Light from Uncommon Stars – Ryka Aoki

Long ago I read some writing advice about putting one, and only one, strange element in a story. (I think it was in reference to Thurber’s once-ubiquitous “Unicorn in the Garden”; that it would have been ruined if there was <b>also</b> a flying saucer.)

This glorious mess of a book feels like a defiant upthrust middle finger to that advice: there <b>is</b> a flying saucer (well, donut) <b>and</b> a deal with a demon <b>and</b> a mostly-but-not-always-food-centric celebration of Asian American culture <b>and</b> complicated family dynamics <b>and</b> a universe-level existential threat <b>and</b> some really fantastic musical appreciation <b>and</b> some very raw writing about the struggle to live one’s gender if it’s not the one assigned at birth.

It sounds like it could be a zany romp, and I think the comp books I keep seeing (“Hitchhikers’,” “Good Omens,” “Small Angry Planet”) are all misleading – they may have underlying seriousness, but two of them are <b>funny</b> and they’re all (mostly) gentle. (As is James Blaylock, who the demon bargain elements decidedly reminded me of.)

But this isn’t at all a silly book. Partly that’s because the characters take everything at face-value; there are no knowing asides. But mostly that’s because Katrina’s experiences are sadly, often brutally realistic. Her reactions – the way her trauma has shaped her – are too real for me to question, and that pulled me through bits that could have had me rolling my eyes.

If anything, ironically, the hopeful tone of the novel is undermined by my awareness that the SF/Fantasy elements offer Katrina a way out that a real life runaway trans girl is never going to get.

Olivia Dade – Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert floored me because it does so many things so very well. Let’s tick them off, shall we?
It’s a love letter to fandom/the fic community (and even provides some tips on how to interact with AO3…)
It gently lampoons Game of Thrones and the artistic, erm, struggles, of Benioff and Weiss as they outpaced the source material, and more broadly, the, erm, struggles Hollywood has in treating non-male characters as, y’know, fully human.
Its protagonists are both fully realized, with rich backstories that credibly inform the choices they make in the present, both good and bad.
It’s a work of fat pride, simultaneously angry and joyous.
It has some serious advice to offer about identifying and managing relationships that have toxic elements.
It contains purported excerpts of scripts and fics that are dangerously funny.
It’s sexy.
Although the protagonists are presumably not on equal financial footing, the characters’ wealth or lack thereof is never foregrounded.
When it’s heart-wrenching, it’s heart-wrenching in a way that is really earned by the characters.
It kinda-sorta fits within the “mistaken identity” romance trope? but in a complex and layered way.
It does a very good job of setting up Alex and Lauren’s journey, and I’m relieved that I have that book ready to hand.

What it’s not so good at: As a whodunnit, it’s lacking in both red herrings and clues. 🙂

Olivia Dade has been a ride-or-die author for me since Driven to Distraction, but I think she may have a hit a new high-water mark here, at least for me.

Katherine Addison – The Goblin Emperor

I’ve been saving this to read for years because people I trust described it as a warm hug of a book, which seemed like something I might need to have in reserve.

And that’s kind of true, and kind of not? Because while Maia, our viewpoint character, is trying to navigate a complex environment about which he knows little with empathy as his primary tool — this reminded me, in little ways, of Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, Hartley’s “Amateur,” and, yes, “Ted Lasso” — it’s also an environment with some characters who would feel comfortable in “Song of Ice and Fire.” (Not particularly driven by empathy, in other words.)

And the things I loved most about the novel weren’t necessarily the things I was expecting to love most:

  • I can’t remember the last time (if ever?) I read an invented-world fantasy that was in the midst of significant technological change that was not primarily advances in military tech. Ethuverazhin is pre-Industrial-ish, with rapid advances in steam and mechanical engineering in evidence. And I was delighted to read about a world in which gunpowder seems not to exist.
  • I have read invented-world fantasy before where there was significant societal change that was not military, but it’s unusual. Ethuveraz is in the early stages of a suffragette sort of movement, perhaps making tentative steps toward gay rights/normalization of non-hetero relationships, and starting to grapple with questions about monarchies and aristocracies.
  • Addison/Monette’s invented language is fascinating not just for the sounds of the words and bits of grammar we get — the phonetic aspects steers us out of the Eurocentric zone, but there some Germanic aspects, an interesting mix — but because it has structures English doesn’t, in exactly the way that formal English doesn’t distinguish between second person singular and plural (which is weird, y’all). At least some of the time I was able to tell from context which Ethuverazhin word an English pronoun was representing, which is a pretty neat trick. It’s not quite the fabled thing where the last paragraph of the book has none of the readers’ language at all, but still made for one of the more compelling invented language experiences I can remember.
  • At first I thought that this was likely the first 20th/21st-century novel I’ve ever read which prominently featured racial discrimination and structural racism that really didn’t read as coded to PoC/white in our world. But eventually I realized that Ethuveraz is farther along the road to eliminating racism than we are. This more advanced than us/less advanced than us mix was striking, and made the invented world feel much more complex (and therefore credible).

I kinda wish the murder mystery bits hadn’t been far away from the rest of the novel, although it seems like the right choice — the limited third is in Maia’s head, only, and I think trying to integrate another voice would have undermined what works well about this book. And anyway, it seems that now there is a book in this world with a mystery in the foreground.

And I sometimes got a little confused about who was who and who was nursing which grudge. (I am sorry I bought this as an ebook, because flipping back and forth between the text and the bits I needed to bookmark was more cumbersome than it would have been with a physical book.) And I’m still a little shaky on the overall motivation of one of the primary antagonists, and there’s at least one antagonist who is just a little too close to shrieking Margaret Hamilton villainy; that pulled me out of the story a bit.

But overall, I did love this book. Just not going to let it hug me without patting it down first.

nb: Katherine Addison is pseudonym for Sarah Monette

Kevin Hearne – Heir to the Jedi

Hey! Usually I don’t do spoilers. Herein be spoilers! Although perhaps not completely unanticipated spoilers.

Most of the way through I thought this was enjoyable space opera/caper novel, set in the gap between the original “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” that gives Luke Skywalker a chance to mature a little, both personally and his use of the Force.

But then it fell into my Most Hated Trope, and it really soured me on the whole book. And it was especially frustrating in this case, because it seemed like Kevin Hearne was setting up something that would have been much braver, more interesting, and that would have been a useful bit of world-building to add to the Star Wars canon. But given that this is licensed intellectual property, I don’t know for certain if the Most Hated Trope was actually the author’s choice.

So, Luke finds himself working with a rebel sharpshooter, Nakari Kelen, who is hot, and thinks he is kind of hot, and Luke starts to Catch Some Feels. And, because Luke is intellectual property in serial fiction, and because we don’t see her in “The Empire Strikes Back,” we know that Luke needs to un-catch the Feels by the time the book wraps up. (I mean, really, he doesn’t; the next book could just have an “eh, it didn’t work out,” moment, and that would be fine, but whatever.)

So there’s basically only two ways out of this faux dilemma: “Dude, she’s just not that into you,” and the sadly far more common Hated Trope: fit ‘er with a toe-tag, and dump ‘er in the fridge. Guess which we get here? So, yeah, Luke’s rage when Kelen gets offed tempts him with the Dark Side and he gets a good crying jag, not only for Kelen, but also Ben, Beru, and Owen. Blah, blah, blah, thanks, I hate it. No, really, I hate it.

And the thing is, Hearne was setting up such a good “Dude, she’s just not that into you.” Earlier in the book, Luke tries to do the “You don’t need to see his identification” Jedi mind trick number. Nakari is well aware that Luke has been crushing, albeit unrequitedly, on Leia. (Remember, this is pre-TESB, so the Two Worst Retcons in Fandom are in Luke’s future, and he has no clue Leia is his sib. Mercifully Hearne doesn’t dwell on this.)

So it makes perfect sense that even if Nakari Kelen is up for a bit of FWB with the young proto-Jedi, his Feels are going to be a bit scary for her, what with Luke’s unresolved feelings about Leia, not to mention the ongoing Galactic Civil War. And if Luke realized that he could do the Jedi mind trick to make her be into him that would be a really great Dark Side temptation for him to rise above. And it would go along way to explaining why Jedi aren’t supposed to hook up, because if you’re a strong enough Jedi, could you ever be completely sure that you weren’t coercing someone’s affections unconsciously?

And maybe that is what Hearne intended, and maybe that was a little too dark for Disney, and they imposed the fridging instead.

I hope so.

Courtney Milan – The Duke Who Didn’t

How awesome is this book? Let me count the ways.

First, the barebones: Jeremey’s in love with Chloe, but he hasn’t told her he’s actually the Duke, and basically owns her village. Chloe doesn’t want to admit she’s in love with Jeremy. She knows he’s rich – he’s known as “Posh Jim,” after all – and if she could see a future where she’s more than a dalliance to him (doubtful), she certainly can’t see one where she can be with him without losing who she is.

This is the stuff from which a fine romantic comedy can be spun, and this is a fine romantic comedy. Chloe and Jeremy’s verbal sparring is delightful. Milan’s sentence-level craft is superb; the village of Wedgeford is vividly portrayed.

But there’s so much more going on that enriches and adds depth to this novel. Perhaps like the complexity (forgive me) of a really good sauce.

Because that’s another thread: Chloe and her father are planning to launch a sauce empire. There’s just one little problem to amp up the comic drama: it’s the eve of launch day, and they are still calling it “Unnamed Sauce.”

Why is the launch day so important? Because Wedgeford is host to an annual village-wide sporting event, loosely based on the Atherstone Ball Game (not, as thought at first, on the similar Kirkwall Ba’) which draws the biggest crowds of the year (and provides more opportunities for hijinks, not to mention a large and entertaining background cast).

Adding depth (but not weighing down either the romance, or the sauce-launching plot): Chloe and Jeremy are both of Chinese extraction, which challenges their lives, in late Victorian England, in different ways. “Unnamed Sauce” emerges as a metaphor for diaspora (and the future sauce business represents sweet revenge on cultural imperialism, not to mention predatory business practices). Wedgeford, owing to an accident of changing trade routes, is an exuberantly diverse community; and Milan suggests powerfully that the existence of such communities at that time would be virtually inevitable. The evolution of Chloe’s relationship with her father hinges, in part, on aspects of Chinese languages that are subtle, but I felt that I could follow them (without being talked down to).

It’s a very rich and satisfying mixture indeed, and I look forward to what’s next for Wedgeford and its denizens.

Note: I was provided an advance reading copy with the expectation that I would write a review.

Elia Winters – Hairpin Curves

This book was a tiny bit slow to grab me, but once the actual roadtrip got going I was all in.

The logistical details of getting from place-to-place were credible and anchored the story for me. Winters’ prose is light on physical description, so I found the portrayals of the places they visited evocative more than vivid, but I also thought that suited the mood of the story well. Like, having never been to the Grand Ole Opry myself, I didn’t know what it looked like or sounded like, but I felt the emotional impact of the visit on the characters. But when they go somewhere I’ve been myself, the details felt right, even if they were sparing.

But what really worked about this for me was the sense of timelessness and disconnection from the world outside of the roadtrip. The enforced proximity and boredom were a very effective way to surface the tensions between the protagonists.

Winters uses a limited third-person omniscient view that switches between letting us into Megan’s head and into Scarlett’s head, quite often multiple times within the same scene. I found myself wondering how different the book would have been with alternating first-person; I think I would have appreciated having distinct narrative voices, and it might have been clearer how the way the women see each other is changing through the course of the book. But then again, that might have made it too clear; one of the things I think this book is really good at is portraying is how the characters really aren’t sure what they want or what they’re feeling.

The spoken dialogue and internal monologues both have some big lumps of getting-it-out-all-at-once, and it’s a bit hermetic – there are a few supporting characters, but they mostly seem there for the protagonists to react to. But as soon as I finished this I bought more of the author’s books.

Skye Kilaen – Glorious Day

“Glorious Day” takes some fairy-tale-ish elements – a wicked king and a scheming courtier, an innocent (at least in some ways) princess, a noble-hearted guard – adds a lot of realistic emotional complexity, gives it a futuristic veneer, queers it, and remixes it all into an unusual, slow burn FF romance (with just a dash of second-chance trope).

What I liked best about was the subtly shifting balance of what characters are capable of and what other characters assume they’re capable of (physically, emotionally, intellectually). I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that ableism plays a significant role in the story, but it’s really interesting how ableism and other forms of under-estimation drive both the romantic arc and the narrative plot in different ways.

And there is definitely a plot (besides the romantic arc), with more on-page violence than I usually expect from a romance – the author does provide cautions, so take note if that is a concern.

The setting is lightly sfnal, with mention of a spaceport and happenings off-world, but mostly current/near-future tech. I might liked to have seen a bit more of the universe beyond the monarchy where the the story is set, but that really wasn’t the focus.

Eager to read more from Skye Kilaen!

(I don’t know if I need this disclaimer or not, but I’ve commented on Skye’s reviews on Goodreads and vice versa.)

V.E. Schwab – A Darker Shade of Magic

I feel a little mean for not liking this more.

I liked the general mood of derring-do, and I liked the two principal characters (especially after they met and started interacting directly). There are some fun set pieces (many of which feel like they would translate well to film).

But I found the relationship of world-building to narrative a bit frustrating. A bunch of the magical system is worked out with some rigor – there are rules about who can open doors between or within worlds, and how such doors can be opened. And then there’s also a theme of manipulating the traditional greek elements. In battles, wizardy types throw air, water, fire, etc. at each other; fine. But beyond that, there’s a whole bunch of other magic that doesn’t have the rigidity of the door rules, but also doesn’t have an elemental underpinning. We learn about one of these in the very first paragraph, a magic coat that can be turned inside-out multiple times with many somewhat non-deterministic results.

Maybe this will be the subject of later books in the series, but here the effect of this is that it wasn’t clear to me what was or wasn’t possible at any given point. That undercut the narrative stakes for me, because it always seemed possible for the characters to just use a new type of spell to overcome a particular plot obstacle. (Certainly not unique to this book; that bothered about Harry Potter too, so take my criticisms with the necessary quantity of NaCl).

Beyond that, I thought many of the characters slotted a little too neatly into familiar tropes, (especially the villains).

For the first volume of a trilogy, I thought this wrapped up quite solidly (although I also thought the protags made a really questionable decision that I assume leads to trouble in book two).

Rep note: One of the supporting protagonists is identified as bisexual.

Farrah Rochon – The Boyfriend Project

Really enjoyed this. Liked that the friendship between Samiah, London, and Taylor got nearly equal billing with the romance plot. I also loved the portrayal of a Black woman crushing it in tech. (Rochon really nails the vibe of late-stage startup software shop culture, if not all the code-slinging details). As romances go, I thought this did an unusually good job of building up the obstacles to the relationship, so much so that the wrap-up felt not only a bit rushed to me, but also strained my credulity a smidge. But any nits don’t detract from my wanting to spend more time with this trio of friends in future novels.