Book Review: Black Enough

Black EnoughBlack Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America
Edited by Ibi Zoboi
Young Adult/Anthology/Contemporary Fiction
400 pages
Published January 2019

I’m not sure how to write this review or even if I SHOULD be writing this review. Black Enough is an anthology of stories about being young and black in America. (As the subtitle says.) I’m white. I don’t identify with these stories, but I wanted to read it to be exposed to other experiences. That’s WHY I try to read a lot of minority voices.

The problem is – I didn’t care for a decent portion of the book. But should that matter in writing a review of an #ownvoices book when I’m not part of the demographic? There are two authors I have previous problems with – Justina Ireland (author of Dread Nation, read my review for my issues with her) and Nic Stone, who wrote Odd One Out which I HAAAATED. Their short stories here had none of the issues their respective books did, but I tend not to separate art from artist, so I’m still side-eyeing their inclusion in this anthology. I also strongly disliked the editor’s own story, the last one in the book. But should that matter? There were stories I loved – Jay Coles’ Wild Horses, Wild Hearts, Lamar Giles’ Black. Nerd. Problems. and Leah Henderson’s Warning: Color May Fade were all amazing. But again, how much does that matter? I can’t speak for how real these stories are, or how well the authors capture these feelings because I don’t know. (Which is part of WHY I read these. To learn.)

I toyed with the idea of just not writing a review. But books like these are important, and need to be talked about and lifted up so more people can find them. Being one more white person refusing to talk about the subject ALSO isn’t the right call.

What I finally decided I can do is link to some #ownvoices reviews of the book. Don’t take my opinion on this book. Take theirs! (And, spoiler, they all loved it!)

Rich In Color’s review

Black Nerd Problems’ review (and I’m totally following this site now)

Crafty Scribbles’ review (okay, so I’m following all three of these sites now, and you should too!)

 

From the cover of Black Enough:

BLACK IS . . . sisters navigating their relationship at summer camp in Portland, Oregon, as written by Renee Watson.

BLACK IS . . . three friends walking back from the community pool talking about nothing and everything, in a story by Jason Reynolds.

BLACK IS . . . Nic Stone’s bougie debutante dating a boy her momma would never approve of.

BLACK IS . . . two girls kissing, in Justina Ireland’s story set in Maryland.

BLACK IS . . . urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more – because there are countless ways to be Black enough. 

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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 idea 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.

Book Review: Empress Of All Seasons

empress of all seasonsEmpress Of All Seasons
by Emiko Jean
Young Adult/Fantasy
375 pages
Published November 2018

I am so torn on this book. I’m really tired of the trope of “batch of girls competing to win a dude” that seems to be so popular lately. But this is an Asian take on the trope, so I don’t want to come down too hard on it for that. I attended a panel at the last Baltimore Book Festival about old tropes being resurrected by minority authors, and I agree that just because a trope might seem old and played out, putting a new spin on it with minority characters and themes deserves its own time. That is definitely valid. But they were talking about tropes like vampires and zombies and retold classics like Pride and Prejudice and Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure the trope of “girls competing to win a dude” deserves more time in any form. (To be fair, I kind of equally hate guys competing to win the hand of the princess. No one should be obligated to marry someone just because they won an arbitrary competition. There are all kinds of consent issues there.)

Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the characters, the variety of yõkai, the bits of myth interspersed throughout the book. I do question Akira being trained to be a master of shuriken in a matter of days – like, really? And I wish instead of summarizing a ton in the epilogue, she’d just written a sequel, because I think there’s enough material to do it. You’d think, with so much I didn’t like about the book, that my overall opinion would be negative – but it’s not. Even with all of those bad points, this book was enthralling and kept me reading right to the end.

Empress of all Seasons is a great Japanese-inspired fantasy that relies a little too much on old tropes. Set your inner critic to the side and just enjoy the ride, because the story is fantastic.

Empress of all Seasons also hits the “trope” theme for Year of the Asian’s February challenge!

From the cover of Empress Of All Seasons:

IN A PALACE OF ILLUSIONS, NOTHING IS WHAT IT SEEMS.

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete – all except yõkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent her life training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yõkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yõkai outcast. Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat fantasy.

Book Review: Blanca & Roja

blanca rojaBlanca & Roja
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Fantasy/Magical Realism
375 pages
Published October 2018

This is another enchanting tale from the author of The Weight of Feathers. She’s a little different from my normal fairy-tale retellings, as these are inspired by fairy tales, and have the atmosphere of fairy tales, but aren’t recognizably any particular tale, and definitely don’t follow the normal plot of an particular tale. We know the story of Snow White and Rose Red. This isn’t it. We know the story of the Swan Princess or Swan Prince. This isn’t it. It has elements of both stories. But it is something entirely new and absolutely enthralling.

The story also has minority representation; both girls are Latina, and we have a nonbinary love interest for one of the girls, who is a fascinating character in her own right. (She expresses preference for she/her pronouns in the book.) The other love interest is seeing-impaired. He’s not blind, but he has a lot of issues with depth perception, so he’s constantly running into things and misjudging where things are.

Blanca & Roja grow up in a family where there are always two daughters, and as soon as the youngest turns fifteen, a bevy of swans shows up and picks one of the sisters to become a swan and join them. When past sisters have resisted, the swans have taken both. Blanca & Roja love each other so much, though, that they can’t imagine living without the other. So they try to become as indistinguishable from each other as possible, in the hopes that the swans won’t be able to decide between them and leave them both alone. Blanca drinks bitter things and feeds Roja sweets, eats red rose petals and feeds Roja white ones, each doing the opposite of their personality to bring them closer together. That, of course, doesn’t work.

But when the swans finally do come, it’s after a local boy and his best friend have gone missing in the woods, and the two teens have gotten their lives entwined with Blanca & Roja’s. The magic surrounding them collides with the magic surrounding the sisters, and the story you expect is not the one you get.

At this point, I will read anything McLemore publishes, because she is outstanding. Her novels are magical, lyrical, and atmospheric, melding fairy tales into shiny new stories. I can’t rave about this author enough!

From the cover of Blanca & Roja:

THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL IS THE STORY YOU THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters – they’re also rivals and opposites, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them.

Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Book Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

how long til black future monthHow Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
by N. K. Jemisin
Anthology of short stories/Science Fiction/Fantasy
397 pages
Published November 2018

I’ve only read one other N. K. Jemisin book – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is the first book of her NOT Hugo-award-winning trilogy. I really ought to read the rest of her backlist, as she’s an amazing author. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of short fiction – windows into futuristic or fantasy or even contemporary worlds, all centering black characters. I think my favorite was The City, Born Great, about New York City waking up. L’Alchimista, about a talented chef given an impossible challenge, appealed to my baker’s heart, as did Cuisine des Mémoires, about a magical restaurant that can recreate any meal from any time. The Narcomancer sounded like something that could happen in my D&D game, and The Evaluators was slowly horrifying. The Storyteller’s Replacement and Cloud Dragon Skies both have dragons, one of my favorite fantasy features, as does the story Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.

Every story in this book was amazing. I’ve only specifically named a few, but every single one is excellent. Jemisin runs the gamut from sci-fi to cyberpunk to medieval fantasy to magical realism and contemporary fantasy. There are stories in parallel universes, purely online worlds, shattered universes, and worlds that seem to be our own with a touch of magic. Every one of them is brought to vivid life. Jemisin is an extraordinary writer, and her short fiction shows it.

These are intelligent stories, full of commentary on the current state of our world. From the Jim Crow South to the abandonment of New Orleans to floodwaters, to future apocalypses brought on by our negligence and space exploration spurred by climate destruction, Jemisin’s stories have footholds in reality that are hard to ignore.

Fantastic book. (And that cover is FIERCE.)

From the cover of How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?:

Three-time Hugo award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first short story collection.

N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed speculative fiction authors of our time. In the first collection of her short fiction, which includes several never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights with narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo Award-nominated short story “The City, Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

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.