Monday, May 23, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy/Romance Book Review: The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

 



The Second Mango is the first book in Shira Glassman's Jewish Fantasy Romance series of short novels/novellas (her "Mangoverse"), which feature LGBTQ characters at their heart.  For this book, that's lesbian Queen Shulamit and her new friend and bodyguard, the demisexual Rivka (who pretends to be a man named Riv), as they go out and search for a new love for the Queen and find adventure at the same time.  Jewish Fantasy Romance - especially adding in LGTBQ characters - is a way to really appeal to my interests, so I bought this when I first heard of it and it was on sale.

And boy was I glad I did, because The Second Mango is just so so so much fun.  Both lead characters - insecure Queen Shulamit, still a young woman at heart who means well but is a bit naive about the world and also desperate to find another lesbian woman after her last love disappeared (in a world which where such love isn't common), and Rivka, a strong bodyguard woman who has trauma from what happened to the only man she ever loved, are really great and fun, and the story does a great job telling their pasts and allowing them to have adventure.  The book doesn't really have that much conflict or really much of an antagonist, which I guess is the only strike against it, but it's just so so so charming that I really don't care.  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor

 




Akata Woman is the third book in Nnedi Okorafor's award winning Nsibidi Script series of young adult fantasy novels, which began with Akata Witch and continued with Akata Warrior.  The series follows Sunny, an African albino teen whose family returned to Nigeria from the US, as she discovers she has the power of juju, and learns about the magical world of juju with her three teenage friends, all of whom have families that actually know about the magic.  There she discovers her own power, learns about herself and her spirit face Anyanwu, and with her friends Sunny finds herself facing off against dangerous Masquerades and juju using powers to cause harm.  It's a very enjoyable African myth inspired fantasy series, even if I haven't quite loved it as much as say the typical Hugo Voter.  

Akata Woman continues the story of Sunny as she grows closer to adulthood (hence the title), and has to deal with the consequences of her actions and those of her ancestors, and as a result it's what feels like a much darker and difficult tale.  But it still works, even as it puts Sunny and her friends through the ringer and further confronts them with real world events more than any prior book in the series (up through COVID).  There's one minor issue in the plotline regarding Sunny's abusive father that I didn't like, but otherwise, this is yet another winner of a book in this series, and if you liked Akata Witch or Akata Warrior, this will also be a book for you.

Trigger Warning:   Physical abuse by a parent to a child.  


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson

 




Smoketown was the debut novel from Tenea D. Johnson, and a novel that won the Parallax Award from the Carl Brandon Society (A group dedicated to promoting PoC written works in SF/F) back in 2011.  It's a short novel, just around 200 pages, featuring a future where jungle has reclaimed a city in Kentucky and resulted in a new city-state....which in response to a Pandemic 25 years ago took measures to eliminate all birds from the City and became somewhat of a police state in response.  And then you have both cyberpunk - nanomachines, virtual reality devices that give you the senses and experiences of the person who recorded it - and fantastical magical elements as well.  Oh and we have a bit of F/F romance and mysticism based in a fictional religion in here to boot.

The result is a novel that is interesting, but honestly might be a bit too short in my opinion to really totally work, leaving me a bit more non-plussed than I hoped.  The biggest main character (out of the three point of view characters) has a solid story of regret and guilt and of learning to move forward in life with love while still remembering the past at the same time.  That said, the story is a bit muddled by the two other main characters - a man investigating the past of the epidemic, and whether as he suspects the blaming of birds and resultant ornithophobia is merely a cover and a scared old scion of a rich company that was once/is the most powerful corporation in the city - such that it doesn't really come across as strongly as I'd hoped.  The result is definitely interesting, but not in a way that fully lands as much as it should.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Together We Burn by Isabel Ibañez

 




Full Disclosure:  This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained via Netgalley from the publisher in advance of the book's release on May 31, 2022 in exchange for a potential review.  I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way - if I felt conflicted in any way, I would simply have declined to review the book.


Together We Burn is the latest from Young Adult Fantasy Writer Isabel Ibañez, whose last duology was the Bolivian-culture inspired Woven in Moonlight/Written in Starlight.  Both books in that duology dealt with pretty predictable and well-trodden themes, but the culture showed was interesting and the second book dealt with those themes in some pretty surprising ways, with its protagonist being antagonistic to start and realizing her wrong and the horrors of the cycles of oppression in the less obvious way.  So I was definitely curious in trying this next work, which trades the Bolivian inspiration for a Spanish one, taking the bullfighting culture and replacing it with dragon-fighting instead.  

And Together We Burn is fine - a perfectly solidly executed YA fantasy featuring a girl desperate to save her family and its name in a dragon-fighting/dancing business, while also trying to deal with a potential romance and a conspiracy to take her family down.  At the same time, it's also incredibly generic and predictable - the mystery antagonist turns out to be the obvious one any reader will have seen a million times, the romance isn't anything special, and the resolution of things comes in a way you'll likely expect as well.  There's something that's often comforting in predictability or doing the same thing over and over in many novels, but you usually need something stand out in character or setting or something to accompany that predictability, and that's not here, leaving a very solid but not special book here.  

Monday, May 16, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The Merciless Ones by Namina Forna

 



 Full Disclosure:  This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained via Netgalley from the publisher in advance of the book's release on May 31, 2022 in exchange for a potential review.  I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way - if I felt conflicted in any way, I would simply have declined to review the book.


The Merciless Ones is the middle book in Namina Forna's YA Fantasy "The Gilded Ones" trilogy, which started with last year's The Gilded Ones (Reviewed Here).  I really liked The Gilded Ones, which was a brutal feminist YA fantasy set in a patriarchal West African world, featuring girls whose blood bleeds gold and who are treated like monsters for it, except when they're drafted into the Emperor's armies against the monstrous Deathshrieks that seem to be attacking the innocent villages of the people....and a heroine among them who discovers truths about herself and the world that reveal this patriarchal society is lying about how things are.  It was a brutal book, with characters suffering horribly from brutal dismemberments, abuse and rape as backgrounds (but never on page), but it worked really well as a feminist tale of women who desired to find a place for themselves eventually fighting back for themselves, with only two real flaws: an underdeveloped surrounding cast and a lack of anyone who didn't fit into a cisgender binary, an issue with gender dystopian books these days.*

*As a Cisgender reviewer/reader, I missed the lack of trans characters as a problem in my initial review, which I wrote two years ago, but one of my favorite reviewers, Alex Brown, pointed this out in their review on Tor.com here.  Given the issues of TERFS and trend of gendercide novels being done very poorly these days, this is a bigger issue that I should've recognized. 

The Merciless one still struggles with the minor character problem, but thankfully, and impressively, not only features multiple trans characters, but deals quite heavily with the issue of gender and what that means as a central theme.  Whereas the first book's themes were very much in line with the standard misogynist dystopia novel, this book takes things in a more universal and interesting direction, forcing heroine Deka to reconsider the revelations from the first book as she's faced with new threats from all sides...as well as new powers.  It's a fascinating novel that really surprised me, and so I really didn't care too much about the issues with minor characters, as Deka's own journey and what it portends is simply incredible, and the book ending on a cliffhanger that is going to make me desperately need book 3 as soon as possible.  

TRIGGER WARNING: Homophobia and Transphobia, rarely overt or on page, but these are major themes here as the book deals with each.  In addition the book remains brutal and bloody, even again as it never directly portrays any abuse/rape, but merely references them.  

Spoilers for book 1 are inevitable below:

Friday, May 13, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The Midnight Girls by Alicia Jasinska

 



The Midnight Girls is a new young adult fantasy novel by Alicia Jasinska.  Set in a world based upon 19th Century Poland, the story follows three girls who were taken in by monstrous witches as little children, and turned into monsters the Witches can send out to collect the hearts of Princes for them to consume.  Two of the girls, Marynka/Midday and Zosia/Midnight, develop an unknowing rivalry as they each race to beat the others to the same human hearts, despite the two never meeting in person....until one mission, to take the heart of a pureblooded Prince, results in all three girls being sent on the same mission, meeting each other, and discovering feelings for each other they could never have imagined.  

It's a sapphic YA tale that works pretty well honestly, with its Polish setting providing thematic background for the struggle between love, family, and one's own desires, and allowing the characters' journeys to play out strongly on page.  Still this is all about the characters and Marynka and Zosia are both done very well as they struggle to deal with their rivalry, their sudden friendship that develops into more, and their own wants, with Zosia desiring freedom above all else and Marynka searching for approval/acceptance from an abusive parental figure.  It's not a book that really ever hits greatness, and the third girl Beata often seems like an afterthought, but it's a very enjoyable sapphic tale about fighting for freedom to choose your own destiny, your own desires, and your own loves....even if you are a monster girl.  

Trigger Warnings:  Abuse - Marynka's parental figure, the Red Jaga, is physically and emotionally abusive, and a large part of her struggle is her attempts to win the "competition" with Zosia so that she can get the love and approval she craves, but will never get from such a figure.  Zosia's parental figure is also emotionally abusive from her isolation of Zosia, but it's never as strongly on page.  These themes are handled well, with Marynka's development ending with her realizing she will never get that approval, and the story never overdoes it, but still it may be hard for some - even if the direct physical abuse never occurs on page.  

Thursday, May 12, 2022

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Tiger Honor by Yoon Ha Lee

 




Tiger Honor is the second book in Yoon Ha Lee's middle grade "Thousand Worlds" series, a science fiction series under the banner of Rick Riordan's imprint that is inspired by Korean mythology.  The first novel, Dragon Pearl (my review here) was enjoyable middle-grade SF/F featuring a universe filled with supernatural beings, and a delightful gumiho (Korean fox spirit) protagonist who desperately went on an adventure to save and redeem her brother.  It was enjoyable stuff*, although a bit too short for all of the stuff contained within to really make too much of an impact besides the lead character.  

*For those who are interested in Lee due to his adult work, be advised that this series is very firmly meant for middle-grade audiences and isn't the kind of book to make too much of an impact beyond that age group.  So if you go into this looking for more of the theme examination of his adult works, you'll be disappointed, and that's not the book's fault.*

Tiger Honor is technically stand-alone, but will work better if you've read Dragon Pearl, and works rather well by flipping the script of that book.  The book starts on what seems to be a similar scheme to the last book, with the protagonist Sebin - a 13 year old from a family of Tiger spirits - discovering that their relative has been accused of treason, and hoping to clear their family name.  But this time, as the family member was the antagonist of the last book, the accusation is true, and Sebin is thus forced to choose between the honor and wishes of their family and doing the right thing, and the result is a well done Korean myth inspired middle-grade Sci-Fi story.  

Note: As with Dragon Pearl, this is a setting featuring Queer characters, particularly non cis characters, throughout without it being anything remarkable.  The protagonist in this story is non-binary and is not the only such character for example.  So this is an excellent book for those looking for Queer friendly kid-lit.