2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Ghost Bride

Li Lan is the studious daughter of a noble but bankrupt Chinese family, and as such has few prospects for a successful marriage in 1890s Malaysia. When a marriage offer from the powerful Lim family comes, it is to wed Li Lan to their recently deceased son, Tian Ching. This ‘ghost marriage’ is meant to appease Tian Ching’s spirits after a mysterious death, and offers Li Lan her best chance at a secure life.  Li Lan refuses, but finds her dreams haunted by the jealous and powerful Tian Ching. Li Lan is drawn into the haunting parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, populated with ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, spirits both petty and monstrous, and a remarkable amount of bureaucracy. The only thing that protects Li Lan is an enigmatic guardian spirit, Er Lang, and her own determination.

This supernatural fantasy by Yangsze Choo provides a beautiful dive into a fascinating setting. The early chapters of the book take place in colonial Malaysia (Malaya, in the 1890s), which springs off the page. But it is once Li Lan enters the Chinese spirit world that Choo really shines. This is a belief system I know almost nothing about, and Choo managed to keep my enthralled and surprised without ever leaving me confused or needing more.

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Choo’s characters and plot are the many vehicles into the world that Choo creates for us, and as such are a little shallow. Li Lan serves her character purpose well; she is not dripping with detail, but neither is she a total cookie cutter. She serves to highlight the setting, mythology, and culture of the story.  While Choos characters do not have much depth, they do have nuance. Perhaps because the spirit world of Chinese belief is so similar to the real world (with class problems, servants, bureaucracy, bribes, and petty feuds and trickery)- the heroes and villains of Choo’s story are nuanced: humorous, pitiful, annoying, charming, and loathsome all together, even when they are ghoulish monsters or her very own father.

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I chewed through The Ghost Bride in two days, delighted all the while. This story does not follow the typical adventure arc a reader might expect- the love triangle barely exists, Li Lan never has to do battle with her tormentor Tian Ching, important characters come and go very quickly, the palace intrigue is not revealed in a ‘gotcha!’ moment. We never even make it to the Courts of Hell! Instead, this is a patient exploration of a cultural belief system, both the spooky and mundane, and the question of what it means to be free in a world where duty, family, and culture are more powerful a force than death itself.  The Ghost Bride is a delicate and fascinating ghost story, with just enough court intrigue, romance, and adventure to keep things recognizable for the general YA reader.

The Ghost Bride

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Binti

Binti is a brilliant young woman who has been offered a prestigious place at Oomza University, the most elite college in the galaxy. But Binti is Himba, a people who are closely tied to land and family, and who never travel off-planet. Binti, determined to reach her potential, makes the difficult decision to leave everything and everyone she knows behind, and travel across the stars with people who do not share or respect her customs, culture, or brilliance. On her journey, Binti encounters a cultural prejudice so strong that the vendetta between two groups threatens the life of everyone at Oomza. And Binti, with her unique genius, her cultural artifacts, and her strength born of being Himba, might be the only person who can prevent it.

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Image by David Palumbo

Okorafor writes tight passages that build an interesting and vibrant world, and she inhabits this world with fresh characters; Binti is a young genius from a culture that works with the earth. Because of this, she has a few ‘super powers’ that allow her to succeed where no one else could. Binti’s strength is her cultural heritage, inseparable from her mathematical brilliance. With Binti, Okorafor insists that people from cultures often overlooked by mainstream science fiction are crucial to our future.

Binti goes on a heroine’s journey, one standard enough to be familiar and relatable to any reader of YA literature, fantasy, or science fiction. But Binti’s specific challenges and abilities will be more intimately familiar to anyone who has been a cultural or racial outsider in a society of ignorance and prejudice.

The book’s critiques of racism, cultural isolationism, and colonial mentality are layered and nuanced.  During her journey to Oomza, Binti experiences interpersonal prejudice, white fragility, and institutional discrimination. These ideas are mostly explored through people’s response to Binti’s appearance; people despise and envy her hair, and most are blind to it’s significance. They do the same to the medicinal mud she paints her body with. In response to these varied indignities, Binti demonstrates code-switching, pride, determination, patience, and cross-cultural competency. And then the murderous jellyfish aliens come!

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Art by SharksDen- click to Deviant Art

While there are modern exceptions, so much early science fiction is written from the perspective of a dominant society (white American men), terrified against an invading force that might subvert their power. Shortly, a fear that aliens (or -gasp- communists) will colonize white America. In these stories, when a violent alien race comes along they are utterly foreign, bent on total destruction, and must be repelled entirely if humanity is to survive. Invader and invaded cannot coexist, and certainly cannot benefit one another. This is a very specific cultural viewpoint based in the West’s colonial history. This trope is not only boring at this point, but dangerous in a rapidly shrinking world that forces alien cultures to interact virtually and in person every day.

Binti rejects and critiques this trope. Okorafor, from the perspective of a Nigerian-American woman, offers a more optimistic look at cross-cultural encounters. Frankly, it’s what I’d prefer people to be reading in their science fiction.

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A woman from the Himba Tribe of Namibia.

This was a great little novella. It is an efficient exploration of the benefits of cultural diversity and a celebration of the Namibia culture, a heroine’s journey with a relatable young woman, and a refreshing alternative to colonial sci-fi tropes. I read Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death’ last year, and as much as I did enjoy it, I think Binti is a stronger book. The tighter structure and economically told story pack a punch, and I am so eager to read more in this series!

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Ink

In a near-future America, anti-immigrant sentiment has escalated. “Inks,” temporary workers, permanent residents, and first-gen citizens, are tattooed on their wrist and submitted to interrogations, discrimination in the workplace, and traffic checks. Over the ten years of this novel, the repercussions of ‘othering’ this population transform into vigilante kidnapping, mob violence, and population control. The violence grows, but so does the efforts of the resistance. Ink explores how technology, family, history, and privilege can tear apart and hold together communities.   Read my first look here. 

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With the exception of this photo, all other photos on this review were taken at US detainment camps or raids.

INK tells the story of communal resistance through the eyes of four characters: a white journalist looking to uncover a story, a Guatemalan recent citizen who uses her relative privilege to help others in her community, a mixed race teenage hacker who discovers just what her mother’s workplace is doing to inks, and a white artist who uses his unique abilities to protect people. Through these characters eyes, Vourvoulias lauds the resilience of the (mostly) latinx community that fights back using technology, magic, art, and science. Vourvoulias uses these human connections to remind us that politics is about people, and even in the face of brutal bigotry, people continue to live, care for one another, and resist injustice.

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INK was enraging; anyone who has been paying attention to global and US rhetoric will see just how close we are to some of the realities in this book. At the same time, reading INK was rejuvenating. This is a book about the magic of human connection that keeps us alive in our darkest times. In INK, sometimes that magic is literal – there are spirit jaguars, demon gnomes, and clouds of golden bees. But the real magic of INK is regular people resisting complacency, choosing to love themselves and others, risking everything for other people, and standing up against an unbeatable enemy.

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I appreciated INK’s nuanced depiction of characters and movements. The people that make up the resistance in INK is both inspiring and flawed; the movement struggles with infighting, color and class privilege, sexual violence,  white fragility, and many failures. Likewise, the perpetrators of violence are not just brutal kidnappers or murderous vigilantes, but teachers, nurses, and bureaucrats who are just ‘following the rules’ when the rules are oppressive and inhuman. Vourvoulias specifically calls out well-meaning but clueless white people who are trying to be allies- she lets the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations happen, and it really was a delight to see.  I wanted more of Meche and the other immigrants actually affected by the story, rather than so many injustice-adjacent white folks, but I think Vourvoulias was writing a story about community resistance, and the reality that white people have a duty to get involved, for better or worse.

There are some flaws here; Vourvoulias veers strangely into certain stereotypes and absurdities a few times in this book. She romanticizes gangs, mysticises brown people, and trends towards  white-savior moments. Black, native, and Asian folks are almost entirely absent from this story, oddly. These are exceptions, though. Vourvoulias mostly succeeded in balancing the complexities of racism, bigotry, privilege, state-violence, and resistance in a moving and heartfelt story set in a very real-feeling America.

Migrants who just disembarked from a U.S. ICE bus wait for a Greyhound official to process their tickets to their next destination at a Greyhound bus station in PhoenixThis book should not really be listed as Spec Fiction, Sci Fi, or dystopia. Most (safe) people in the world of INK go about their normal lives, ignoring the years of people disappearing from their communities, imprisonment, injustice, and dehumanizing rhetoric. Most citizens do not take notice of the atrocities befalling the Inks until there is a violent riot.

Meanwhile in America today:

  • 41,000 people detained in immigration centers.
  • 75,000 black women and girls missing in the USA.
  • 34,000 youth locked up in America for non-violent crimes, more than 7,000 of those youth committed ‘offenses’ that are not even crimes.
  • The highest rate of incarceration in the world, with justice systems that have been found by the UN to have extreme racial bias.
  • The president has called, numerous times, for a registry of Muslims, and the administration is currently working to be allowed to deport any immigrant for any paperwork flaw, even if they’ve been a citizen for 20 years.

Seems like contemporary fiction to me.

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One of the superpowers of reading is the ability to feel what it is like to be another person. Empathy is what enlightens us and allows us to be better people. If you are looking for fiction to help you connect immigration policy, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and good allyship, this one may be for you.

Scent Notes: Gravel dust,  frankincense and red wine, and disinfectant

INK

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Star Touched Queen

Maya is a teenager that has high aspirations but low expectations for her life; as the most unfavored daughter of the King, Maya hopes to be left alone to study and learn for her whole life. But when her kingdom is ravaged, Maya agrees to marry the mysterious king of Akaran, Amar. But the kingdom of Akaran and Amar’s castle both seems completely empty. Despite the passion Amar seems to have for her, she isn’t sure she is safe.   Maya must unravel the secrets that Amar and Akaran’s castle hide to save herself and those she loves. Read my first look at TSTQ here. 

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Chokshi’s story is grounded in Hindu myths and an Indian cultural setting, adding plenty of novelty and unique concepts to exercise her prose on– and she is capable of gorgeous prose. TSTQ’s cultural foundation gives the characters some unique settings, ghoulies, and obstacles. TSTQ has plenty of evocative imagery and imagination, which really made up for the fact that I couldn’t connect with Maya or Amar at all.

“You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I would not have you any other way.”

Maya held very little personality, and Amar, though a sexy, passionate, and all powerful God, didn’t compel me. Despite the insta-love that blooms between Maya and Amar, they rarely talk to each other about tangible things, which of course leads to misunderstandings and barriers that felt contrived.

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There was so much promise here. The first half of this book was an enjoyable enough read- I blew through the first half with a few happy eye-rolls and smirks at the sheer dreamyness of it all, and I adored the potential of the settings and characters even if they hadn’t really blossomed yet. But the second half, and the book as a whole, left me wanting and disappointed.  The second half of the book felt rushed and lacking in actual action at the same time, like it should have been it’s own story with more depth and conflict. This lead me to wonder why the first half of the book- a whole new world, the Night Bazaar, mystical powers, romance, trauma over her experiences, and numerous trust shifts, wasn’t given the time and care it deserved.

“I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind.”

Finally, as much as the writing can be gorgeous, the book is overstuffed with visuals and stars and metaphors. There’s very little of grounding sensual description- few smells, few colors, few sounds- I honestly felt like the characters were walking an empty stage. The most gorgeous of Chokshi’s imagery is lost in a pile of metaphors that confuse rather than clarify, pillow-talk that simply doesn’t make sense, descriptor paragraphs about feelings when I have no idea what anything actually looks like.  Chokshi has the talent, clearly, for evocative language. But for my taste, she needs to kill some of those darlings to let what works really shine.

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The Star-Touched Queen is just the first book in a series, and perhaps Chokshi will hit her stride later on in the series. She is active on this book’s Goodreads page, and her explanation of the Hindu myths at the foundation of this story show so much interesting material that I wished I’d seen more of in the actual book. Maybe this is partially my own ignorance of Hindu myths; I wonder if I’d been more aware of the retelling aspects I’d have found her work more compelling.

If Chokshi gives me a firmer grounding in her foundation myths, focuses more on plot and character development, and edits her purple prose down to just that which works, I think she could create something gorgeous and powerful.  The Star Touched Queen just isn’t there yet.

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Recommended if you love flowery prose and are looking for PG-13 passion.  There are many glowing reviews of this story, and some delicious fan art to boot. This one just isn’t for me.

Tongue-in-cheek Scent Notes: Night and smoke, edges, the perfume of souls.

3

(The art on this post is from Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński. The art is darker than TSTQ was, and of the wrong culture, but just so connected and cool I couldn’t resist.)

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

When the Moon was Ours

Rumors swirl about odd best friends, Miel and Sam. Sam paints moons to hang in the trees around town and mostly keeps to himself. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists, and no one knows where she came from before she tumbled out of the town’s water-tower. But as odd as Miel and Sam are, even stranger are the Bonner girls, four beautiful, redheaded sisters who enchant the town and always get what they want. One of the Bonner sisters decides she wants the roses from Miel’s wrists, and the sisters are willing to do anything, and betray everyone, to get them. Read my First Look here. 

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“…both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it.”

When the Moon was Ours is a tender exploration of teenage identity and love, with sensual prose and stunning heart. This is the most evocative young adult novel I’ve ever read, and McLemore exhibits precise control over ethereal elements of magical realism,  sensitive portrayal of latinx, Pakistani, and trans characters*, and a very grounded-to-life plot that will remind any reader of being a teenager with secrets to hide. This character-driven romance is simply gorgeous.

“She had left the stars on her skin the whole day, while they let the sun heat their backs. When they ran, her perspiration made the foil shine damp, and it wore the edges of the adhesive, but the little stars stayed. And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin… He had mapped her body like a new sky.”

redhead-women-portrait-photography-maja-topcagic-1_zpsbj8kctvfMany things reveal slowly in this story – the backstories of many of the main characters, the secrets held dearly by Sam and Miel, the reason for the Bonner sister’s hostility- each unfurling in their own time, much like the flowers that Miel grows from a wound in her wrist. This book is rich with legends, cultural folklore, family dynamics, and small-town magics.

Unlike many teen romances, this book is not about the tension of ‘will they won’t they’, and there is no flimsy misunderstanding designed to give our characters something to overcome. This book uses love in the best way possible, to explore the strength and resilience of human relationships and the willingness to sacrifice for the people we love.

The two main characters’s love moves from friendship to something more in a slow burn, and this book handles the complexity and earnestness of teen love and sexuality with the respect that teens rarely get but truly deserve. That one character is trans is important, but not treated as a barrier to their relationship or a curiosity to exploit. It was very important to see erotic and meaningful sex on the page for these two characters, and not an ounce of  shaming of teens exploring their sexuality in a consenting and loving way.

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You should read this book. It is threaded with magic and heart, in plot and character and prose. McLemore gives a truly inspiring romance that I’d happily see more relationships modeled after. It reaffirmed my belief that YA can be literary and groundbreaking, and it made my heart ache in the best way.

Scent Notes: Paint thinner in the night air, blood-damp roses, and brown sugar.

*McLemore’s partner is trans, and McLemore is Latina. Her author’s note at the back of this book is, like everything else, beautiful.

5