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.

 

Every Heart a Doorway (5*) and Beneath the Sugar Sky (4*)

Books: Every Heart a Doorway and Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan Maguire

every heartEvery Heart a Doorway

“You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.”

A friend of mine actually bought me Every Heart a Doorway for my birthday as she knew how desperate I was to read a fantasy with an asexual protagonist (that and the premise distinctly appealed to me).

Whilst the novella that is in the list is the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, since I was behind in my reviews anyway I figured I would review both of these at the same time. And you may have noticed I have not included the second one on here, I haven’t read that one yet but you can easily read the third one after the first with no difficulties.

The setting for the series is the modern day in a school for children who have come back from going to other worlds through various doors and are struggling to adapt to being back in the world of their birth.

The main protagonist for the first book is a young woman called Nancy who is a newcomer at the school. She has returned from an underworld where everything was quiet and still and struggles to deal with the noise of the world she is in now. A murder a the school not long after she arrives leads other to wonder if she is the killer and now she has to help find out the truth of what happened or perhaps risk the new home she has found here.

So, to start with, as I mentioned before the main reason I wanted to read this book is because of the asexual protagonist. I have not read many things that I get to see this aspect of myself in, so unless the book fucked up that representation it was going to be hard for it to be something I would dislike. I am saying this as it is possible that my high praise for the story comes in part from the emotions this book gives me for Nancy and how excellent she is.

I could wax lyrical about the various varieties of identities on the asexual spectrum, but that would significantly derail things but if you want to learn more, please do google the subject, there’s a lot of good resources out there and I would suggest starting with AVEN (the asexual visibility and education network). Nancy is a heteroromantic asexual, which means she is romantically attracted to the opposite gender, but doesn’t look at them and want to have sex with them. So we’re not quite the same thing, but that doesn’t matter, having her sexuality confirmed without a fuss and it not being everything the story is about is wonderful.

“Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.” 

To be fair, I do also love that the story is a murder mystery and the premise of the setting is absolutely fantastic. I grew up reading portal fantasies and few of them really deal much with what it would be like to come back having had an entirely different life elsewhere only to have to try and adjust to life here with no one believing you about where you have been and why you are different now.

The setting is vast in terms of how many doors there seems to be and whilst we do not get massive details for all of them, the author does a damn good job of making them feel like real, internally consistent realms from what we do find out. The story is also an excellent analogy for found families over born ones.

Those who go through the doors tend to do so because they are in the wrong world and they find what they are missing there. This can echo for people who grew up isolated and bullied for having interests that weren’t shared by others, for those whose sexuality or race set them apart, or being neurodiverse or being trans or non-binary. This is the other reason why the book called to me so strongly. I have often felt I don’t properly fit into the world and the idea of finding somewhere that fits and then losing it is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

Beneath the Sugar Sky

sugar

“You are not a cake, you are a human being, and I can see your vagina”, snapped Nadya.

The stranger shrugged, “It’s a nice one, I’m not ashamed of it.”

Now we get to the one which is actually up for Hugo consideration. This is the third book in the series, but the story follows on fairly well from the events in the first book (as mentioned above) and that works really well.

I will say that even the premise for the third book is something of a spoiler for things that happened in the first one so I am actually going to put pretty much the whole of the rest of this review under a cut as I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone.

So probably best to read on only if you either have read the series (or part of it) already or having plot points to stories spoilered is not something that remotely bothers you. Either way, consider yourselves suitably warned!

Continue reading

City of Ghosts – 4*

Book: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I have been pretty excited to get hold of and read this book since I heard of it. I know that the author has now moved to Edinburgh and it is a place that is very close to my heart. I grew up in Fife, the county to the north of Edinburgh and we visited a fair few times when I was growing up. When I went to University I went to Edinburgh and I fell in very deep love with the city. Even though I have been living in England for the past eight years now, I still miss it and whenever I go back to visit it always feels like I am coming home.

There’s not many of the sort of books I tend to read that are set in Edinburgh, which I have always though was a shame given it’s long history and very gothic architecture. So a ghost story set in Edinburgh? Yes, sign me up please, the city has a wealth of ghost stories to draw from and I was really curious to see how the book would read.

The book is the story of Cassidy, or Cass, a young woman with ghost hunting parents who can actually see them herself and whose best friend is a ghost called Jacob. Her parents get their own TV show investigating the most haunted cities in the world and their first stop is Edinburgh where Cass stumbles across a really scary ghost who could threaten everything as well as meets another young woman with the same abilities that she has.

One of the things I really loved about this book is how well it gets the atmosphere of Edinburgh right. It helped that I know the city so well I was walking the places with the main character and it made me really happy. The other fantastic thing is that the main character had never been to the city before so I got to see my city from the perspective of someone totally new to it and it made me think of it a little differently.

It’s a YA book and pretty short on length, in fact that is about the only thing I can hold against it. The story moves along at a pretty fast clip and I suppose I would have preferred the ending to be a bit more drawn out and perhaps a little scarier, but then of course would that fit the main market it’s being aimed at so I can see why the author made the choice that they did.

Still, the characters are very clear and the ghost stories within it are suitably creepy. There’s plenty of information in the book that comes straight from Edinburgh’s history and ghost stories, which I absolutely adored. The Mackenzie poltergeist in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is well known and has his own ghost tour (Edinburgh has many ghost tours). So all of the weird and creepy places in the book are real and you can go there.

As someone who loves both Edinburgh and ghost stories I admit that it would have to have been pretty bad for me to hate it, but I had every faith that the author would deliver on the potential of this idea and to me she very much did not disappoint. I am looking forward to seeing what other places future books might explore. I hope that she manages to bring them to life the way she has done to Edinburgh.

The Hate U Give – 5*

The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas

So this is a break from my usual Fantasy and Science-Fiction reads, but I have been wanting to read this book since I first read about it and with the film coming up soon I bumped it up my reading list so I could read it before I see the adaptation.

Firstly I want to say that the fictional take on a subject which I seem to read about more and more is not an easy read, but it is definitely worth reading. I am white, I am British, the experiences in this book are pretty far from mine. I have read about various police shootings in America, I have even read things about police violence in Britain too, but it’s not something I am likely to experience first hand but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and understand it.

I think it’s really important to read the stories of people with experiences you will never have and this was a powerful one. It’s easy to judge situations from the outside of them. To fail to understand why poverty and oppression can make entire communities places of rage and pain. I’ve never had to be afraid of the Police, I’ve never had to be afraid of people in my own neighbourhood but this book gave me a window into the lives of people for whom that sort of thing is a painful reality.

The story deals with the shooting of a young, unarmed black man from the perspective of the young woman who was his friend and companion at the time. It shows you her life, the life of people in her family and how what unfolds affects them and their wider community.

I saw a review of this book on Goodreads where a white guy had a massive rant because at one point in the book one of the characters makes a comment to a white character about how he cannot really understand their experiences and how this was massively racist and unfair.

Look, fellow white people. I get that hearing people who are oppressed rag on your skin colour in general can hurt your feelings and make you defensive. If you are male and straight then it is likely that you have never really had the sort of experiences that generate this sort of rage and no, that is not your fault, but also remember that the rage isn’t really directed at you, but at institutions that you benefit from without realising it.

I get that angry about feminist issues for similar reasons, so whilst I have not experienced racism and oppression related to it, I do know what it feels like to walk the world as a woman and to have to deal with that set of issues. Different experiences but the rage is very similar.

So please, give this book a chance. Not just that, read widely into the subject matter of police shootings. Don’t just assume the person shot did something to deserve it, to cause it. Don’t dismiss the pain and rage of the communities where this keeps happening. Listen to them, really listen and then ask how you can help and do what they say.

I am tired of this world not being as wonderful as I know it can be. I am tired of us treating each other like shit for arbitrary differences that we have no control over (you can control your opinions so please don’t assume I mean it’s OK to be a bigot, it’s not).

Read this book, watch the film, learn and then act on that and maybe, just maybe we can all do a little something to stop this shit from happening.