Book Review: The Poet X

the poet xThe Poet X
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult/Poetry
357 pages
Published 2018

This is another much-hyped book – and oh man, did it stand up to the hype. Told entirely through poetry, this novel was extraordinarily powerful, and had me sobbing near the end. Xiomara is an amazing character, and her poetry shows us her emotions more than prose ever could.

I’ve always loved poetry for that reason; especially poetry that plays with formatting – spacing and line breaks and size of stanzas. It’s so much more evocative than simple paragraphs of prose. (My favorite poet is probably e.e. cummings, who is rather infamous for unusual formatting.)

Acavedo does similar things, making Xiomara’s poetry explode across the page when necessary, and ordering it into simpler stanzas in calmer moments. It’s not rhyming, even poetry; this is written slam poetry. And I love it.

Xiomara is Dominican, living in Harlem, with a very strict, religious mother. Her twin brother is gay but not out to their parents; Xiomara is fine with this but knows their mother won’t be. Her poems cover her need to protect her brother and herself, both from their parents and from the outside world. She writes about street harassment and questioning God and falling in love with a boy, which is also against her mother’s rules. Her poems are at turns heartbreaking and joyous, but always beautiful.

This is an amazing book, and is the second book on my Best of the Year list. I am blown away.

From the cover of The Poet X:

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours her frustration onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers – especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

When she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she knows that she could never get around Mami’s rules to attend, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems. 

Because in spite of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

Advertisements

Book Review: All Out

all outAll Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages
Edited by Saundra Mitchell
Short Story Anthology/Young Adult/Historical Fiction
353 pages
Published 2018

I have no explanation for why young adult story anthologies are SO. GOOD. But they are. This particular one revolves around queer teens in historical times. That’s about the only commonality; the genres vary from normal fiction to fantasy to magical realism. There are gay, lesbian, transgender, and asexual teens represented. I am a little annoyed that there don’t seem to be any bisexual teens in the anthology; it could be argued that at least one if not more are bi simply because they had opposite-sex relationships before the same-sex romance in the story, but that’s also common before realizing your sexuality/coming out. No one is explicitly bisexual in this book. There were also two transmen but no transwomen.

There was a decent amount of cultural diversity while remaining mostly centered in the US; Chinatown in 1950s San Francisco, 1870s Mexico, Colonial New England, 1930s Hispanic New Mexico, Robin Hood-era Britain.

The stories were really good, I just wish they’d included a bisexual story and a transwoman. They did have an asexual girl, which is a sexuality often overlooked, so that was nice. (I posted an excerpt from her story on Friday.)

It’s a great collection of stories, just limited in scope. They could have cut a few F/F stories and added in bisexual, nonbinary, and transwomen, and lived up to the open umbrella of the “queer” label a bit more. I really enjoyed it, I think I’m just a little disappointed because I was expecting more of the spectrum.

From the cover of All Out:

Take a journey through time and genres and discover a past where queer figures live, love, and shape the world around them. Seventeen of the best young adult authors across the queer spectrum have come together to create a collection of beautifully written diverse historical fiction for teens.

From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.

Book Review: The Bird King

the bird kingThe Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Historical Fantasy
402 pages
Published March 2019

I have not yet read G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, Alif the Unseen, but I really want to now, because this one was beautiful. I really enjoyed this story, watching Fatima mature through her travels and change from the sheltered Sultan’s concubine/possession to become – well – what she becomes.

The Bird King is the story of Fatima, concubine, and Hassan, mapmaker, on the run from the Inquisition. They were both members of the house of the last Sultan in Iberia. When the Spanish (and the Inquisition) came to negotiate his surrender, one of their conditions was they wanted Hassan, because of the magic he used in his maps. Hassan has been Fatima’s only real friend; he’s the only man that wanted nothing from her, because he’s gay and unmoved by her beauty. His sexuality has been largely ignored by the court; his maps were too important to the war effort, so it was tolerated and just not spoken of. When Fatima discovers the Sultan intends to turn Hassan over, she runs away with him. She has some unexpected help in her journey, which, along with Hassan’s mapmaking, makes this a kind of magical realist historical fantasy novel. It’s not really alternate history, because nobody’s actions change how history plays out on a large scale.

I really enjoyed Wilson’s writing style, and while I’d already been interested in the description of Alif the Unseen, given how much I like her writing here, I really need to read that as well. I’m pretty sure it’s on my Kindle!

From the cover of The Bird King:

G. Willow Wilson delivers her long-awaited second novel set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula.

The Bird King tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of the sultan of Granada, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret – he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime, as well as entertained a bored Fatima, who has never step foot outside the palace walls. When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima is tasked with welcoming their women. She befriends one of the women, little realizing that she represents the Inquisition and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and therefore a threat to Christian rule.

In order to escape the Inquisition, Fatima and Hassan embark on an epic voyage across Spain in search of refuge on a mysterious, possible mythic island. With everything on the line, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is, and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate. A triumphant tour de force with shadings of Pullman, Gaiman, L’Engle, and C. S. Lewis, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King is a jubilant story of love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety.

Book Review: Once & Future

once and futureOnce & Future
by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy
Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Young Adult/Retelling
354 pages
Published March 2019

This was March’s Illumicrate book, and it’s fantastic! I’d had my eye on it prior to finding out it was the pick for March, and was super happy when that was announced. It’s an exclusive cover, so I’m including a picture of my book too! I actually like the pink better, so I’m slightly saddened by that, but the content is far more important.

20190419_104939790720406498931650.jpgAnd the content is a riot! Ari is our main character, and she’s King Arthur reborn, as these stories always go. Merlin is aging backwards, as he often is, and he wakes up this time as a teenager and groans. It’s pretty hilarious. Arthur’s knights are various characters, of various ethnicities and sexualities. This is a HELLA queer book, and it’s great. We get bi, lesbian, gay, pan, omni – honestly it seems that in this future, people have just accepted that you’ll love who you will love, gender be damned. One of the knights is even ace!

There is going to be a sequel, though I’m not sure when it’s scheduled to be released. Not soon enough, is the real answer, in my opinion!

I realize I haven’t said much about the actual plot, but – really. It’s King Arthur and her knights, as queer teenagers, in space, fighting a giant corporation. That’s really all you need to know. Go read it!

From the cover of Once & Future:

A NEW KING ARTHUR HAS RISEN AND SHE’S GOT A UNIVERSE TO SAVE.

Coming to terms with your identity is always difficult. But for Ari, as the reincarnation of King Arthur, it just got a lot more complicated. What on Earth (or anywhere in space) can she hope to achieve with a rusty spaceship and an adolescent wizard called Merlin?

Gender-bending royalty, caustic wit and a galaxy-wide fight for peace and equality all collide in this brilliant reinvention of the Arthurian legend.

Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

priory of the orange treeThe Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Epic Fantasy
830 pages
Published February 2019

Holy COW, you guys. I keep saying “I haven’t read much epic fantasy lately” and “I don’t have time to read such long books/series” but I made an exception for Priory, and I’m SO glad I did. Just WOW.

So the basic premise of this world is that The Nameless One (some gigantic evil dragon) was locked away a thousand years ago, and all his minions with him. The exact details of how and who did it have been mostly lost to history. It’s said that as long as the House of Berethnet rules Inys, he’ll never rise again, and Berethnet queens always have one child, a daughter. The current queen, however, is unwed, and minions of The Nameless One have begun rising, and in fact have conquered a few neighboring nations. We have three main factions of countries; The East, who have dragon riders, but make a distinction between their dragons, who are aquatic and identify with the stars, and the evil minions of The Nameless One, who are full of fire. Then we have Virtudom, which is headed by Inys, and is a coalition of countries who have made a religion of the Knightly Virtues. This is the West, and they make no distinction between the draconic servants of The Nameless One and the water dragons of the East. This has forced a split between the West and the East, because Virtudom won’t have anything to do with countries that have anything to do with dragons, because most of what they see is the third faction – the Draconic countries. These are countries conquered by minions of the Nameless One, and they are full of chaos, fire, evil, and plague.

This is the world the book opens on. Most of our main characters – Queen Sabran, her handmaiden Ead, the dragonrider Tané – are women, but we also have Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist, and Lord Arteloth Beck, a friend of the Queen. In this world, women are just as capable as men, and are treated as such. There are female knights, and same-sex relationships are just as ordinary as opposite-sex ones. There is a bit too much moral emphasis placed on monogamy/sex within the bounds of marriage, but I guess that’s “Knightly Virtue” for you. Skin color is only mentioned a couple of times, but I seem to remember Lord Arteloth being described as very dark-skinned, and Ead as golden-brown. Rather nice to see a fantasy NOT all caught up in racial and gender differences. Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of bigotry, but in this book it’s based pretty much solely on nationality and religion. And when the biggest sticking point is “do you like evil dragons or not” that kind of makes sense!

I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its size. It’s unwieldy to read, at over 800 pages! I’m not sure why they didn’t break it into a duology. Regardless, if you have the choice, I’d read it on Kindle. It would be far easier to handle. I’m not complaining about the amount of text, mind you. Just the sheer physical size. I can’t imagine the story being told in less time. There’s So. Much. Here.

This book goes from Queen Sabran’s court to the dragonrider academy in the East, to the draconic kingdom of Yscalin, to the Abyss where the Nameless One sleeps. We see glittering courts, hidden islands, sweltering tunnels through volcanic mountains, and deep valleys with secret magic trees. We battle wyrms and cockatrices, swim through endless seas with dragonriders, sail through storms with pirate crews, and navigate the trickiest of diplomatic matters with courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree paints an elaborate, incredibly complex world and I am absolutely here for it.

Okay, so one tiny quibble – while I liked the romance, I feel like it started kind of oddly. I didn’t see any reason for the initial spark. From there, it progressed perfectly, but I just didn’t get the beginning.

This book has multiple queer couples! There’s at least one same-sex couple mentioned as attending a party; Doctor Roos spends a lot of time mourning his dead lover, and there’s the lesbian romance between a couple of main characters. And one character has at least strong affection for a man before falling in love with a woman; I think she was in love with both. No trans or ace rep, but plenty of gay, lesbian, and bi!

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read so far this year. It took me three days – it’s a big book – but it is absolutely fantastic.

From the cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree:

A WORLD DIVIDED.
A QUEENDOM WITHOUT AN HEIR.
AN ANCIENT ENEMY AWAKENS.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

Book Review: A Blade So Black

a blade so blackA Blade So Black
by L. L. McKinney
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy-Tale Retelling
370 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve seen the point brought up that so many fantasy protagonists have really neglectful parents. Who lets their kid be gone for an unknown amount of time doing something “important” that their kid refuses to tell them about because it’s a “secret”? This book makes a point of how NOT neglectful Alice’s mother is. The blurb calls her overprotective, but really it’s just normal protective. Alice’s mom just wants to know her daughter hasn’t been shot by the police when she’s gone for 24 hours and not answering her phone, that seems normal to me! I actually enjoyed how that was different than a lot of fantasy YA, even if it’s really a small sideplot.

In the main plot, Alice is a Dreamwalker, wielding Figment Blades and her own Muchness to kill the Nightmares that try to cross from Wonderland to our world. Her mentor is Addison Hatta, an exile from Wonderland who’s been charged to guard his Gateway and train new Dreamwalkers. Along the way we meet two more Dreamwalkers, more exiled Wonderlanders, and learn a bit about the war in Wonderland and why they’re exiled but still charged with such an important mission as guiding the Gateways between our world and theirs.

About the only thing I didn’t like about this book was how it left so many questions unanswered at the end. We got a cliffhanger to lead us into the sequel, A Dream So Dark, but it isn’t due out until September! I’m also wondering where the Cheshire Cat is – he’s too instrumental a character to leave out, I would think – but I have a few possible ideas about where the author is going with that, so I’m anxious for the sequel, to see if I’m right.

A Blade So Black is a very unique take on Wonderland by a POC author, starring a POC heroine. There’s also an adorable lesbian couple as side characters. With minority racial representation, a fairy tale base, and a splash of LGBT+ rep, this book checked a lot of the boxes I look for in my fantasy. It wasn’t the best YA fantasy that I’ve read in the last year, but it was definitely fun!

From the cover of A Blade So Black:

This isn’t the Wonderland you remember.

The first time a Nightmare came, Alice nearly lost her life. Now, with magic weapons and hard-core fighting skills, she battles these monstrous creatures in the dream realm known as Wonderland. Yet even warriors have curfews.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and school. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job.

When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.