Machine, Jennifer Pelland
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m still not quite sure what to say. Machine is a powerful exploration of body dysphoria, set in a world where your consciousness can be downloaded into a medical android body replacement, while your human body is cryo-frozen to prevent the progression of disease. It reflects on body dysphoria in general, of course, and it’s pretty inconclusive about the answer — should you modify, should you learn to live with it, how will people around you react…
There are parts of this which are frankly disturbing — the erotica parts didn’t interest me, obviously, but I actually found them actively discomforting even to skim past. That’s 100% intentional, and that’s obvious, so that’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just something you might want to bear in mind if you find the book interesting.
I found it difficult to believe in the central couple, whose separation sparks the whole plot. Rivka doesn’t seem like a great person, if she couldn’t even tell her wife that she wasn’t happy with the medical replacement body before she went through the whole procedure. Character-wise, no one really shines — even the main character’s closest friend and people who are sympathetic to her do stupid things which out her to the world (which is fairly anti-robot), things which I wouldn’t tolerate in a friend even in the less fraught environment nowadays for queer people.
It was interesting and powerful, but not something I was willingly emotionally involved in, or emotionally involved in for the reasons I’d usually enjoy. The ending… it was what I wanted, in a sense, but it felt like a cop-out as well. Consequences-be-gone.
Walking on Knives, Maya Chhabra
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date is 26th July 2017
When the warning says “Walking on Knives contains some explicit content and a scene with dubious sexual consent”, it’s not kidding. I know there’s a whole debate about whether you can say consent is “dubious”, but I think I see why in this case — in both cases the characters explicitly consent, in pursuit of a goal, without actually wanting the sex itself.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure I buy any of the emotions here. It has the potential to be dark and twisty, but because I don’t believe in any of the love stories, it doesn’t work; it’s still too much in the fairytale style, with none of the characters named. Worse, it gets confusing between all the epithets; ‘the little mermaid’, ‘the sea-witch’, ‘the strange woman’… and then all the ‘she did this and she did that’. In the end, I just… nah.
Honestly, I feel most sympathetic toward the Prince. I wanted to root for the little mermaid and the sea-witch’s sister, but that didn’t feel real. The Prince’s conflict was the most real part of it, and I felt like he deserved more of an ending.
Trial by Fire, Lore Graham
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 31st May 2017
This is a fun superhero novella which is supremely conscious of the need to include more diversity in fiction, and to be socially aware (e.g. of issues like people’s relationship with the police). The main character dates women, her love interest is trans, there are non-binary characters, etc, etc. It’s really refreshing that it didn’t really do a 101 on it, either; ‘here are the pronouns, the narrative is going to use them from here on out’ was the most you get. It’s also refreshingly frank about communication between couples, negotiating trans body issues (or non-issues), figuring out what people like… and even safe sex, as the use of a dental dam shows.
This is not my thing on one level, because I could happily go forever without knowing what genitalia anyone has, and I’m not that interested in reading sex scenes just for the sake of sex — sometimes it can be important to character development or express something interesting or make you re-evaluate the whole relationship between the characters… For example, I’m thinking of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books — a lot of the sex scenes contain plot-important characterisation and even information. And when it comes to some characters/relationships, you’ve been waiting for it so long and it means so much for the characters that you can’t help but pay attention. But I’m not that interested in the mechanics, and I wasn’t invested enough in these characters to be particularly interested in the mere fact of them having fun sex, much as I appreciated the theme of clear communication.
If the fact that the story includes sex is a major nope for you, I can say that I think the scenes would be totally skippable without missing anything important; the rest of the story is fun, although relatively light on plot and heavier on the characters getting to know one another and getting together.
The Loveless Princess, Lilian Bodley
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 3rd May 2017
There was a lot of potential for this to go really wrong, since it features an aromantic and asexual character in a typically heavily romance-is-your-happy-ever-after world. Princess Anette has to get married, and she’s not interested in the idea at all. It’s not the prince in particular: it’s the idea in general. She’s not interested in sex or romance at all; she doesn’t feel a lack of it in her life, she doesn’t even really feel curious about it.
But she has to get married all the same, to the son of Briar Rose, and everyone around her assures her that it’ll happen. She’ll find her happy ending with the prince.
Well, eventually she does, but not in the simple way they expect. Fortunately, she remains true to her stated identity throughout, without wavering; in that sense, the author deals with having an aro-ace character perfectly. And the setting is kind of cool, with various other fairytales popping their heads up to say hello — people are descending from a princess who could feel a pea through a hundred mattresses, witches can make jewels come out of your mouth whenever you speak, and three old spinning women have attended quite some weddings in their time as honoured guests. I liked all those references, and the way the story follows the logic of fairytales.
At times it does feel a little simplistic, but it takes a lot of work and space to build something really solid onto the fairytale base, and perhaps it’s wrong to expect it. The one thing that does feel wrong to me is that the antagonist is also aro-ace, and it motivates him to be a real ass to everyone. I get that bitterness and loneliness can really mess you up, but ugh.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 13th June 2017
I was really looking forward to reading this, having loved the first novella, but I was a bit unsure about the fact that it focused on Jack and Jill. To me, their story was as important to Every Heart A Doorway as Nancy’s, and it was more or less resolved as well — not like, for example, Kade or, since Kade is so sure his story is over, Christopher. There was more to say about them, and I wasn’t sure there was more to say about Jack and Jill. And… in the end, I don’t think there was much more we couldn’t have gleaned already from Every Heart. It’s not a story that I felt cried out to be told: the contradictions of Jack and Jill’s relationship were maybe better for not being elucidated.
That being said, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is still entertaining and does provide more detail on the twins’ background and the world they visited. It’s especially nice to see more of Jack and learn about her girlfriend — and to wince along with her issues with germs and dirt, which hit home for me even though the origin of the phobia is different. It’s lovely seeing the way Jack’s girlfriend deals with the issues of dating someone with such intense phobias (even if part of me is shouting “but that’s the way to make your phobia worse, not better!”).
Again, the ending didn’t particularly surprise me, even the aspect that wasn’t explicitly referred to in Every Heart a Doorway. Overall, it’s enjoyable, but I don’t love it the way I do Every Heart.
Urn Burial, Kerry Greenwood
A fun reread, again showing Phryne at her most stubbornly permissive, and determined to see others doing the same. A decent portion of this book is dedicated to persuading Lin Chung to sleep with her under his host’s roof, despite said host’s distaste for the Chinese… It’s kind of fun, and I do enjoy Lin Chung as a character. There’s also a sub-plot of a love story between two young men who are hiding their relationship, including a voyeuristic sex scene. Whatever floats your boat… In any case, one of the pair isn’t stereotyped, which is a source of some relief to me after the tendency for the gay men Phryne meets to be rather ineffectual and/or effeminate. And the other of the pair is actually bisexual, which happens rarely enough to be worthy of note. The bond between them, and their acceptance of each other, does feel real.
The actual mystery ends in a rather grotesque fashion, and it takes a bit of chicanery to pull all the plot threads together. There’s two cases of long lost men returning and not being recognised, for example, which might stretch credulity. (But then, it also stretches Phryne’s credulity.)
There’s some great atmospheric bits, but overall, not a favourite of the series.
Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire
Reading this again, there are two main things for me. 1) Nancy, and 2) I love the idea of all these kids from portal fantasies finding a home away from home together. And what happens if you didn’t quite fit in your world, the way Kade didn’t? What happens if you want to go back forever, and what happens if you can’t? How can you cope with “real life” when you’ve spent however long learning the rules of another world? But I talked about this in my first review.
This time, I focused on Nancy. The fact that she’s asexual, and the fact that it avoids the usual stupid pitfalls. She cares about people, for one thing. And though you might think that it’s a bit of a cliche, having a girl who went to an underworld be asexual — of course they’re not sexual, they’re dead — it actually makes a point of mentioning that it isn’t true at all. She’s still different in her underworld; her asexuality isn’t a plot point in the sense that it proves she belongs in some other world. It’s just a part of her, and her world suits her for other reasons. The fact that she’s asexual — and for that matter, that Kade is trans — feels organic.
I love the diversity, sure, but I also love the fact that it’s matter of fact and part of a world I love for other reasons too.
Birthright, Missouri Vaun
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017
Birthright is a fun, fast-moving story of a sort typical in fantasy: the lost heir to a throne taken by a tyrant. And this version is a fun example of the genre, with strong female characters coming out of your ears — and falling in love with each other, too. The love story is at least as important to the plot as the lost heir, which is worth keeping in mind; it motivates the way the end of the story shakes out, and takes up a good amount of the narration. I enjoyed that though Aiden is boyish and Kathryn more feminine, there’s no stereotyping — both can fight, both can rule, both know what they’re doing.
There are a couple of moments where I felt things rushed by a little too fast — the connection between the two characters grows very quickly in just a couple of scenes — and where I’d have liked a bit more depth, like the characters of Frost and of Gareth, or even Rowan. Without more background, for example, Kathryn’s jealous moment made little sense, especially since how we got to that moment felt a little contrived.
Nonetheless, it’s fun and has a happy ever after, and I’d definitely recommend it to people looking for lesbian fantasy.
Passing Strange, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Netgalley; released 24th January 2017
Passing Strange is a lovely novella which takes its own sweet time. As it opens, you expect one story, one protagonist… as it continues to unfold, you see that you were wrong. In my case, I didn’t mind that bait-and-switch at all, but I imagine some people will find that shift in POV a little jarring. Though I didn’t mind, I did find myself briefly wrong-footed by it.
The novella is set in San Fransisco, 1940, among a community of queer women whose lives intersect. I’ve seen a review where someone felt that the takeaway from this book was “yeah, yeah, we know gays back then had a hard time”. There’s that, of course, but there’s also that community, and that’s what I really enjoyed. I don’t really want to say too much about it; I think it’s best if the story unfolds itself for the reader in its own time.
I’ve also read a complaint that the speculative aspect isn’t integral. It is, but it’s subtle; the fact that it’s there, quietly but throughout, allows the ending that otherwise couldn’t be mysterious or touching or bittersweet. It’s an ordinary sort of magic, in the way that the women use it — it’s a tool that happens to be to hand.
I enjoyed the story a lot. And it’s another of the Tor.com novellas that feels like it was meant to be exactly this length, no longer, no shorter.
Dreadnought, April Daniels
Received to review via Netgalley; released January 2017
Dreadnought is an #OwnVoices book featuring a trans girl whose dreams come true when she takes on the mantle of a superhero at the moment of his death. Things don’t go easily for Danny, but nonetheless, she navigates being finally seen as a girl (in school, with her parents, with her best friend) and suddenly having superpowers. It’s a whole new world for her in both ways and I love the way the story makes you feel that. At the start, she hides in an alley to paint her toenails; at the end, well… spoilers. But suffice it to say that she’s pretty comfortable in her skin and her identity.
It’s not always the easiest read, because it’s not pure wish fulfilment. Though Danny’s transformation is outwardly perfect, she wouldn’t be able to have children, for example. And the other superheroes around her aren’t the people you’d hope they would be. Scarlet Witch — sorry, I mean, Graywytch is a trans-exclusionary feminist, while Carapace is a douche who can’t get her pronouns right and even a queer member of the team puts his foot in it. Doctor Impossible and Valkyrja are pretty awesome, though, and a young superhero called Calamity who doesn’t fall in line with the Avengers (sorry, the Legion) also befriends her.
All in all, the plot is pretty pacey and fun, and it’s not all about Danny’s transformation. It’s also about responsibility and handling any big life change, about figuring out where you belong in the world. Danny’s family aren’t great at it, and nor is her best friend, and there’s generally plenty of transphobic stuff that might be quite hard to read. But ultimately, I found it more fun than it was upsetting — and anyway, upsetting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something the vulnerable might want to know going in.