Girls of Paper and Fire (5*)

Book: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

GoPaFFirst off, apologies for the quiet. Work is pretty busy in the run up to Christmas and I have also been struggling to get into the right mindset to write these. Not sure how well I shall be doing on reviews since I am planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I shall at least endeavour to update you all on my progress with that.

I have been excitedly wanting to read this book since I heard about it. Natasha came to the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and did a reading and from that and what she said about the book I knew I needed it in my life.

To start with, there are not nearly enough genre books written by people of colour and that also tends to mean that the ones that do get published are pretty outstanding and this one is no exception.

The premise also appealed, a love story between two women is still something we also don’t see enough and I am a sucker for fictional romance in many forms.  Not just that, but the nature of the setting being in a harem and dealing with sexual assault meant that it appealed on that front as well. Let me explain that one a bit better. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and to see that sort of story reclaimed by a female writer and including a love story between two survivors, that definitely appealed in a way that male written rape narratives generally do not.

The story follows the lives of women called Paper girls, who belong to the Paper caste and have been chosen to serve in the harem of the King for a year. We mostly follow Lei, who is a late addition to the girls and did not go through the contest to be there that the rest of them did. The relationships between the Paper girls and also others in the Court is well presented and the characters come across as having real depth to them. Even the King is shown to be a complicated person and no one is drawn in straight up black and white terms.

I do want to address something that never struck me as anything of an issue, but after having a conversation with a couple of women at a book event it seems to be a problem for others so I wanted to talk about it. I mentioned before that there are castes, one of which is Paper, who are all human. One of which is the Moon caste, who are fully demon (which in this setting means anthropomorphised animals) and Steel caste, who are part demon, part human.

When I was talking to the two women in question they asked me if I had an issue with the Moon and Steel caste characters being furries, or how did I imagine it in my head since they had sex with humans. The honest answer is, I suppose I have had a good bit of exposure to the idea of animal aspected demons from various Asian cultures so to be it didn’t really seem strange or odd and I certainly never got weirdly sexual about it, though that may be more to do with the fact that I am asexual than anything else.

My advice is, suspend your disbelief, don’t think too much about it and don’t make it all weird. All of the characters in the book are thinking, feeling people, whether they are human or not. If you do that I think you will get a lot more out of the story and not get too hung up on something that I am pretty sure is a difference in cultures.

Honestly this book was fantastic and the story really got to me, both in the power of the representation, the themes of the book in regards to prejudice, society being stratified by race, dealing with sexual abuse and rape. It doesn’t pull punches without being gratuitous. I highly recommend it.

Kingdom of Souls (4.5*)

Book: Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron

KoS (2)Yup, I know I said I was going to be doing intermittent TV reviews, but since I am a little behind due to getting distracted by LARP things (another hobby of mine) I wanted to get this one done for when the book officially comes out (which is today).

I picked up an ARC of this one from WorldCon, partly because of the utterly gorgeous snake cover (and accompanying snake badge) and partly because fantasy series based on African mythology are still far too rare and I really liked the sound of this one.

Inspired by West African mythology, it’s set in a fictional Kingdom called Tamaran, a young woman called Arrah comes from a magical family but possesses no magic herself. When children in her home city go missing she becomes desperate to find out who or what is responsible and trades years off of her life for the magic she needs to find out. This sets in motion a chain of events that will alter the course of her life.

I could say a lot more about the plot of the book, but anything else would be deeply spoilerific so I won’t do so. There was a lot about this book that I loved though, it has a very strong opening first half, though it does go into pretty dark places so that is definitely something for people to be aware of.

There’s a very Lirael (by Garth Nix) feel to the beginning, a young woman surrounded by her magical family but doesn’t have the same talent and longs for it. It’s a very suffocating feeling and it’s painted really vividly, the pain and longing it causes her is very real. The relationships she has with her parents are also very well done and quite a contrast between the warm, loving relationship with her father and the complicated mess she has with her mother.

Rena weaves a rich tapestry of characters in this world as well as a setting rich with details that really drew me into it, from the beginning with the festival of the clans, to the contrast of life in the city.

Some of the reviews I have read have criticised the pacing and it does get a little frayed towards the end, but I disagree with those who say the book should end after the unconvering of the main mystery, what happened after was a series of emotional gut punches, but I thought was still very good story. I had some slight issues with some of the stuff around the ending which is hard to go into without spoilers.

Honestly though, it was a fairly minor point as the story was excellent, especially for a debut novel and I really look forward to where it’s going from here! It’s going to be a tricky ending to follow on from, but I do believe from what I have seen so far that she can manage it.

 

Binti: The Night Masquerade (4*)

Book: Binti – The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti TNMGetting to the end of the novella section for the Hugos. I am sure that you are aware that voting ends at the end of this month and may be wondering how I am intending to get it all done. Well, I am not to be blunt. I do intend to read through the Novellettes and the Short Stories though, I am currently blogging behind my reading (as I write this I am half way through the final Novella) so whilst my posts may end up being up after the Hugo voting has ended, I should have done the reading before then.

For the Novellettes I think I shall split them into two posts, review three in one post and then three in the other and one post for the short stories. I may then do a wrap-up of the Hugos and my voting as a whole and try and get all that scheduled before I run off to Dublin and WorldCon.

“Even back then I had changed things, and I didn’t even know it. When I should have reveled in this gift, instead, I’d seen myself as broken. But couldn’t you be broken and still bring change?” 

In regards to this book, I will start off by saying that I have not read the first two. I did debate as to whether or not to read the ones that were parts of a series I hadn’t read but decided that since it was shorter I might as well give it a go and see how I got on.

The story follows Binti as she and her companions head back to her home to see her family and find themselves in the middle of a conflict between two people, one that will cost Binti a great deal even as she tries her best to find a way to stop it before it gets too out of hand.

It did take me a while to get to grips with the story, largely because I had clearly missed explanations of terms and such that will have come up in earlier books, leaving me quite confused in places. I will say that by the end of the story I had caught up on everything and it did make sense, but it was a little slow going at first due to my lack of context.

It’s certainly a very interesting setting, the magical mathematics reminds me a little of the Foundation series by Asimov, though the feel is very different. I do think I would have gotten a lot more from the book if I had read the others first and I do intend to go back and read them as I did still enjoy the story.

One thing that I found a little distracting was that Binti did come across as something of a Mary Sue type character in places. Now, I don’t consider this to be irredemable, people rarely complain when a male character gets to be all sorts of awesome without any real flaws so when a female character does, especially a woman of colour, in some ways it can be a good redress of balance and I think in this case I would count it in that category. Yes, Binti does have an impressive list of accomplishments and abilities (this is also the third book so I may also be missing vital character development from the earlier ones), but she does also make mistakes and is not entirely perfect.

Some more spoilery thoughts below the cut.

Continue reading

The Black God’s Drums (4*)

Book: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

drums“Fighting it has to be like trying to push back a flood. In my head, Oya laughs. You can run from those old Afrikin goddesses. But they find you when they ready.” 

So I am around half way through the novellas for the Hugos now and this one is something I hadn’t even heard of. I must admit I don’t tend to read a massive amount of novellas and the quality of the works I have been reading for the Hugos is telling me that perhaps I need to change that as I have been loving this category so far.

This story follows a young teen known as Creeper, a street kid living in New Orleans in an alternative history/fantasy version of the United States of America where the Civil War has not ended, but New Orleans is a free port run by ex slaves after an uprising.

What Creeper really wants is to see the world beyond her city though and she manages to see a chance when she overhears a conversation and seeks to sell the information to a ship called the Midnight Robber and its Captain, a woman called Ann-Marie.

Creeper has another secret though, other than the one she seeks to sell. She carries some of the power of Oya, an orisha of wind and storms and the goddess has her own agenda regarding what is going on.

I really loved how well this novella does its worldbuilding. It covers a lot in a very short space of time and does so in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel like you’ve been hit over the head with the plot exposition stick. It’s also a very fascinating setting that draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it and the people who live in it.

I also loved that not only is the main character female, but almost all of the important speaking characters are and that was amazingly refreshing to the point where I was assuming that the author must be female and was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not the case. Also one of the main character is a black, lesbian airship pirate and that is really fucking cool. The characters were also well done, given the shortness of the story and whilst I would have loved some more depth on many of them, it was a good introduction.

One thing I was a little unsure of was in regards to the use of language. The story is told from the perspective of Creeper who is not very well educated and some of the language is clearly how she speaks and thinks, which gives it a very distinctive voice in a good way. But then the words she uses to describe things are then sometimes more sophisticated than I usually would expect from a character with little education. She is described as smart though so it may not necessarily be entirely out of character and I also understand the author needing to balance the voice of the character with weaving the setting in the best way and the use of language really helped to bring it to life so if that is why the word choice I cannot entirely fault him for it.

The story does also have some small moments that do surprise you, though there’s nothing in it that is not also set up in some way in the text (which is not a criticism, I honestly think they made excellent use of the form here).

A part of me feels a little guilty for giving it only four stars, but the ending is a little bit too rushed (I know it’s a novella but I would have liked to see a little more of the resolution than I got). But I definitely enjoyed it and I may well look at getting more by the author and I really do hope they write more of this setting (I had a brief look at their other work but I couldn’t see anything that looked the same) as I would love to read more of these characters and the world (or the world with new characters).