Book Review: The Brilliant Death

the brilliant deathThe Brilliant Death
by Amy Rose Capetta
Young Adult/Fantasy
330 pages
Published October 2018

It’s not often that I like a relationship more than I like the separate parts of it, but that’s the case with The Brilliant Death. I love Teo and Cielo together. As a couple they are amazing. I like them individually, but together they are something unique and lovely. By the end of the book, they can both switch genders at will, and they love each other for who they are, not what bodies they happen to be wearing.

This book plays with the gender binary, giving us two characters who dance from boy to girl and back again when it’s convenient for them. Teo uses this ability to masquerade as her brother, going to the capital city when summoned by the ruler of her country after the assassination of her father.

If Teo’s name and the use of the word “strega” hadn’t given it away, the book is very Italian-inspired. The family ties, the landscape, the names, the atmosphere is unmistakably Italian. While that’s still a Western European culture, it’s not one we actually see in fantasy that often, which makes this book more enthralling.

While Teo juggles loyalties to family, country, and friends, Cielo is on a mission to find out what happened to their mother. Falling in love isn’t in the plan for either of them, but when is it, really?

I loved the magic, the characters, and the setting of this one, and I really hope there’s going to be a sequel. The plot was definitely left open enough to allow for one, though I could be happy with this as a standalone, too.

From the cover of The Brilliant Death:

Teodora Di Sangro is used to hiding her magical ability to transform enemies into music boxes and mirrors. Nobody knows she’s a strega – and she aims to keep it that way.

Then she meets Cielo – and everything changes.

A strega who can effortlessly swap back and forth between female and male, human and animal, Cielo shows Teodora what her life could be like if she masters her powers – and how much more she’s capable of. And not a moment too soon: the ruler of Vinalia has poisoned the patriarchs of the country’s five controlling families, including Teodora’s father, and demands that each family send a son to the palace. If she wants to save her family, Teodora must travel to the capital – not disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.

But the road to the capital, and to bridling her evolving powers, is full of enemies and complications, including the one she least expects: falling in love.

Book Review: Black Wings Beating

black wings beatingBlack Wings Beating
by Alex London
Young Adult/Fantasy
426 pages
Published September 2018

This highly-anticipated young adult fantasy was – alright. I’m a little disappointed, actually. I love birds. I grew up with a number of parrots, and crows are still one of my favorite animals. So a book where falconry is a central part of the culture, and they have to go hunt down a mythical bird? Count me in! Unfortunately this book suffers from the “reluctant hero” trope, which is far too common in YA and gets tiring.

The two main characters in this book are twins. We have Brysen, who was never good enough for their alcoholic father, and was beaten regularly. He’s also stubborn, irresponsible, and reckless. His sister has an ancient power to control falcons, but she refuses to learn how to control it because she doesn’t want to overshadow her good-for-nothing brother. (She also might be asexual, but it’s not explicitly stated in the book. It’s heavily implied, though.)

The two dysfunctional siblings set out to capture the near-mythical bird that killed their father, in order to save the life of Brysen’s lover, falconry trainer, and manipulator, Dymian. They’re joined by Nyall, a boy in love with Kylee who doesn’t care that she doesn’t love him back. (In the truly-good-guy way, not in the creepy way. I like Nyall. He’s good people.)

They of course run into dangers in the mountains that the bird lives in, and the book is about that journey. Interspersed with their story is the occasional scene of the invaders sweeping across the land elsewhere. I wish we had a better sense of time – both how long before the invaders near the Six Villages where Brysen and Kylee are, and how long their journey in the mountains takes. That could have been much better communicated.

Kylee frustrates me – she could be so badass, and if she’d use her powers, it could get her what she wants. She’s trying to earn enough money catching and selling birds of prey to get out of the business entirely. (She has to pay off their father’s debts first.) So why not use her powers to call down a few of the most valuable birds and BE DONE WITH IT? How does this not occur to her? As far as I can tell, the only real reason she doesn’t want to be a falconer is she knows she’d be excellent at it and she doesn’t want to overshadow her brother, whose dream it’s been to be a great falconer. News flash. Your brother is worthless, girl. If he wants to be great maybe he should buckle down and focus instead of blaming those around him for his misfortunes.

So I’m not sure what my overall opinion of this book is. The world-building is shaping up to be interesting, but needs more fleshing out. The writing itself is pretty good, it flows nicely but needs a better sense of time. The characters’ motivations are clear but occasionally frustrating. I am a little invested in seeing what happens in the next book, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough to spend the time to read it. I’ll make that decision when it comes out, I suppose.

From the cover of Black Wings Beating:

THEY’LL RISE TOGETHER OR FALL ALONE

The people of Uztar have long looked to the sky with hope and wonder. Nothing in their world is more revered than birds of prey, and no one is more honored than the falconers who call them to their fists. 

Brysen strives to be a great falconer, while his twin sister, Kylee, possesses ancient gifts for it but wants to be free of falconry altogether. She’s nearly made it out, too, but a war is rolling toward the Six Villages, with a rebel army leaving nothing in its wake but blood and empty sky. No bird or falconer will be safe from this invasion.

Together the twins must embark on a journey into the treacherous mountains to trap the near-mythic ghost eagle, a solitary killer and the most feared of the Uztari birds of prey. They each go for their own reasons: Brysen for the boy he loves and the glory he’s long craved, and Kylee to atone for her past and protect her brother’s future. But they both are hunted by those who seek one thing: power.

With this book, Alex London launches a soaring saga about the memories that haunt us, the histories that hunt us, and the bonds of blood between us.

Book Review: The Dreaming Stars

the dreaming starsThe Dreaming Stars
by Tim Pratt
Science Fiction
384 pages
Published September 2018

I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi. It’s just not where my interests lie. But every once in a while, I do enjoy a good space opera. Firefly/Serenity (before I learned about the Confederate connection, dammit), Dark Matter, even the occasional episode of The Expanse. Tim Pratt has written a fantastic space opera in his Axiom series. (The Forbidden Stars should be coming out sometime in 2019.) The story started with The Wrong Stars and continues here.

First, the diversity is fantastic. The crew runs the gamut of genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and religions. Our two main characters, Captain Machedo and Elena, are both bisexual women, and the Captain is also demisexual. (One of the first things she does in this book is crash her own funeral being held by her ex-husband!) I enjoyed seeing Elena and Callie’s relationship continue to grow.

Second, the dialog is hilarious. The Captain and her ship’s AI are both smart alecks, and sarcasm and snappy comebacks abound.

The action is also very well-done; the physics of traveling through space aside, most of the science is feasible. All of the Axiom-tech is pretty far out, and some of the other science is….well it’s such a long shot that it only worked because it’s in a book, but it IS conceivable it could work.

This is one sci-fi series I will continue to watch for. (And I wonder how long before it gets optioned for TV?)

From the cover of The Dreaming Stars:

In the breathtaking sequel to The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt brings you much closer to that ancient race of aliens, the Axiom, who will kill us all – when they wake up. 

In deep space, a swarm of nanoparticles threatens the colonies, transforming everything it meets into computronium – including the colonists. The crew of the White Raven investigate, and discover an Axiom facility filled with aliens, hibernating while their minds roam a vast virtual reality. The treacherous Sebastien wakes up, claiming his altered brain architecture can help the crew deactivate the swarm – from inside the Axiom simulation. To protect humanity, beleaguered Captain Callie Machedo must trust him, but if Sebastien still plans to dominate the universe using Axiom tech, they could be in for a whole galaxy of trouble.

Book Review: Confessions of the Fox

confessions of the foxConfessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction
329 pages
Published June 2018

Confessions of the Fox is an #ownvoices novel – written by a trans author, about a trans professor writing about a manuscript about a trans eighteenth-century thief. In that way, it’s quite unique, and valuable for its observations about being trans.

But story-wise – it drug on about a hundred pages too long, got bogged down by the footnotes that tell the professor’s story, and ultimately went off on some conspiracy tangent that added nothing to the plot. It got weird. I think the book would have been better if it had just been Jack Sheppard’s story, without the “professor-annotating-the-manuscript” framework built around it.

Jack is a very compelling character, but we keep getting distracted from his story by the professor’s career and love life problems, so it feels very fragmented. I did enjoy the colorful, metaphorical language constantly being used to talk about sex, though! Make no mistake, this is a dirty book. It’s mostly dirty in the most flowery of terms, so it’s more entertaining than titillating, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of gifting it to someone!

Ultimately, I wish I’d skipped it. I know there are people that like the book-within-a-book framework, and I do sometimes, but I feel like it distracted from the story I really wanted to read, here.

From the cover of Confessions of the Fox:

Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.

Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript – a gender-defying exposé of jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack – a transgender carpenter’s apprentice – has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary.

Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined – and only a miracle will save them all.

Confessions of the Fox is, at once, a work of speculative historical fiction, a soaring love story, a puzzling mystery, an electrifying tale of adventure and suspense, and an unabashed celebration of sex and sexuality. Writing with the narrative mastery of Sarah Waters and the playful imagination of Nabokov, Jordy Rosenberg is an audacious storyteller of extraordinary talent.

Book Review: Odd One Out

odd one outOdd One Out
by Nic Stone
Young Adult/Romance/LGBT
306 pages
Published October 2018

DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME WITH THIS BOOK. I mean it. This is one of those books that is so bad that I don’t plan to read anything else by the author, which is a little annoying as her debut book, Dear Martin, is the new One Book Baltimore pick. But this book, her second, is SO BAD that I can’t imagine her first is any better. I will get into details, but first.

TRIGGER WARNING. BIPHOBIA. ILLEGAL SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS. (big age gaps). 

Alright. With that said, let’s dive in. SPOILERS AHEAD.

We have three main characters in this book, of various races and ethnicities – the racial rep is actually one of the few good things about this book. First we have “Coop,” black straight male. Then we have his best friend, “Jupe” or Jupiter, lesbian female. Then the new girl, Rae, who appears to be bi, but never outright labels herself. She is assumed to be straight by Jupiter, one of many instances of casual biphobia in this book.

All three characters fall in love with each other. From this setup, and the jacket description, I was expecting a rare representation of polyamory in a young adult book. But not only do they not wind up in a triangle, the possibility isn’t even spoken of. This is supposedly a book about questioning labels and exploring your identity but alternate relationship structures don’t even seem to EXIST, which is SUPER frustrating. Even if they’d at least discussed it as an OPTION, I would have been happier. But no. Monogamy is not only the norm, but apparently the only option in this book.

And OH LORD THE BIPHOBIA. Jupe has a lesbian friend who is much older than her – in college – and said friend goes off about how she won’t date bi girls because they’ll always leave you for men. She’s not challenged on this statement. Not out loud, not in the text, nothing. And that’s not the only instance. Jupe also gets drunk and pleads with this friend to have sex with her. Resulting in a 20-year-old having sex with a tipsy sixteen-year-old.

I normally don’t have an issue with age gaps – and I don’t, actually, have an issue with Rae, who’s 15, and Cooper, who is 18 in the book. Other reviewers have mentioned that’s not legal in Georgia, where the book takes place, but please. It’s only a three-year age difference, and they’re all in high school. But the college student giving in to the tipsy high-schooler was a little more than just “an age gap.” That’s…very questionable.

BACK TO THE BIPHOBIA. There’s an inner monologue about if saying you’re bisexual also means you can be attracted to non-binary people or not. (Hint: bi means “attracted to your own sex AND OTHERS.” So yes.) And when Jupiter, the lesbian, decides she is attracted to Cooper, she flatly denies that that makes her bisexual.

To be fair, I’ve known at least two lesbians who identify as “lesbian except HIM” – one specific person. But that’s not what Jupiter does. She drops her label entirely – in a GSA meeting at her school that she leads – because she still likes girls but also likes a boy. When a bisexual member speaks up with “So you’re bi then? You can say it, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m bi.” she IMMEDIATELY shoots him down, saying it’s not that cut and dried. Then she announces they’ll talk about negative stereotypes of different sexualities, including bisexuality, in their next meeting and ends the meeting. The only reason she doesn’t like the bisexual label, as stated a little earlier in the book, is because she’s attracted to nonbinary people so she “doesn’t know if bi fits.” That’s biphobia.

Oh, and let’s not forget when Rae kisses Jupiter and she goes off on her about keeping her straight-questioning cooties away from her. (Paraphrasing.) Rae had never explicitly talked about her sexuality, but obviously because she’s attracted to boys, she’s straight, right?

The book is advertised as having great representation, and it’s just bad. It’s bad and hurtful and frustrating and shouldn’t be on all these LGBT lists because this is NOT the kind of representation we should be pushing.

Ugh. And I haven’t even touched the quality of writing. Which is…not great. I don’t understand the people that liked this book or think it’s good rep. Did we read the same book?

From the cover of Odd One Out:

COURTNEY “COOP” COOPER
Dumped. Again. And normally I wouldn’t mind. But right now, my best friend and source of solace, Jupiter Sanchez, is ignoring me to text some girl.

RAE EVELYN CHIN
I assumed “new girl” would be synonymous with “pariah,” but Jupiter and Courtney make me feel like I’m right where I belong. I also want to kiss him. And her. Which is . . . perplexing.

JUPITER CHARITY-SANCHEZ
The only thing worse than losing the girl you love to a boy is losing her to your boy. That means losing him, too. I have to make a move . . . . 

One story.

Three sides.

No easy answers.

Book Review: The Spy with the Red Balloon

spy with the red balloonThe Spy with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Historical Fantasy
356 pages
Published October 2018

This is the sequel to The Girl with the Red Balloon – though chronologically, it actually takes place first. Since it mostly deals with different characters in related but different events, though, it doesn’t really read like a prequel. Really the only bad thing I have to say is that it didn’t answer the question of what happened at the end of Girl with the Red Balloon, and to be honest, I don’t actually mind. Spy could be read as a completely standalone book and be just as satisfying. There’s very little overlap between the two books, even though they deal with similar themes, in the same world.

I personally think SPY is better than GIRL, but I find that a lot with second books. I think authors tend to have a little more confidence by the second book; they know a little more about their world. They’ve gotten feedback from readers about what worked and what didn’t in the first book, and can somewhat adjust course based on that if they’re good. And Locke is excellent. I really liked GIRL, don’t get me wrong, but I LOVED SPY. The characters were fantastic, and the way she addressed Wolf’s demisexuality was perfect.

The book is set in a time when being gay was straight-up illegal, and one of Wolf’s fellow spies asks him about it because it was apparently in his file. He tells her there’s no evidence of that because he doesn’t feel that way about ANYONE. (He’s lying, but we’ll get to that.) He can appreciate when people are attractive, but he doesn’t feel desire that way – except for one person. One person, who he’d known for years and been best friends with before those feelings showed themselves. They’d never acted on it, which is why there’s no evidence of it. Demisexual is on the asexual spectrum, and as such it varies wildly in terms of how sexual a person is, but Wolf’s demisexuality is the closest I’ve seen in fiction to my own, so it’s really special to me.

Veering away from representation specific to me, SPY, like GIRL, stars Jewish people at its heart. This time we have a pair of Jewish siblings from America, each fighting in WW II in their own way. Ilse with her brain, helping develop magic for the US, and Wolf more directly, sneaking around Germany and disrupting their forces. GIRL dealt more with the oppressed German Jews, while SPY shows us the other side – the Jews who are fighting back for their kin, even though they could stay in the US and be safe.

Both books are excellent reads. I’ve had the fortune to interact with Katherine Locke on Twitter quite a lot, and at this point I will pretty much read anything she publishes. I love her characters and her plotlines and the obvious care she takes with the representation. Fantastic book.

From the cover of The Spy with the Red Balloon:

In a nuclear arms race, you’d use anything for an edge. Even magic.

Ilse and Wolf Klein bear many secrets. Genius Ilse is unsure if her parents will ever accept her love of physics. Her brother, Wolf, strives for a quiet life, though he worries there’s no place in the world for people like him. But their deepest secret lies within their blood: with it, they can work magic.

Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes  behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the secret letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty – and find a way to help her brother – before their time runs out?

Loyalties and identities will be tested in this sweeping fantasy and fast-paced thriller that bravely explores the tensions at the dawn of the nuclear age.