Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney Published September 7, 2021
Showcasing her talent for writing clever books about navigating relationships in the 21st century, Sally Rooney’s highly anticipated and much discussed third novel speaks to the millennial experience.
Like all of her novels, I found this an enjoyable, well-written book, but sparks didn’t fly. It’s not you Sally Rooney, it’s me. I was lucky enough to meet her at a library reading/signing a few years ago and was impressed by how articulate, whip-smart, and thoughtful Rooney seemed to be. All of her novels have been solid 3.5 or 4 star reads for me, but I’m still searching for a Rooney novel that speaks to me in the same way her books have resonated with others. Beautiful World, Where Are You may not have been that book for me, but it’s a mature, well-written novel with an interesting structure, engaging characters, and the author’s trademark keen instinct for writing interpersonal relationships.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is about four characters and three central relationships. Alice, the author of two successful novels, is recuperating in the Irish countryside after a nervous breakdown. There she meets Felix, a warehouse worker, on a dating app and they begin an entanglement. Alice also corresponds by email with her university friend Eileen, who works a low paying job at a literary magazine. Sensitive and recovering from a break-up, Eileen turns to Simon, a man she’s loved since her childhood. Simon is several years her elder and works as a government policy adviser while seemingly dating a string of much younger women. All of these characters are, for different reasons, experiencing ennui.
Structured differently from her previous novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You alternates chapters between Eileen and Alice, but each third person day-in-the-life chapter is followed by a first person epistolary chapter framed as an email from Eileen to Alice or from Alice to Eileen. While their emails do discuss what’s going on in their lives and their feelings about recent developments, they also cover topics ranging from the collapse of Late Bronze Age civilization to the relationship of famous authors to their books, and from the instinct for beauty to God.
I love how Rooney uses these letters to build our understanding of Alice and Eileen’s friendship and to provide an outlet for their internalized thoughts. I also found it fascinating that these letters are the only way that we get to see Alice and Eileen interact for much of the book. The interplay between these letters and how ideas build and inform a response gives us insight into both characters, but arguably also into Rooney herself. This is especially evident in Alice’s musings on famous authors writing about an ordinary life that they no longer know anything about. As eloquent, and often interesting, as these letters are, some of them struck me as self-indulgent fragments of essays Rooney seemingly wants to write, more than as organic topics that arise between two friends.
One of Sally Rooney’s greatest strengths is her ability to write interpersonal relationships and in Beautiful World, Where Are You she mostly succeeds. The thing about alternating chapters is that there is usually one character you’re more interested in reading about and for me that was Eileen. Part of this is Eileen herself who, as a millennial approaching her thirtieth birthday and trying to figure out what she has to show for her life so far, is deeply relatable, but it’s also that Eileen’s relationships are more engaging.
The central relationship in Beautiful World, Where Are You is the one between Eileen and Alice. It’s refreshing to see friendship between two women centered like this and the dynamic between these two feels so real. In one of her letters, Alice writes that ‘great novels engage my sympathies and make me desire things’ and that when she reads books she wants the characters to be happy. Well, mission accomplished Sally Rooney because I just wanted Eileen and Alice to be happy!
Eileen’s other relationship is a decade long will they or won’t they thing with Simon which runs the gamut from friends to friends with benefits to lovers depending on what point in their lives they’re at. Huge props to Sally Rooney for writing this dynamic so well because it could easily be frustrating to watch Simon and Eileen go through the motions of getting closer only to put up obstacles, but when setbacks occur I wasn’t annoyed, instead I was thoroughly invested and hoping it could be fixed. I was also struck by Simon’s Catholicism and how much his faith means to him. Despite not being at all religious myself (or maybe because of it) I do find it interesting to read about characters who have a meaningful relationship with religion.
Unfortunately the remaining relationship in the book felt flat for me. As an author figuring out sudden fame and the relationship between a creator and their creations after publicity has taken a toll on her physical and mental health, Alice drew my attention, but I didn’t get her connection to Felix at all. The appeal for Alice of dating someone who is from an entirely different social circle and who has no interest in her as an author I understood, but besides good sex I never saw either character as being very interested in the other. Many of us have known people like Felix. I’d even wager many of us have watched a friend date a Felix, but have any of us hoped our friends would end up with a Felix? I liked Alice and I liked her letters, but I found it difficult to care about her and Felix as a couple.
Without spoiling anything, I also thought the ending felt unearned and wrapped things up a little too neatly.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is written in Sally Rooney’s trademark concise, but effective prose. Her dialogue is realistic and her spare descriptions effectively set each scene, making for a very visual reading experience. There’s also some pretty steamy sex scenes!
Sally Rooney fans will likely enjoy her latest novel, which manages to be similar to Normal People and Conversations With Friends without feeling like well-trodden territory.
TL;DR: Beautiful World, Where Are You is a strong effort that combines engaging characters, an interesting structure, and the author’s keen ability to write compelling interpersonal relationships.
How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual by Rebecca Burgess Published October 21, 2020
An intimate journey through author/illustrator Rebecca Burgess’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, How to Be Ace explores Burgess’ attempts to navigate a sex-obsessed culture and fit in with their peers. Over time, Burgess, who uses they/them pronouns, comes to understand and embrace their identity as an asexual person.
As a settled asexual woman in her thirties, personally I found How to Be Ace too didactic to be satisfying, but it’s an important resource that will appeal both to those looking to learn about asexuality and to younger readers questioning whether or not they belong on the asexual spectrum.
It feels in poor taste to give a star rating to such an intensely personal memoir, and especially one that is both written and illustrated by the subject. I do want to spend some time talking about what it is this memoir offers though, as well as its intended audience.
With a narrative style that is frank and no frills, Burgess’ book could, and frankly should, be recommended to older teenage and young adult audiences. While their language lacks subtlety, Burgess’ passionate account of their own experiences, as well as their attempts to educate about asexuality and advocate for asexual representation won me over.
The younger Rebecca’s journey of self-discovery is a largely internal one, and Burgess’ illustrations skillfully highlight Rebecca’s expressive face. It’s hard not to root for Rebecca and to want them to be happy. Burgess’ artistic style tends towards youthful, expressive faces, but their details and settings sometimes feel like an afterthought.
At the end of each chapter, Burgess devotes a page or two to clear explanations of different facets of asexuality. These include defining asexuality, explaining the difference between sexual attraction and romantic attraction, the different identities/labels under the asexual umbrella, common misconceptions about asexuals and their unique relationships to sex, and the lack of representation in the media. Even if these panels depict things about asexuality you already know, Burgess’ enthusiasm for the material is infectious.
Now working as a freelance illustrator, Rebecca Burgess advocates not only for understanding of asexuality, but also for understanding of autistic people. How to Be Ace is as much a book about Burgess’ self-discovery and acceptance of their queerness as it is about their obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks, and phobias. I’ve spoken with other asexual people about their experiences, but my knowledge of OCD and panic attacks is more limited. I can’t say I enjoyed reading about Rebecca’s struggles, but I found the glimpse Burgess offers into living with OCD and severe phobias to be illuminating and very moving.
How to Be Ace will work for a lot of people; I’m just not its intended audience. This graphic memoir is an excellent resource to recommend to young readers questioning whether or not they are a part of the asexuality community though, while those who are not asexual but are looking to learn about asexuality will also find it a useful read.
TL;DR: An easily digestible, helpful teaching resource for older teenage/young adult readers questioning whether or not they are asexual and for those hoping to learn more about this identity.
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells Published July 21, 1998
Involving necromancy, heists, and revenge, The Death of the Necromancer is both an atmospheric, gaslight fantasy novel and a whodunnit. The book could be described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and The Count of Monte Cristo and it’s one of the more successful works drawing inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon that I’ve ever read. While The Death of the Necromancer delivers a fast-paced adventure, I felt a little disengaged throughout. I don’t think this bookwill stay with me for long, but I’m still glad that I picked it up.
My main takeaway from The Death of the Necromancer is how versatile an author Martha Wells is. Like many of my fellow readers, I’m most familiar with Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, her series of science-fiction novellas (and one novel) about a snarky security unit that would rather be left alone to watch media. What a change it is to read instead about Nicholas Valiarde, embittered nobleman and ringleader of a band of thieves!
The Death of the Necromancer takes place in a fantasy world reminiscent of late 18th/early 19th century France, with its sewers, catacombs, greatcoats, and gaslit streets. Throw in some spells, ghouls, and a little vivisection and It’s an atmospheric setting that makes this book a perfect read for spooky season!
Nicholas Valiarde, whose alter ego is Ile-Rien’s greatest criminal, Donatien, is our protagonist. Some years before the novel takes place, Count Montesq successfully orchestrated the wrongful execution of Valiarde’s godfather on charges of necromancy. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, Valiarde finances his quest for revenge by stealing from wealthy nobles, but when perilous occurrences and traces of necromantic power that haven’t been used for centuries begin to appear, Valiarde and his band of criminals must evade the police and get to the bottom of a tangled conspiracy before it costs them their lives.
Wells has stated on her blog that Nicholas Valiarde is a character who could have turned into his world’s Professor Moriarty, if not for the intervention of his godfather. In some ways Valiarde reminds me of Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz Brekker – they’ve both turned to a life of crime after losing someone close to them, both confide (occasionally) in the women they love, and both are closed off schemers who are out for revenge – yet I always felt at arms length from Valiarde. A little in awe, perhaps, but his single-mindedness and unavailability make Valiarde a difficult character to perceive.
I was also never fully invested in the romance between Valiarde and Madeline, a pragmatic actress/grifter. That might be because the characters don’t actually spend a lot of time in each other’s company over the course of the book, but I think the more likely reason is that they were both more interesting to read about and displayed more of their characterization in dialogue with other people. I liked Valiarde best in his scenes with Arisilde, a capable sorcerer with a crippling opium addiction, and Madeline comes to life with Doctor Halle and with a member of her family.
Even though I was underwhelmed by/never understood the central romance and despite I having trouble connecting to Valiarde, the wonderful secondary characters in this book make up for these shortcomings. I would happily read a spin-off about any one of these characters! From Wildesque Captain Reynard (a gay character in a fantasy book in 1998!), who has an unearned reputation of being a flighty dandy but is actually a loyal friend and former soldier, to well-meaning, but drug-addled, sorcerer Arisilde, who manages to embody both strength and weakness, to Holmesian Inspector Ronsarde, who proves a worthy opponent for Valiarde’s wits, and Ronsarde’s faithful assistant Doctor Halle.
Technically this is Book #2 in the Ile-Rien series, but it’s set 100 years after the first book in the series, The Element of Fire, and features an entirely new cast of characters. I picked up The Death of the Necromancer without reading the first book and found it perfectly capable of standing alone. I suspect I missed a tiny bit of a worldbuilding that would have served to put this book in context, but the impact is minimal.
I’m still in a bit of a pandemic reading lull and while The Death of the Necromancer may not have cured my slump, it is something I kept reaching for, even when the siren song of social media called. It’s short, exciting, and comes to a satisfying and clever conclusion worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
I don’t know that any of Martha Wells’ past works will surpass the Murderbot Diaries for me, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to read one of her fantasy novels and I look forward to diving into the Raksura Series at some point in the future.
Observed each year on September 23rd, Celebrate Bisexuality Day recognizes and celebrates bisexual people, the bisexual community, and the history of bisexuality. As a book blogger/librarian it seems only natural to celebrate my bisexual friends by recommending some fantastic reads that feature bisexual protagonists!
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
When I first started to readSwordspoint, I thought that the relationship between Alec and St. Vier read as romantic. “It can’t be” I remember thinking; after all, it was 2014 and I was reading A) a fantasy book at a time when there was very little LGBT+ representation in the genre, and b) a book originally published in 1987. I was surprised and delighted when I learned that Alec, an enigmatic, self-destructive scholar, and Richard St. Vier, a swordsman-for-hire, are in a romantic relationship and both characters are bisexual!
Swordspoint is a delightful “fantasy of manners”, a subgenre that draws upon adventure stories like “The Three Musketeers”, the social novels of Jane Austen, and traditional high fantasy. It’s less focused on plot and more on its characters and the relationships between them. Written in gorgeous prose, Swordspoint is one of my all-time favourites and I love the complicated, intense love between these men. If, like me, you can’t get enough of Richard and Alec, rest assured that they appear in Ellen Kushner’s follow-up The Privilege of the Sword, and in a number of short stories set in the world of Riverside. Fair warning though, at least one of them made me bawl like a baby!
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
In this YA dystopia, the United Nations appointed Talis, an artificial intelligence, to oversee the world and prevent nation states from warring following a climate catastrophe. Talis requires the heads of each nation to offer up a child as a guarantee of obedience. Should they declare war, the life of their child is forfeit. Royal High Princess Greta is one such hostage/”Child of Peace” and throughout the book she has feelings for both the rebellious Elián, a boy from a newly formed nation that threatens her borders, and for Xie, a close friend that she has grown up with. This is definitely a dark read more along the lines of The Hunger Games than some of the lighter entries on this list, but it’s a compelling book and I loved that it features a Bisexual Canadian Princess as its protagonist!
Red, White, and Royal Blueby Casey McQuiston
I’m not someone who reads many romances, but Red, White and Royal Blue was just the feelgood book I needed. Set in an alternate 2020 where America’s first female president is getting ready to run for re-election, Red, White and Royal Blue is about the First Son of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz. When Alex causes an incident at a royal wedding, he’s forced to pretend to become friends with England’s Prince Henry in order to prevent a diplomatic incident, but as the two begin to spend time together,, real feelings develop. They eventually become romantically involved when Henry reveals that he’s gay and Alex discovers he is bisexual. This is such a fluffy, optimistic book about hope and love winning out that even if the politics and grasp on the British royal family is a little lacking, I am happy to suspend my disbelief and just exist in this lovely world.
The Councillor by E.J. Beaton
If Alex Claremont-Diaz fits the disaster bisexual trope, then Lysande Prior is the contrasting functional bisexual in this clever Machiavellian fantasy. What I love most about Lysande is how set apart she is from many other fantasy protagonists. There is a quiet capability to Lysande. Having watched the Queen she loves die in front of her, Lysande is still able to adapt to a new position of power, to learn to play the game of politics being waged by the city-rulers now vying for the throne, and to balance her addiction to a drug called ‘scale’. Although she’s bookish by nature, a scholar whose weapons have always previously been her words and her quill, Lysande steps up in this most dangerous of games. The Councillor is a boldly sensuous and tremendously fun read with a bisexual protagonist to root for!
Slippery Creatures by K.J. Charles
WWI veteran Will Darling has just taken over running his uncle’s second-hand bookshop when he stumbles into trouble. First a criminal gang and then the War Office pay calls insisting that he turn over information that Will doesn’t have… or else. KJ Charles’ delightful 1920s set romance trilogy is written in the spirit of Golden Age pulp fiction. Our protagonist Will is stubborn, honest, loyal, and attracted to both men and women. He meets his match in Kim Secretan, an enigmatic stranger who is frustratingly difficult to read and seems allergic to telling the truth. I’ve read the first two books in the Will Darling Adventures series so far and I absolutely adore them. First of all the chemistry between Will and Kim is everything you hope for in a romance. Their scenes together are charged and passionate, not just sexually but also in the intensity of how they feel about one another. But the characters also have real issues to work through and they keep finding themselves in high stakes situations. I’ve been trying to read this series slowly in order to savor it, but it’s so addictive!
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
I just read The Space Between Worlds this month and it’s one of my favourite things that I’ve read all year! Micaiah Johnson’s debut is a tightly plotted, perfectly-paced, sci-fi dystopia about identity and privilege. The Space Between Worlds is set on an Earth where multiverse travel is possible with one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, a poor Black girl plucked from the rural wastelands because her life has been cut short on 372 other worlds. Now she has an apartment in walled-off Wiley City, an aloof but beautiful handler to flirt with, and is on the road to citizenship and security, but when one of her few remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, Cara is drawn into a plot that threatens the entire multiverse.
Let’s talk about Cara for a second because I adore her. Cara is a survivor. She has been through trauma, toxic relationships, and watched other versions of herself die, but she’s determined to keep going. Even when she knows that she could lose everything by choosing to speak out and take action against what she knows is wrong, Cara has the strength to do it. She’s also bisexual; Cara has had relationships with men in the past but throughout The Space Between Worlds her thoughts are frequently with her privileged female handler, Dell. You will not regret reading this book!
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman
Alice Oseman’s webcomic about teenage schoolmates Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, is a gentle love story. Bullied by his peers, Charlie is hesitant to believe that Nick feels anything more for him than friendship, while Nick is still figuring out that he is bisexual. Even though the characters may deal with serious issues like bullying, coming out, and eating disorders, this series is an immersive delight that gives me warm and fuzzy feelings. I loved spending time with Nick and Charlie and with their diverse group of friends.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins-Reid
When reclusive film star Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life, her loves, and her rise to fame, she requests unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job. At the center of this very human story is the titular Evelyn Hugo, a fictional film star reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor. A complex anti-heroine, Evelyn is not always likable. In fact she’s often not, displaying a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to doing what she believes she must to protect herself and her career. She’s also completely unapologetic about the decisions she’s made to get ahead. I love flawed anti-heroines and Evelyn is one for the ages. Her strong personality is part of what makes this book such a compelling read. Of course this book is also far less heterosexual than the title may suggest and Evelyn’s proud proclamation of her sexuality will no doubt be empowering to many.
Do you have any favourite books with bisexual protagonists to recommend? Let me know in the comments. Happy Celebrate Bisexuality Day!
My blog has been a little review heavy lately as I try to catch up on talking about books I’ve read over the last several months, so I’m getting back into Top 5 Tuesday with a topic that was too enticing to miss out on – my top 5 favourite series! I promise I’ll stick to the format guidelines next time, but it was so hard for me to narrow this list down that I’m not just cheating, I’m MASSIVELY CHEATING. Since it’s the 14th of September, here are fourteen of my favourites instead.
SEPTEMBER 14TH – Top Five Fourteen Favourite Seriesof All Time
Captive Prince Series by C.S. Pacat
What is it? A three-book fantasy romance about Prince Damen, who is betrayed by his half-brother and by his lover as they seize power in a coup. Stripped of his identity and sent to serve an enemy prince as a pleasure slave, Damen is soon caught up in a power play and must work with Laurent to survive and save his country.
Why do I love it? I got into this series back when it was being posted in updates on Livejournal and yes, my old livejournal username may be among those thanked for reading/commenting in the acknowledgments, so this holds a special place in my heart. It’s been thrilling to see the series published and to watch it achieve mainstream success. The first half of the first book is definitely something that will, understandably, turn people off; it’s very rapey and there’s other content that is definitely not what you expect in a romance. If you do decide to keep reading though, the series moves past this and become an enjoyable guilty pleasure with some actual emotional depth. The relationship that grows betwen Damen and Laurent is intense and worthy of shipping and Pacat keeps us guessing about how much each character knows. I also love the political intrigue of this world and the sense of tension throughout. It’s very clear that Pacat was inspired by my favourite author (further up the list) and you can see where she’s borrowed from Dunnett in an affectionate pastiche.
Favourite Book: Kings Rising Least Favourite Book: Captive Prince
The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie
What is it? The Hugo Award sci-fi trilogy about a millennia old startship AI that inhabits the body of a single human “ancillary” named Breq. As the starship Justice of Toren, she once had thousands of bodies (ancillaries) at her disposal and was connected at all times to her crew, but 20 years ago a betrayal left Justice of Toren isolated and (more or less) human. Now she’s out for revenge.
Why do I love it? This series is one of the most unique I’ve ever read. The worldbuilding is exceptional with Leckie giving us details about the Radchaai Empire’s customs, taboos, and language, and I loved that this series zags when you expect it to zig. Instead of getting bigger and more explosive with its storylines as the series goes on, the Imperial Radch trilogy focuses on character development and sharp social critique. While the use of all she/her pronouns (the Radchaai language and society is unconcerned with gender) is initially jarring, I ultimately found it really effective.
Favourite Book: Ancillary Sword Least Favourite Book: Ancillary Justice
Teixcalaan Series by Arkady Martine
What is it? Arkady Martine won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for her intelligent space opera A Memory Called Empire. Its sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, was published earlier this year. When Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives at the center of the Teixcalaani Empire, she learns that her predecessor has died and that his death may not have been an accident. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion.
Why do I love it? A Desolation Called Peace is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I loved A Memory Called Empire as well. Both are almost intimidatingly smart science-fiction that tackle colonization in a very realistic way, especially through ambassador Mahit Dzmare who both loves the Empire’s cultural output and hates its reach. She wants so badly to belong, but also hates that she has this desire and knows that in the eyes of the Empire’s citizens she will always be a barbarian outsider. It makes for delicious internal conflict, even as Mahit also feels a connection to her Teixcalaan attaché, Three Seagrass. The worldbuilding is outstanding and the politics and plotting are clever and intricate.
Favourite Book: A Desolation Called Peace Least Favourite Book: A Memory Called Empire
The Shades of Magic Series by V.E. Schwab
What is it? A fantasy trilogy about one of the last magicians, who has the coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. Officially Kell, the adopted son of the Maresh King, is an ambassador between courts and worlds, but unofficially he’s a smuggler. When an exchange goes awry, the consequences of his dangerous hobby catch up to Kell and the fate of all Londons may lie in the balance.
Why do I love it? A lot of V.E. Schwab’s books tend to get stuck in what I think of as 4.25 star territory. They’re good, they’re definitely enjoyable, but there’s just something missing. There can also be a sameness to her female protagonists. I adored this series though. Perhaps partly because it’s written in fantasy early 19th century, partly the parallel Londons setting, and partly because I love Kell with his peculiar coat and furrowed-brow and bond with his brother Rhy, this series hooked me. It’s fast-paced, high-stakes, and tremendously fun.
Favourite Book: A Conjuring of Light Least Favourite Book: A Darker Shade of Magic/A Gathering of Shadows
The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers
What is it? The beloved cozy sci-fi series about characters from different species and representing a wide range of genders and sexualities coming together in understanding. Hopeful, optimistic, and sure to break a reading slump.
Why do I love it? Wayfarers is such a comforting warm hug of a read. The books are character, rather than plot, driven and Chambers builds an inventive world populated by species that have a wide range of appearances, customs, taboos, and rituals. Her books are often about the families you choose, rather than the ones you’re born into, and are about daring to hope and to try and do better.
Favourite Book: A Closed and Common Orbit Least Favourite Book: Record of a Spaceborn Few
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
What is it? N.K. Jemisin made history when she became the first person to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row and the first person to win for all three books in a trilogy. Her groundbreaking dystopia is about a world where mass climate events wiping out chunks of civilization every few generations. Some individuals (known as orogenes) have the power to control and create earthquakes, but they are feared, used, and brainwashed from a young age to obey. When her husband murders their young son and kidnaps their daughter, Essun pursues her surviving family through a deadly, dying world.
Why do I love it? This series is a masterpiece and Jemisin deserved every one of her Hugo Awards. Jemisin’s lyrical prose and complex, fully-realized world are reasons enough to read the Broken Earth Trilogy, but I also love her characters, who are not always likeable but always understandable. Protagonist Essun especially has a tremendous character arc throughout the series. Intelligent, diverse, and well-written science-fiction.
Favourite Book: The Fifth Season/The Stone Sky Least Favourite Book: Obelisk Gate
The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett
What is it? Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy trilogy about a fictional continent where the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed have been reversed. Once near-omnipotent beings conquered and enslaved the neighbouring island nation of Saypur. But when the Saypuri found a way to kill the divinities, they emerged as a military power occupying the continent. Officially Saypuri spy Shara Komayd is visiting the continent on a diplomatic assignment. Unofficially she’s investigating a murder and discovers a plot to try to restore a divine regime.
Why do I love it? Robert Jackson Bennett is one of the few white men writing fantasy that I trust to write women well. I absolutely adore his vividly rendered characters! In City of Stairs he gave us Shara, a glasses-wearing, tea-drinking, quiet and clever WoC spy. In City of Blades we got General Turyin Mulaghesh, a foul-mouthed, one-armed, middle-aged female soldier. His worldbuilding is first-rate (are you sensing a pattern in my favourite series yet?) as it incorporates the world’s mythology about their dead divinities and I was engaged throughout.
Favourite Book: City of Stairs/City of Blades Least Favourite Book: City of Miracles
The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
What is it? Set in medieval Russia and incorporating elements of Russian mythology and folklore, the Winternight Trilogy is a historical fantasy about a free-spirited nobleman’s daughter, Vasya Petrovna, who is able to see and communicate with mythological creatures.
Why do I love it? I’m not someone who does much in the way of seasonal reading but The Bear and the Nightingale is the perfect winter read. I just want to curl up under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and watch snow fall outside when I read this series! I’m also not big on fairy tales and retellings but I absolutely loved these books. The prose has a lyrical enchanting quality to it and Arden writes in a way that appeals to the senses, richly recreating the world of medieval Russia through imagery. I found the tension between the Orthodox church and the old traditions based in folklore and slavic myths intriguing, and I loved the fully-realized characters, especially Vasya.
Favourite Book: The Bear and the Nightingale/The Winter of the Witch Least Favourite Book: The Girl in the Tower
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
What is it? A contemporary YA fantasy trilogy about five Virginia teens on a quest to find the Welsh king Owain Glendower who is thought to be buried along the ley line, of Henrietta, Virginia, and wake him from his slumber.
Why do I love it? This series! I have a lot of feelings about this series. I love that the books are focused on friendship and that the author even had a post-it nearby as she wrote to help her remember that “the worst thing that could happen was that they could stop being friends.” YA as a genre can be so concerned with romance. Even though there’s romance here and I enjoyed the romance, it always felt like it was secondary to this epic friendship between a group of teenagers from different upbringings. As someone who loves fantasy I was also really wrapped up in the magical and destiny elements of the story, and how atmospheric the writing is, but the reason this quartet works so well is its wonderful characters.
Favourite Book: The Dream Thieves/Blue Lily, Lily Blue Least Favourite Book: The Raven King
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
What is it? The Hugo award-winning series of novellas (and one full-length novel!) about a part human and part bot, agender security unit. Although it lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property by the company that controls it, this SecUnit (who privately refers to itself as Murderbot), has hacked the governor module that tells it what to do, allowing it to make cho
Why do I love it? I don’t know if I’ve ever related to a character more than Murderbot. All Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to binge-watch its shows in peace, half-ass its security job, and not have to talk to anyone, but the humans it’s supposed to be working for keep getting into trouble and Murderbot keeps saving their lives. Murderbot’s first-person point-of-view is snarky, self-deprecating, and honest, but also, at times, surprisingly touching. The books are well-plotted, fast-paced, competence kink as Murderbot uses its proficiency to protect the humans it definitely doesn’t care about. Nope, no caring at all to be seen…
On a personal note, there are entire essays that could be written about Murderbot and the queer community. As an asexual person, I normally get annoyed at robot/androids being considered ace representation since it plays into cold, aloof, inhuman stereotypes that asexuals face, but I would be 100% okay with being represented by Murderbot. I’ve had conversations with friends in the queer community and the owner of my local SFF indie bookstore about how many asexuals and some trans and non-binary people connect with this character, which is pretty special.
Favourite Book: Artificial Condition (maybe? I love them all) Least Favourite Book: Network Effect, but I did read it during quarantine so it deserves a re-read in more normal times.
The Doctrine of Labyrinths Series by Sarah Monette
What is it? Better known as Katherine Addison, who wrote The Goblin Emperor, this is Sarah Monette’s first fantasy series about a dysfunctional gay wizard, Felix Harrowgate, and his cat burglar half-brother from an equally dismal past, Mildmay. Comprising four books, it’s primarily about the gradual process of recovery from trauma. The characters never really get over what has happened to them, so much as try to process and work through it (in very much a two steps forward, one step back kind of way) to slowly, eventually, heal. There are massive content warnings for this series though so I advise being aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
Why do I love it? I absolutely love this series and am heartbroken that it’s out of print. Please ignore the covers that make it look like a bad paranormal romance and just lose yourself in the fascinating worldbuilding that strongly features labyrinths and Monette’s distinct voices that she has for alternating first-person chapters from Felix and Mildmay’s POV. Mildmay is one of my all-time favourite characters and I love the complicated, co-dependent and not always healthy bond he has with his half-brother throughout. From Goodreads it looks like this is a series you either love or hate with very little in between, so it may not be for you but it was very much for me.
Favourite Book: The Virtu and The Mirador Least Favourite Book: Corambis
The Amberlough Dossier by Lara Elena Donnelly
What is it? Deeply relevant to recent political events, this fantasy trilogy is set in a secondary world reminiscent of Weimar Republic Berlin as the fascist One State Party rises to power. After his cover is blown on a mission, the emotionally and physically scarred spy Cyril DePaul becomes a turncoat in order to preserve his life and that of his lover. Amberlough is an espionage thriller about people and the choices, and sacrifices, they make under pressure.
Why do I love it? Donnelly’s prose is exquisite; atmospheric and sensual it creates a richly imagined sense of place. I absolutely love the moral ambiguity of this world and how realistic it is that this series is about people making choices and deciding what they value the most, whether it’s themselves, their partners, or a democratic society. The dance of a relationship between Cyril and Aristide Makricosta, a smuggler and emcee of the cabaret, as they compartmentalize and avoid talking about their feelings is a highlight. I have also never been as tense reading a book as I was Amberlough. The aura of danger as the book goes on and the water rises around our characters is terrifying but compelling and I couldn’t put it down! The series is brought to an incredibly satisfying conclusion as well, that feels earned and appropriate.
Favourite Book: Amberlough/Amnesty Least Favourite Book: Armistice
The Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo
What is it? A YA Fantasy duology in which criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker gathers a crew of misfits to pull off a heist that could make them rich beyond their wildest dreams…if it doesn’t kill them first. An absolute masterpiece. I literally don’t trust people who didn’t enjoy this series.
Why do I love it? This is the series I universally recommend, regardless of age, gender, and reading preferences. People who don’t usually read YA or Fantasy have enjoyed it. People who don’t usually read period have enjoyed it. It’s just that good! The plotting is impeccable. The stakes get higher and higher as the books go on and they’re also intensely personal, with Bardugo placing each character in situations that personally test them and push them to their limits. The dynamics between characters are fabulous as their relationships develop and grow, and Kaz and Inej in particular are absolutely wonderful to watch. Each of the characters in their own right (okay, except maybe Matthias because really who cares?) are engaging and well developed and I would read a spin-off on any one of them. I could re-read this series forever, and probably will.
What is it? It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that my favourite series of all time is the Lymond Chronicles. Written by Dorothy Dunnett in the 1960s/70s, this is a dense six-book historical fiction epic that spans ten years of European history. In 1547 the exiled Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond returns to his homeland to redeem his reputation and protect Scotland, and its child Queen, from the English threat. Dunnett was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature and she is counted as an influence by authors such as Katherine Arden, Juliet Marillier, C.S. Pacat, Ellen Kushner, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Max Gladstone.
Why do I love it? These books are an experience. You spend the first fifty to a hundred pages of the first book in the series, The Game of Kings, wondering what’s going on and what you’ve gotten yourself into but still weirdly enjoying the ride, and then the last third hits you with all of the feels and you finally gain some understanding of the often infuriating enigmatic protagonist.
The fandom might be a cult (a very nice, very well-intentioned cult, eager for new members to delight in its niche interest) and the author throws you into the deep-end with her untranslated or referenced quotes of medieval songs and poetry, but once you move beyond that this series is one of the most brilliant, affecting, intelligent things I have ever or will ever read.
The prose sometimes makes you put the book down to marvel at Dorothy Dunnett’s skill and envy the way she can turn a phrase. The way she uses perspective, only a handful of times placing us into the mind of Francis Crawford, and mostly making us see him through the unreliable eyes of others, is masterful, as is her ability to build and maintain tension. It’s the characters themselves and the dynamics between them that make this such a delight though. As much as I sometimes want to slap our handsome, sharp-tongued polyglot of a protagonist, I mostly adore him and just want him to have happiness, and possibly a long nap.
Favourite Book: The Game of Kings and Pawn in Frankincense Least Favourite Book: The Ringed Castle
As you can see, I have a lot of thoughts about series! These are my absolute favourites, the ones I look forward to re-read and gleaning more from the next time around. Have you read any of these? What are your favourites series?
Earlier this year, Marija of Inside My Library Mind read a book about chickens. “The Chicken Book” consumed her thoughts and she was so successful in spreading The Chicken Book gospel that it spawned a group chat in which I’ve met new friends, an international zoom meet-up, and even a book exchange! So how does Jackie Polzin’s Brood measure up? I’m thrilled to say (and not just because Marija would cancel me if I hated it) that I really enjoyed it! Brood is a surprisingly profound book about one woman’s quest to care for and keep her small brood of four chickens alive over the course of a year. Battling a Minnesota winter, the elements, predators, and bad luck, our unnamed narrator intersperses reflections on her life, motherhood, and letting go with observations about the nature of chickens. The result is a meditative and melancholic novel that leaves a mark long after you’ve turned the final page.
Being a bird person myself, I loved learning about the personalities of the four chickens (wonderfully named Gloria, Gam Gam, Darkness, and Miss Hennepin County) and my one criticism is that I would have liked even more chicken content in this chicken book. Of course it’s less about the chickens than it is the narrator’s life. Her solitude and grief are palpable and I grew attached to both her and the chickens. Jackie Polzin’s voice is wry and engaging; if I hadn’t been told this was her first novel, I never would have guessed it. I refuse to get anymore granular than half stars, but Brood was really more of a 4.25 star read for me. I loved this slim, quietly affecting book.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Somehow I made it to adulthood without ever finding The Great Gatsby or any other work by Fitzgerald on an assigned reading list. Although it’s been vaguely on my TBR for years, the main reason I finally picked it up was to have a better grounding for Nghi Vo’s The Great Gatsby retelling, The Chosen and the Beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through the inevitable classroom discussions on what the green light symbolizes though, because it allowed me to come at the story with fresh eyes and be swept away by Fitzgerald’s magnificently atmospheric prose!
It’s easy to see why The Great Gatsby has endured as a beloved American novel. It’s a fascinating snapshot into a particular moment in history and a deconstruction of The American Dream, but it’s the prose that elevates this novel into something extraordinary. Fitzgerald weaves such a vibrant picture of 1920s Long Island that I could practically feel the heat and hear the music. His writing is sharp and precise as it comments on society, yet lyrically seductive too. I will definitely be re-reading The Great Gatsby in the future and I’m glad to have finally discovered its charms.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
This was one of my most anticipated reads of the year and I don’t know if it was the right book at the wrong time or the magic of Clark’s novellas not clicking in a full-length novel, but I struggled a bit with this. I liked A Master of Djinn when I was actively reading it, but would put it down for long periods of time and only really read on my commute. The worldbuilding in Clark’s alternate steampunk Cairo universe is absolutely fantastic and this book is no exception. It’s such a visual, cinematic world that I would love to see this adapted for the screen! It’s also a joy to see women centered like this. Sharp-dressing investigator Fatma is like few protagonists I’ve encountered before and I especially enjoyed the twist on the veteran/rookie agent relationship we see with Fatma and Hadia.
One of the issues I had with this book was that Fatma is supposed to be this hyper-competent gifted agent, and admittedly she has other stuff going on in her life, but she just doesn’t seem very observant? I’m not someone who usually guesses the plot twists in a mystery but I figured out the identity of the imposter here pretty quickly while it took the book characters awhile to catch on. I also wished the characters were a little more fleshed out than they are here. A Master of Djinn is still an enjoyable read, it just wasn’t the knockout I hoped it would be.
Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett
This middle book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders Trilogy didn’t wow me the way Foundryside did, but there’s a lot to like here – especially if you’re fond of the found family trope. It’s these characters and their relationships with one another that make this book sing. The bonds between the foundryside crew make each character stronger and more capable than they would be on their own, showing that love, in all its forms, is not a weakness. Street smart Sancia and her genius nerd girlfriend Berenice remain a joy and I love Gregor, who continues to grapple with his lack of free will and the fall out of that in a very Winter Soldieresque fashion. The magic system, which serves as a clever parallel for coding/computer programming in our world, is also fascinating, especially when the open source foundryside library is contrasted against elite design firms who keep their intellectual property to themselves.
Ultimately I thought Shorefall just ran out of steam. It starts off well enough and effectively raises the stakes with harrowing life or death situations, but the plot has multiple climaxes and I found them murkier and less impactful as the story continued. I was also put off by the book’s heavy-handed foreshadowing; It reminded me of TV shows where a character suddenly has all of their problems neatly wrapped up and poignant moments with their loved ones, so you just know they’re being written out. I wish Shorefall was a more focused and impactful book, but I still enjoyed spending time with the characters.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers Published April 20, 2021
After liking, but not loving, Record of a Spaceborn Few and To Be Taught, If Fortunate, I wondered if the shine on Becky Chambers’ particular style of soft, queer, sci-fi had worn off. But it turns out there’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you realize just how much you need some hopepunk in your life.
Pandemic or not, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is an engaging read that brings the much loved Wayfarers series to a satisfying end, but does a story about being isolated and stuck in one place due to circumstances outside your control hit differently these days? Yes, yes it does. Did I appreciate it all the more for the kindness its characters regularly show to their fellow travelers as they wait out their predicament together? Also yes.
Most of the book is set on Gora, an unremarkable planet popular only as a stopover for ships travelling between wormholes to more popular worlds. When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from the planet, it strands three strangers with only each other and their hosts Oolou and her child Tulu for company. As the delays persist, Pei, a cargo runner torn between her duty to her people and her heart’s desires, exiled artist Roveg, who has an important appointment to keep, and Speaker, separated from her sister and fearing for her health, must confront their pasts and where they are going.
In many ways, reading The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feels like coming home. It offers the same known comfort as being able to slip into your pajama pants after a day of work. The characters in this book are (largely) new, as is the setting, but the ways in which they interact and come together are familiar. Each of the stranded travelers comes from a completely different way of life and is a member of a separate species, and although they do not always understand one another or agree with their views, they make an effort. They try.
Both the characters themselves and their predicaments are engaging as Chambers gradually peels back the layers to reveal more about each stranger to their fellow travelers and to us readers. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within never feels preachy, but importantly each of the characters in the book has resonance in our world. This is most evident with Speaker, a member of the marginalized and misunderstood akarak species that lives on the fringes of society. Forcibly displaced from their homeworld due to colonization by another species, akaraks have parallels with indigenous peoples as well as those who are stateless on our world. The akaraks’ unique physiology also means that they can be read as a metaphor for disability.
Chambers cleverly brings the Wayfarers series full-circle in this latest book, connecting it to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Like Small, Angry Planet, there is little in the way of the plot. This is a character-driven book about the journey, rather than the destination. Once again the spotlight is firmly on people gaining a new understanding of and appreciation for those who are different. It also features Pei, a character who previously appeared in the series as Captain Ashby’s Aeluon romantic partner.
In many ways The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is a book about choices, both those ahead of us and those we have already made. While Roveg has already made his choice and continues to face the consequences of it, yet takes solace in the fact that he knows his decision was right, Pei’s choice is an impending one. Whichever way she chooses, it will shape the course of her life.
Saying goodbye to the Wayfarers series is a bittersweet process because I have absolutely loved both its characters and the worldbuilding throughout. There’s a tendency in science-fiction to create alien species that are similar to us, at least in terms of appearance and abilities, but Becky Chambers has gloriously given us so many fully-realized separate species, from the hard-shelled xenophobic quelin to the reptilian aandrisks who bond through casual sex, to the aeluon, who communicate through flashing colours to the grum, who change biological sex over the course of their lives, that even though I know she will continue to write and create, I also know that I will miss the Wayfarers universe. I will miss the sheer imagination that goes into these books but most of all I will miss their kindness and the way in which Wayfarers characters try to understand where others are coming from.
It’s rare that a book will actually make me cry, but I shed tears over The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Perhaps part of it is saying goodbye to a fictional universe I love (I’ve never been good with goodbyes) but I think mostly it was the kindness that got me. Like many of you, I’ve spent the last eighteen months trying to escape into books. Banishing the grimdark headlines and putting aside my doomscrolling in favour of something nicer and more hopeful than the world at large. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within was the right book at the right time for me; I will never take Becky Chambers for granted again.
TL;DR: Bringing the Wayfarers series to a satisfying conclusion, Becky Chambers’ brand of hopepunk is exactly what I, and I imagine many others, need right now. Highly recommended.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon Published May 4, 2021
Sorrowland is a dark, lyrical fairy tale about metamorphosis and the way that America has historically treated Black bodies. From the first pages I was hooked by Solomon’s distinct voice, their flowing prose, the creeping atmosphere of gothic horror, and a protagonist unlike any I’d encountered before. Early on I even thought this might be a new favourite of mine. Unfortunately it fizzled out part-way through and was not as consistently engaging as I had hoped, but Sorrowland is still an interesting read that I’d recommend (with a note to heed the content warnings).
Like Solomon’s previous books, An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep, this novel confronts the generational trauma of being Black in America. Unflinching in the way it depicts or makes mention of abuse, body horror, child abuse, and medical experimentation, among other things, it’s not an easy read and I encourage everyone to read the content warnings so they’re fully aware of what they’re getting themselves into.
The story is about Vern, a 15-year-old Black girl with albinism, who has fled The Blessed Acres of Cain, a strict religious compound where she was raised. Our first glimpse of Vern is as she gives birth to twins, fathered by the cult’s leader, who she plans to raise in the woods away from civilization. Vern continues to be followed though, both by a mysterious figure she calls The Fiend who she believes to be somehow connected to the compound and by “hauntings” that allow her to experience the full horror of the past. At the same time, Vern begins a physical transformation she doesn’t understand. Her body becomes capable of extraordinary things that scare Vern, but may also allow her to break free from her past. Untangling what’s happening to her forces Vern to uncover both the secrets of the compound she fled and to confront America’s violent, racist history.
At first glance The Blessed Acres of Cain seems to be a refuge for Black Americans. Born out of Black liberation movements like the Black Panthers and the fictional CLAWS group, The Blessed Acres of Cain is a way for Black Americans to thrive outside of white capitalism by living off the land and creating what they need. Children born in Cainland are given names like “Harriet” and “Martin” after their famous ancestors. However it’s governed by a strict Christian ideology and a leader, Reverend Sherman, who expects women to submit to their husbands, and there is something even more sinister at work within this compound.
The compound is especially difficult for Vern because she exists outside the binary. Although she is Black, she has albinism. Vern is also queer, experiencing internalized shame and homophobia over her feelings for her best friend Lucy, and she’s intersex. I’ve never encountered a protagonist quite like Vern before. Even though she is essentially an escaped child bride to the Reverend she has a remarkable amount of strength and self-possession as she faces being a young mother of two, isolated from the people and places she knows.
Solomon never falls into the trap of making Vern feel larger than life though. Early on there’s a moment where Vern forgets about her boys. She panics once she remembers, but it’s likely that the readers will remember her children before Vern does. Rather than making us think Vern is a bad mother, it gives us a glimpse at a girl who is still young and new to the responsibility of being a mother. Vern is a character who has an abusive and traumatic past, who has experienced tremendous loss, and who is still going through trauma and change in her present, but she begins to heal and to carve out a place for herself. I rooted for Vern throughout and wanted her to find understanding and community.
Sorrowland emphasizes community, both in terms of the toxicity of the insular Cainland cult, and the freedom that Vern experiences when she is able to find her own community, consisting of Bridget and her niece Gogo (a Lakota winkte), and Vern’s own sons. There is an empowering quality to Vern’s ability to escape and forge her own community where she is accepted and loved as a marginalized person.
Throughout Sorrowland we see Vern’s memories of her first love Lucy, who would read aloud from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room for her. In her review of Sorrowland, author Charlie Jane Anders referred to the “audacity of queer love”, and I haven’t been able to get that quote out of my head because it rings so true. Despite everything she’s been through, despite being told that romantic and sexual impulses for women were wrong, despite initially falling into a relationship with someone who lies to her, and despite her ongoing physical transformation, Vern dares to hope and to heal and to love. There is queer joy in this book and recovery and rebirth.
TL;DR: Not for the faint of heart, Sorrowland is an unflinching, gothic horror deep dive into America’s racist past, but it’s also a bold and beautiful story about the audacity of surviving and even thriving as a person of colour who is queer.