The Walls Around Us – Nova Ren Suma

This post is going to be VERY SPOILERY.

I had an unusual reaction, compared to other readers, to the narrators of this book. Yeah, Violet, the driven ballerina who sends her best friend Orianna to jail for a double murder she committed, is unsympathetic as hell. But Amber, the gentler girl in juvie for killing her abusive stepdad? Is an even worse person than Violet. Amber murders literally everyone she knows rather than face a future of uncertainty. It’s Amber, not Violet, who is responsible for Orianna’s death.

And is Orianna as innocent as she seems? She gathered the poison Amber uses to kill the entire juvenile hall, although she may not have been aware of what Amber was planning. She’s much more implicated in Violet’s eventual death, which allows her Orianna to rejoin the world of the living. She doesn’t participate in her murder, but she lures her to the spot and digs the grave before Violet’s even there. That, to me, speaks to an (understandable) premeditation.

Justice may be done in some ways by Violet’s death and Orianna’s return, but Orianna too is tarnished by what happened to her because of Violet and by what she herself finally does about it. And as for Amber, though she may be a more conventionally sympathetic narrator than Violet, that just shows how messed up our ideas of sympathy are, how easily we are manipulated.

Anyway, a fine horror novel/ghost story.

About a Girl – Sarah McCarry

The final book in the Metamorphoses trilogy follows Tally, Aurora’s daughter, abandoned by her and raised by the narrator from All Our Pretty Songs and the narrator’s friends.

Spoilers for the series ending:

Aspiring astronomer Tally runs off to the West Coast to find out who her father is, and instead finds out her mother’s dark fate. She’s also running away from the awkward situation of having slept with her best friend Shane, and finds a very different romantic relationship with a girl called Maddy, who may just be an immortal Medea.

There were several things I didn’t like about this book. First and foremost, the consequences of Maddy being Medea felt tame. This is the woman who murdered her own children to get back at someone whom she had loved and been betrayed by– there wasn’t sufficient horror, sufficient danger; sufficient tension. Yeah, Medea has mellowed into Maddy and is trying to forget her past– but that past doesn’t catch up with her enough. There isn’t enough consequence to such a momentous revelation.

Secondly, because Tally spends a lot of the book not able to remember her goals due to magical interference, the book got kind of frustrating as I waited for her to remember to ask the questions I wanted answers to. The forgetfulness also made Tally a bit of a passive character, pushed around by forces beyond her control.

There were also little things– I didn’t believe that a girl who was mixed like me (in Tally’s case actually 3/4ths white) would think of “white people” as an outside group to be thought of disparagingly. But that’s just my personal experience, and I know some people will disagree. Also I lost a bit of sympathy for Tally, of all silly things, because she disdains Harry Potter but calls Aurora’s friend and her guardian “Aunt Beast” after A Wrinkle in Time. Now there’s nothing wrong with A Wrinkle in Time, but in my opinion, it gets too much attention compared to L’Engle’s other and better books. I’m a The Young Unicorns girl myself.

On the good side, there were absolutely consequences to the events of the previous books, and redemption alongside them. Maia and Cass regain their friendship (and more? we don’t know) and live together, though Maia is forever changed by her long period of drug abuse. The narrator of All Our Pretty Songs and her ex-boyfriend also get, thanks to Tally, a second chance, but Aurora remains trapped in the underworld– largely because she sacrificed any chance of escape to get Tally out.

We also get some resolution for the character of Minos, the judge of the dead– Mr. M in this book. I won’t spoil this, but he remains a tragic figure.

I’m glad I read this book to find out what happened, but it’s not my favorite of the series.


The Scorpion Rules – Erin Bow

This book was like id-fic for me. So many elements from my dreams– and nightmares.

It’s an Omelas-type dystopia- a world where the good of the many depends on the suffering of the few. In this case, the few are the children of 25th century world leaders, who are kept hostage throughout their childhood (or as long as their parents are in power) to ensure that their parents don’t start wars. If their parents do, the children are killed. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, our narrator, believes in the system even though it keeps her as a hostage at risk of death. She has a strong sense of dignity, both as a person and in terms of her position as a “Child of Peace”.

Elian, a new arrival at the monastery-like residence of the hostages, has an entirely different idea of dignity. He’s defiant in the face of what he sees as an unjust system, comparing himself to Spartacus, and while the children’s robotic minders go to extreme lengths– even torture– to get him to comply, he continues to rebel until it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who’ll suffer if he keeps it up. In another author’s hands, Elian would be the love interest, but while they kiss a few times and grow close over the course of the novel, Greta’s major romantic relationship is with her (female) roommate, Xie.

Greta is slow to question the system, but she eventually sees the wrongness of her captors’ treatment of Elian– and then they turn on her, too. Ironically, it’s while she’s being tortured with the induced nightmares of “Dreamlock” that the residence is invaded by Elian’s people, who have figured out a way to declare war without sacrificing their hostage. The country they’ve declared war on is Greta’s, and they will stop at nothing to use her against her family.

Oh, did I mention that this whole hostage system is run by an AI?

Talis, the AI, is not happy with the hostage-taking of the hostages. He arrives to sort things out. The trouble is that his idea of sorting things out often involves killing people and destroying entire cities.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how much you’d like this book. One of its great strengths (it’s written by an ex-physicist) is how well-thought out the AI’s and the technology are– and they become increasingly important as the plot goes on. I normally loathe stories where a person “uploads their mind,” because they fail to take into account that the lack of continuity between the consciousness in the body and the consciousness in the copy, but a few books do it well (Peter Dickinson’s Eva springs to mind). This book doesn’t address all my concerns, but it explores the concept in more interesting ways than most do.

I wish the geopolitics had that same depth– while the cast is diverse (Xie is Asian and Elian is Jewish and “racially indeterminate, like many Americans”), I didn’t feel that the future countries from which the hostages besides Greta and Elian, who are both North American, come were that plausible or textured.

Another weakness is that sometimes concepts are introduced out of nowhere when they become necessary, like “dreamlock,” which was introduced so abruptly that it didn’t feel like an organic part of the world.

However, the strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses. I stayed up till two to see what happened next in this tension-filled story. Erin Bow isn’t afraid to go dark, hard places (and I’m not talking about the violence, but about Greta’s choice at the end and its fallout). Furthermore, characters on all sides of the conflicts have depth and pride, have standards below which they will not sink, even if those standards are very different from person to person.

Greta is a great heroine. I love people who can see past their own self-interest, and while she’s not exactly right when she believes in the hostage system, she’s also noble. I loved her, and I hope she narrates the companion novel, due out next year, as well.

A nonspoilery standout moment in terms of emotion was Greta’s mother’s insistence that Greta not be painted in her monastic Child-of-Peace outfit, because she wants one picture of her not dressed as “Joan of bloody Arc!” And you know it’s because Greta might well die in her role as a Child of Peace, and her mother wants some reminder that’s not connected to the hostage system.

I am waiting on tenterhooks for the sequel. Next year can’t come fast enough.

Graveyard Sparrow- Kayla Bashe

And the promised review of kbashe‘s debut novella, Graveyard Sparrow! Disclaimer: I know the author IRL.

This novella is a feminist parable, a same-sex romance, and a genuinely tense thriller. Its theme can be summed up in the words of Katriona, one of the two protagonists: “Someone once said that there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but I think that’s only true until the women get revenge.” While dealing with professional and health issues, Katriona and Anthea fight a misogynistic serial killer with an artistic bent and fall in love along the way.

The strongest part of the book is the final third, as the women realize the identity of the villain, whose identity the reader has known from the beginning, and find themselves in grave danger– the threat is not just to their lives, but to the integrity of their minds. The villain is incredibly creepy in his megalomania, total confidence, and twisted sense of beauty and values. Needless to say (this is both a genre romance with a happy ending, and a feminist tale) the women rescue themselves and each other.

The weakest part of the book is the narrative voice, which is overly keen to tell us how wonderful and brave our heroines are and see each other as,  rather than trusting the readers to figure this out from their actions and using more subtle means to show their increasing attraction to each other. However, the writing is beautiful in places; I particularly liked this bit of description:

“He smelled of old books and incense, the scent of the Society’s hall. Soon it would cling to her skin as well, a cloak of authority in the form of perfume.”

I really liked the characterization of Anthea, the professional witch with her sights set on an academic career, and the way her desire to be taken seriously in her field and adhere to its ethical codes is used to manipulate her. She rethinks her priorities without abandoning her passion.

If you’re intrigued by the mix of light-hearted romance and a nightmare-inducing serial killer investigation (and oh, did I mention that Bashe writes really scary nightmares for her characters), this might be right up your alley. Hopefully the problems with the narrative voice will be ironed out in future works.

New Queer Romance Novel- Graveyard Sparrow by Kayla Bashe

My friend Kayla Bashe– kbashe here on WordPress– has a novel out from Torquere Press today. It can be bought here for $3.99. I’ll be reviewing it on this blog later, but here’s the cover copy:

Katriona Sparrow, dubbed the Mad Heiress by London’s upper class, is the deceptively fragile ward of a foreign nobleman. She can’t stand making small talk with strangers, but she’s unparalleled when it comes to deciphering the dead.

On a routine investigation, something goes horribly wrong, leaving Katriona catatonic in an upscale hospital and a serial killer with an artistic bent stalking London’s most vulnerable.

Enter Anthea Garlant, a young witch and academic ostracized from polite society for traveling the world without a chaperone. She devises magical treatments to protect Katriona from the side effects of her abilities, but as she grows more and more attached to Katriona, her professional façade begins to slip.

Will they be able to stop the man who turns beautiful dead women into works of art before he turns his attention much closer to home?

The Many Lives of Ruby Iyer – Laxmi Hariharan

ARC from NetGalley.

Ruby Iyer has left her wealthy SoBo (Southern Bombay) family– including her emotionally abusive mother– behind, and lives with her new friend Pankaj, a gay fashion blogger, in the suburbs. Her life is normal until she’s shoved off a train platform and survives an electric shock. Soon after, she meets the handsome cop Vikram. But before long, Bombay is plunged into chaos by the attack of Dr. Braganza and her army of cold-blooded, violent teenagers. Panky is kidnapped and Ruby and Vikram thrust into a fight for survival. Romance blossoms between them, but both are keeping secrets…

I was not a fan of this novel. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the idea of an urban fantasy set in India (I’m half-Indian). Unfortunately, while it had a fairly original plot and a vivid, action-movie style, I got frustrated by both the long wait to get to the plot and the character of Ruby. After Ruby suffers an electric shock, she saves a girl from the same man who attacked her, and later is mysteriously summoned to help a man who is about to jump off a bridge. These episodes take a long time and delay the introduction of the main plot. The bit about the suicidal man on the bridge is never explained.

Ruby herself is somewhat irritating. She at least acknowledges that her temper is a problem rather than cute (and the fact that she cuts as a coping mechanism signals that she’s not the most stable person), but it’s annoying to watch her repeatedly lose her temper with Vikram when he’s just trying to help her. “I do like him, really! It’s just… I don’t want him to see it…Yet.” Not the most mature attitude. I don’t demand that characters be perfect–indeed I liked Ruby’s flawedness, her rage that is both a weakness and a source of strength. But her immaturity annoyed me.  And Ruby’s repeated thoughts that she’s “different” and doesn’t fit in seemed cliched. “That’s me; always having to swim upstream against the tide, being different.”

There’s a twist at the end that is emotionally foreshadowed but insufficiently explained. Also, a major plot point is that the villain is descended from Catherine de Braganza, but the historical Catherine (wife of Charles II of England) was unable to have children.

The book ends “To be continued.” I won’t be following Ruby’s next adventure.

Rosie Rinkstar – Janet Rosina West

ARC provided by NetGalley

I picked this book because I figure skate, though not at the level that the protagonist, Rosie, does. I’m not sure why this was categorized as YA, however, as it’s clearly Middle Grade, with fewer than one hundred pages and a simple plot and style.

British skater Rosie comes from a family that’s struggled financially since her father abandoned them, and she and her annoying younger sister, a talented gymnast, both participate in expensive sports and struggle to find the resources they need to excel. Luckily, Rosie has a strong support network, including her loving grandmother, her self-sacrificing mother, her best friend and fellow skater Sergei, and the cleaners at the rink, whom she’s befriended.

The beginning of the book gives the impression that it’s going to be a bit more technical about skating than it is, while it’s really about relationships, money troubles, and rink politics, so I think it would be easy enough to follow even if one doesn’t have a skating background. It’s refreshing to have a protagonist from a lower socioeconomic background, and the novel shows how that affects Rosie in various ways. She’s a lot more responsible and dedicated than I was at her age, but also resentful of her circumstances. The book makes several sharp psychological points; Rosie doesn’t like growing up because she wants to be shielded from the tough adult decisions and sacrifices a little longer, and she acknowledges that “skating can make you a horrible person” because you see other people as obstacles to your goals (as Rosie sees her little sister Bernice, among others). West also gives Rosie a great voice. I could almost hear her in my head.

The most annoying part of this book is the way things seem to happen to Rosie without her doing anything. Her troubles are all externally imposed– tight finances and the mean, pushy mother of another girl at the rink. The solutions are also handed to her rather than based on her actions– her grandmother literally wins the lottery, solving her problems for the time being. Rosie doesn’t really do much other than practice skating and work on a entrepreneurship project for school. There’s no conflict to force her to grow and gain self-knowledge, at least in this installment of the series.

However, Rosie Rinkstar was a charming, quick read, and I don’t regret spending my time on it.

Karen Memory Release Day

Elizabeth Bear’s steampunk lesbian adventure story, Karen Memory, goes on sale today. Here’s a link roundup.

Excerpt here.

Bear’s post in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea series.

Liz Bourke and Brit Mandelo review it at I particularly like this quote that Liz pulled out:

“Priya looked up at me through all those bruises, and I thought filly a third time. I could see in her eyes what I saw in some of my daddy’s Spanish mustang ponies. You’d never break this one. You’d never even bend her. She’d die like Joan of Arc first, and spit blood on you through a smile.”

NPR review here.

Buy the book!

Five Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2015

1. Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
This one comes out next week. The way I’ve been selling it to my friends is two words: steampunk lesbians. It’s set in the Wild West, with an Indian love interest (that’s Indian from India, not American Indian) and is in first person with a voice that’s been getting raves in early reviews. Bear’s one of my favorite authors and I’ll be picking this one up as soon as it’s out.

2. The Shadow Cabinet – Maureen Johnson
Book two of The Shades of London ended on a major cliffhanger– how will Johnson resolve it? Though I only skimmed The Madness Underneath, I really liked The Name of the Star and am curious to see where this series goes.

3. Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein
I had some issues with Code Name Verity and skipped Rose Under Fire due to the implausibility of the premise, but Wein did write the absolutely lovely The Winter Prince and I love that her latest is set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, a lesser-known but fascinating and disturbing time period.

4. Until the Beginning – Amy Plum
In this sequel to After the End, the final book in the duology, Juno and Mike find Juno’s people, who have been kidnapped due to their discovery of a drug that prevents aging. Juno is such a great character, naive after being raised isolated in the Alaskan wilderness but fiercely competent as a result of the same circumstances.

5. The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson
Disclaimer: I know the author. But you want to read this book– it’s a heartrending lesbian love story, a brutal exploration of the effects of imperialism, a great secondary-world fantasy, and much more. Much love for the cover art; the crumbling mask refers both to the Empire of Masks which conquers Baru’s home and to the question of Baru’s own identity as she navigates a sea of intrigue.