Things go downhill from there, at least from the point of view of the status quo. Suddenly Cy’s on a roadtrip to Idaho, to take Dig (the guy he summoned) back home.

The romance is fairly incidental; there’s little by way of romantic feelings, and it didn’t feel like Cy was that interested in Dig, even in the sense of having a squish. The ending feels like an epilogue, where they decide to try dating. Still, their relationship is cute, their banter along the way is fun, and it’s nice to see an ace protagonist getting the guy and finding out that hey, turns out he’s ace too.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Santa Olivia

Posted 25 January, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Santa Olivia by Jacqueline CareySanta Olivia, Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia was a reread, but it’s been a while — six (what?!) years, apparently. I never read the sequel, Saints Astray, so between getting that and having bought my sister the books for Christmas, it seemed high time to reread this and get stuck into Saints Astray. It was even more readable than I remembered — I’d have read it in a day if pesky life didn’t keep getting in the way. It takes a whole bunch of ideas — a faintly post-apocalyptic No-Man’s-Land in the Outpost, genetically modified soldiers, werewolves (sort of), boxing, coming of age, vigilantism, vengeance… — and makes a fresh, fun pageturner out of it.

And in case, like my sister, this is a draw for you, the central relationship is between two girls, and they eventually have a shot at a happy ever after.

The background is fairly nondescript, because the action is all confined to the Outpost and the inhabitants know little of what happens beyond the barricades. The important aspect is the characters and the interplay between them: the “orphans”, growing up together and trying out their strength, keeping each other’s secrets and having each others’ backs, and at the same time growing apart because they’re all so different. There’s people being good and people being assholes and people being caught somewhere in between and learning, a little, slowly, how to be better. There’s people being brave and people with no fear at all, and interesting discussions of how that affects each of them. All kinds of human emotions and motivations and tangles: that’s the draw of this story, even if the boxing and vengeance leaves you cold.

My one criticism is that it takes a surprisingly long time for Loup to really become the hero of the story, and she does so for entirely predictable reasons. You can feel those beats in the story coming way in advance. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m growing to wish it wasn’t always tragedy that motivates heroes.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Castlemaine Murders

Posted 21 January, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry GreenwoodThe Castlemaine Murders, Kerry Greenwood

The Castlemaine Murders is a fairly typical outing for Phryne, featuring her usual liberal attitudes to sisters, queer people, Chinese people, marriage and danger. At various points, it felt like Lin Chung was more the protagonist than Phryne was — which wasn’t bad, as such, because I do like the character and his relationship with Phryne… but on the other hand, he is definitely not what I’ve read thirteen books and counting for. Watching him come into himself and act with responsibility is kind of cool, all the same, because we’ve seen him go from obeying everything the head of the family said to being the head of the family.

The rest of the mystery, Phryne’s half, is rather secondary. In a bit of convenience, the two mysteries end up tied together — which was far too much of a coincidence for my liking, considering the age of the crimes, the distance, the amount of chance involved…

Still. I’m only critical because of the books have been more than this, at times. It’s still fun, and especially for the way all the characters are developing, growing up, becoming more and more of a family.

But hey, no Bert and Cec?

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Young Avengers: Family Matters

Posted 15 January, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Young Avengers: Family MattersYoung Avengers: Family Matters, Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung
Originally reviewed 25th August, 2013

I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first TPB somehow, but it is a lot of fun. I want more of Billy and Teddy, as a couple, at the same time as I want more of the team as a whole. I think I came out of this with half a dozen new ships. These novels make me fannish more than pretty much anything else I read, just as the Marvel movies make me ridiculously excited. I love the female characters, and I want more of them — heck, I want more of all of it. I’m enjoying the various revelations of how each Young Avenger came to have powers (or not, in Kate’s case).

In fact, now I’m envisioning a Young Avengers movie. It’d be too obvious to have Jennifer Lawrence for Kate, right?

Rating: 4/5

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