Patience & Esther: An Edwardian Romance, S.W. Searle
Patience & Esther is a cute graphic novel featuring a lady’s maid and a parlourmaid in an Edwardian house, who become friends, fall in love, and decide to make their way in a world that is beginning to talk about women’s suffrage. Esther is in fact Indian, and the comic is also very positive about Patience’s weight. It’s a sweet story, focusing on the love between them and their will to make their way instead of their setbacks. It’s worth noting that there are several very explicit sex scenes as well.
I feel like the impulse to make it a very positive love story was nice, but it made the whole thing lack bite for me. I quickly realised that in every case they’d figure things out. There’s definitely a place for that, but with only the barest edge of reality in there (when Esther has trouble getting a job) their triumphs felt easily won as well.
Overall, it’s enjoyable and I like the art style, plus the notes at the end about some of the historical details.
This is blurbed as The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle… and it’s really not like either of those, to my mind, so I really wouldn’t recommend it as such. There’s a touch of politics, yes, but Thanh isn’t much like Maia and nor is her position very similar except in that they’re both in a precarious position in a court (though Maia’s risks feel quite different to Thanh’s)… though now, a few weeks after reading the story, I suppose I do recognise Maia’s road to taking control of some of his power echoed in Thanh’s story. It might be more alike than it seemed on the surface, now it’s settled.
When it comes to its other big comparison point, for me it lacks the humour of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is also obviously completely devoid of any Welsh influence, and is not aimed at the same age group. It shares one central plot element, sort of. I’m a little confused about these comparisons, to be honest; I always suck at comparing books to one another, but I still don’t see the comparison here.
In any case, it’s a queer story set in a Vietnamese-influenced court. Thanh is a princess, but she’s most definitely a spare: originally sent away as a hostage, now returned and asked to negotiate with those who previously held her hostage. She has two main memories of her time at the other court: her affair with another princess, and a massive fire that overtook the palace and nearly left her stranded.
Both of these things are, obviously, relevant.
I found the way the plot played out fairly obvious; as a novella, it paints in pretty broad strokes. There are some hints of nuance in Thanh’s mother’s characterisation and motivations, which helps, but mostly it’s fairly straight-forward and works out the way I expected. (I’m very surprised by people who don’t recognise the abusive relationship for what it is, though, and think that’s intended to be the romance — so maybe it’s more subtle than I thought and I just trust Aliette de Bodard a bit too much!) For a story of this length, I don’t usually expect to be surprised, though, and I did very much enjoy the queer relationships and the glimpses of a different kind of court life and attitude to that more familiar to me from history and Western-inspired fantasy.
In the end, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped or expected — which is partly, I think, due to those comparisons to two books that mean a lot to me. It was enjoyable to read, but not like The Goblin Emperor in the ways I hoped for, and even less like Howl’s Moving Castle. We all take different things away from stories, and it’s clear that my version of The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle don’t overlap with the understanding of them taken away by those who made these comparisons. It’s worth keeping that caution in mind when comparison titles make something sound like it’s going to be completely up your alley, I guess!
I really wanted to read this as soon as it came out, but I’m a mood-reader and it kept not being the time. Whoops. Anyway, now I have: it’s the story of a trans brujo, someone who can summon the souls of the dead and lay them to rest. Yadriel is a part of the brujx community, but somewhat kept apart because they’re handling the fact that he’s trans quite badly. In his desperation to prove himself, he summons a spirit… and it turns out to be the ghost of Julian, a boy from school who is rather wayward and not at all like Yadriel himself.
I wasn’t entirely sure how Yadriel and Julian could work together, knowing that this also featured a romance between them, but even as Julian annoys the heck out of Yadriel… the attraction and connection between them also makes sense. It’s somewhat forced on them by circumstance, but Julian’s unexpected kindnesses — and Yadriel’s desperateness to prove himself — speak volumes, and they become quite close. With the help of Yadriel’s cousin Maritza, a bruja also somewhat ostracised for her refusal to use blood to channel her healing powers (she’s a vegan), they try to figure out why Yadriel’s brother is missing, and what the heck is going on.
There was a certain aspect of the plot which I saw coming from a bit too far away, and I really wish it hadn’t worked out that way because I liked the character, and I was more in the mood for a different kind of story there. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, because it does, but it wasn’t how I’d hoped things would turn out.
I adore how fiercely protective of Yadriel Julian becomes; the ending is a smile a minute, honestly. The overall feel of the book is rather young, but that rather suited my need for something that felt easy to read (even as it deals with some difficult topics, like being trans and fitting into your very gendered community properly). Definitely one I’m happy to recommend!
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 20th April 2021
I didn’t love Finna, though I liked it; it felt it leaned a bit too much on being angry about soul-sucking capitalism (which, same, but the choir can get tired of being preached to). Defekt is set in the same world, and briefly crosses over with Finna (we see Jules right before the events of that book), but for whatever reason it worked a bit better for me — it felt a little less preachy, and I loved the idea of all those sentient furnishings. The toilet is a highlight (seriously).
I was a little bit put off by the “self-cest” thing, though: Derek is the main character, and after he takes an uncharacteristic sick day, he has to do a special inventory shift. During the shift, he meets four of his clones, and finds himself particularly drawn to one of them. Sure, that one is quite different to him in many ways, but the potential romance between them was a bit of an odd note for me.
Still, a fun novella, and I suspect those who already enjoyed Finna will enjoy this at least as much.
The Faerie Hounds of York did not quite go the places I expected it to. It started off with Loxley finding himself in a fairy ring, rescued by a gruff but kind stranger, Thorncress. Warned to leave the area and get himself to London, away from Faerie influence, Loxley quickly finds himself under Thorncress’s care again. A bond is forming between them, as Thorncress tells Loxley he will help him solve his mystery and get free of the Faerie… if it’s possible.
There’s one hell of a moment with this book which I didn’t expect, given the genre; I shouldn’t say too much unless I spoil the impact, because it turned a story I was mildly enjoying into something more intriguing for me. Some aspects of the romance genre are still here, but there’s a subversion of certain expectations which put me on the back foot. I shouldn’t say too much about that!
I enjoyed the characters and the bond they form, but that moment of subverted expectation might’ve been the best bit — I could otherwise have wished for more build-up, more familiarity with the inner lives of the characters (particularly Thorncress). On the other hand, then there’d be less mystery… In any case, definitely enjoyable.
Conventionally Yours features a trope-filled road trip during which two rivals head to a gaming tournament together, and of course discover that the other isn’t so bad, the other really is quite infuriating, the other has unexpected depths and issues that they didn’t dream of… and there’s only one bed. Conrad is handsome and popular, able to charm his way through most situations — except of course the mess he’s in; Alden is reserved, all too aware of his own reputation for brilliance, and not sure what he’s doing with his life. Both hope that the gaming tournament is going to solve all their problems, if they can just survive the road trip.
The way they open up to each other works for me; they feel real, with their insecurities and their stupidities, without it ever getting too far into the kind of tropes I hate in romance, like miscommunication. (Just talk! to! each! other!) There are a few bits that give me that cringe… but not too much, because mostly they do a half-decent job of being adults, and figuring things out together. That’s something I always enjoy in romance — any signs of mature communication, even if it doesn’t always work perfectly, really just work for me as a way of making me like characters and believe in relationships.
It all works out fairly predictably for a romance… but I was happy to take the ride along with Alden and Conrad, and I appreciated the discussion of Alden’s anxiety and neurodivergence, and the delving into Conrad’s issues that are hidden by his glossy surface.
I also really appreciated the illustrations, since I’m so not a visual person. They’re really clean and cute.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I know there are people for whom this book leaves them entirely cold — whether the whole story falls apart for them, or the setting, or they see massive problems with certain plot points… I tried to read it more critically this time, ready to see those things and understand where they’re coming from. It didn’t work; I fell in love all over again and devoured it whole in about five seconds flat. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.
It’s the found family thing that gets me every single time, I think: the way they’ll cover for each other and work to understand each other and accept each other no matter what. This is mostly a book about good people, perhaps implausibly so: with almost everything any of them do, you can believe that they’re doing it because they think it’s right, and that it’s the right thing to do. (There is a major exception for me which I’ll discuss in a moment.) I can understand people who aren’t hooked by that, who don’t find it believable or can’t even get invested because the conflict feels implausible to them… but it’s catnip to me, apparently.
I do hate the whole plotline with Ohan, I’m afraid. Even as my heartstrings are tugged by the results of it, I loathe that Corbin takes away Ohan’s self-determination, and chooses things for them that they don’t want. I hate that the reader is manipulated into being glad about that, and to think that Corbin essentially does the right thing. Nope nope nope nope nope. It’s the dark spot in this book for me: I understand why it’s there, and I can’t help but love the bit with Dr Chef at the end… but the decision made for Ohan is not something I’m actually comfortable with.
It doesn’t darken the rest of the book for me, and as ever I actually cried cathartically for almost the last 50 pages of the book… but it’s worth knowing about, particularly if you have a disability or mental illness where other people think they know better than you about your own body. It’s very discomforting, and it’s worth knowing before you go in if that’s something you might be sensitive about.
I just love almost all the characters so much; Sissix is so darn awesome, Ashby’s a darling, Kizzy’s like Firefly’s Kaylee on speed (almost literally)… It all comes together so well for me. Pitched perfectly to my id, I guess!
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th August 2020
Drowned Country is a follow-up to Silver in the Wood. Tobias Finch has left the wood, leaving Silver behind to… well, mostly mope, actually. It’s a bed of his own making and he has to lie in it: it’s slowly revealed that he managed to drive Tobias away, despite the deep affection between them. But he has a chance to make things right: Silver’s mother returns to the wood to get him, in order to help with a particular case of supernatural shenanigans she and Tobias are dealing with. There’s a vampire roaming around, a young girl is missing, and they require Silver’s particular talents.
It’s a little disorientating to start where we do, but it makes sense: it allows a slow unfolding of how exactly Silver could mess it up so badly. We’re also in Silver’s point of view now, and get to see Tobias from the outside; that’s rather enjoyable, and the close-third POV is livelier and a little more human in outlook than the close-third to Tobias from the previous book. It gives everything a little more depth, and a different colour; the light has changed in the forest, though the trees are all the same.
It’s not a simple adventure, and the relationship between Tobias and Silver isn’t the sole driver of the plot. Instead, we get a little glimpse of other things deep and strange.
And of course, you still have to love Silver’s mother.
The two novellas are very easy reading, and beautifully written. Very worth it!
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Whoa. I did not expect to be so wildly sucked into this book. I mean, a part of me might have expected it: it’s the kind of gossipy, dramatic book with Big Secrets that is designed to get its hooks in, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else.
Evelyn Hugo is a fictional Hollywood star. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth. Her career is over now, but she’s a legend. She’s been enticing and entrancing people for years… and she wants rookie journalist Monique to write her biography. She’s going to tell her everything, under just a few conditions. Evelyn Hugo wants to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t paint her in the best light. And she’ll answer Monique’s questions in her own time.
I didn’t know much about this book until someone bought it for me in a Secret Santa book exchange, so I didn’t know what I was getting into… and it’s almost better if you don’t, if you’re into that tantalising question of what exactly Evelyn Hugo’s deal is. It doesn’t take long to get part of the answer, but if you want to be totally surprised, ignore my review and everyone else’s and go in completely fresh.
If those who don’t want spoilers have bailed out…
Let’s talk about the queer content. The big secret of Evelyn Hugo’s life turns out to be that she was bisexual and in love with another film star. Husbands came and went, with several of her domestic arrangements just providing cover for an on-again, off-again relationship. I don’t know if Reid is bisexual or how she identifies, but Evelyn’s voice and experience of bisexuality rang generally true to me as a queer person. The Hollywood setting provides a backdrop to Evelyn’s yearning and messing up and trying again when it comes to her secretive affairs with women. Or mostly just one woman, which is the bit that maybe rings less true for most people: Evelyn has sex with men frequently, and falls in love with some of them too, but when it comes to women we only actually see one attraction, one love.
Now that kind of rings true for me with some of the things she says early on about what sex and attraction mean to her. She has sex in a lot of cases because it’ll get her what she wants, not out of genuine connection; she seems to find real passion only once she’s made connections, once there’s some kind of relationship, and she only finds that with another woman once. She only lets herself find it once, maybe. But it still seemed a little odd.
When it comes to the relationship itself, the beats are familiar and not at all surprising: we can’t let anyone find out! We have to hide! We have to fake it with men! Oops, one of us actually slept with the man and now she’s pregnant! Break up! Make up! Secretttsss! It was a fun read, but I’m really side-eyeing anyone who calls it “groundbreaking”, especially when it comes to the queer content. It rings true, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I’d have been more impressed if the two of them made a go of it without breaking up constantly, maybe?
There is also a whole racial side to the book when it comes to Monique Grant, who defines herself as “biracial”, and to Evelyn, who is Cuban and completely hides it to become a blonde bombshell. I don’t know what Reid’s experience is there, but to me these portrayals felt clunky. Monique literally says she “felt like two halves”; it feels like a cliché to me. There’s one moment that rings maybe a little more true, and that’s when Evelyn’s maid speaks Spanish in front of her totally without realising she can understand, and she realises she’s buried her Cuban identity so deep it’s disappeared… but this is not really a story I feel very familiar with and mostly I feel unqualified to comment on whether it’s representative of real experiences.
In both the sexuality and the racial content, though, it feels like accounts I’ve read before, like it’s been cut out with the same cookie-cutters as a whole bunch of other stories. There’s a reason the cookie-cutters are that shape, but the shapes produced are 2D.
I don’t know if that all makes sense, but it’s how I felt about the book.
The best thing about the book for me was Harry Cameron. He was Evelyn’s best friend, and there is something real and true in the way they protected each other, made things work for one another, made a family together. I would have loved this theme to be stronger — that there was no passion between them, but he was her true partner who stuck with her through everything, who made things work even when it was hard. Evelyn’s female partner and what they did for each other paled for me compared to the truth of two queer people sticking together to make things work, and being a family even when it doesn’t conform.
Evelyn herself… she’s a strong character, and there’s a lot to like and hate about her. Again, I wouldn’t say she’s a particularly groundbreaking character, and I called most of the twists and turns of her motivations and manipulations.
In the end, it was a fun read. I tore right through it. I don’t think it was the best book in the world and I wouldn’t call it profound, despite the evident effort to make us believe in a love that transcended Evelyn’s seven husbands, the real love of her life. The answer should’ve been Harry Cameron, and for me, it missed its mark in downplaying his importance.
I was feeling fidgety, so I decided to read for a book by K.J. Charles I hadn’t read yet. Unfit to Print is a standalone, following Gil Lawless and Vikram Pandey, the owner of a dirty bookshop and a high-flying lawyer, respectively. They knew one another at school, but have been separated for quite a long time, with Vik believing Gil to be dead. He’s looking for the son of a local Indian family, though, and that takes him to the street where Gil keeps his bookshop… and there they run into one another again.
Gil’s been hurt a lot and is as prickly as a hedgehog, while Vik’s not been interested in anyone since Gil’s disappearance from their boarding school. They quickly fall into their old intimacies, though Gil finds it hard to offer anything other than the physical and Vik finds it hard to take the physical aspect without the feelings getting in the way. At the same time, Gil needs to help Vik find out what happened to the boy he’s looking for, while trying not to get his reputation all smeared up for him…
It’s a lovely little second chance, and I quickly fell for both characters and their silly desperate attempts not to get hurt more when they’re already stumbling along with plenty of hurt to spare from their pasts. Their interaction smoulders as usual — holding hands was never so sexy — and it was a really fun read overall. The mystery aspect was a little bit perfunctory; it felt a bit of a letdown for the answer to be that easy, but it did make sense as well.
All in all, plenty of fun, though not for all the family!