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Book Review: Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

Image of a digital book cover. A four story home built like jenga stands in front of a woods where a shadow of a deer with antlers can be seen. The title of the book is in yellow font.

Summary:
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead. Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

Review:
I preordered this because of how much I loved another Klune book that I read earlier this year – The House in the Cerulean Sea (review). I just did not want to have to wait through the line at the library for a copy of this one. So maybe my expectations were a bit high for this after that. Maybe I would have liked this better if I hadn’t loved that one so much. But I do feel decidedly ho-hum about it.

Here’s what I did enjoy about it. The main character is a bisexual man. We don’t see that often in literature. And the representation of male bisexuality is well done. The setting and feel of the book is just plain cozy. I loved the tea shop, and how it’s described. I would want to go there for tea for sure. It was soothing to visit, in spite of being populated by ghosts and having a general ambiance of being in touch with the dead. The cover really beautifully represents the tea shop. It was a setting I wanted to soak into.

So what turned me off? I feel a bit awkward talking about this as the author states in the afterword that writing this book was part of his own grief process after losing someone. But I am also a person who has gone through grief for someone close to me, and I just have to say that this vision of the afterlife just didn’t work for me. I found it quite sad, actually. I got the vibe I was supposed to feel at least a little hopeful from it but I didn’t. I don’t like that there’s jobs and management. I didn’t like that the supernatural creature in management asserts there’s no god. (Kind of confusing for a setting that’s entirely about a mystical afterlife?)

My other issue with the book was with the main character Wallace’s character development. He was a jerk in his life and learns to do better in his afterlife. I didn’t find the transformation realistic or believable. It’s like one minute he’s the guy heartlessly firing someone in the first chapter and the next he’s this selfless ghost. What happened that made him change? It just didn’t track for me. And that made it quite difficult for me to care about his storyline. I read about it because I wanted to hang out in the tea shop but not because I cared about Wallace.

So if you’re ok with the depiction of an afterlife that’s managed like a department store and an extremely rapid turnaround of character, you’ll probably really like this book. The cozy setting, and the bisexual male representation are big pluses also.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 373 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Image of a digital book cover. A yellow sky with an orange sun. In front of this on the rise of a hill is an army on horses with one leader in front. The title of the book is She who Became the Sun.

Summary:
In China in 1345, a little peasant girl barely surviving a famine hears her brother will have a great fate but she is fated to nothingness. When their father dies and her brother chooses to die with him, she lays claim to his fate, going to a monastery and pretending to be a boy for survival. When she grows up, she finds herself pursuing her brother’s great fate and clashing repeatedly with Ouyang – a man who survived an order to kill his entire male line by being forcibly turned into a eunuch. As the Mongols and the Nanren clash for dominance in China, Ouyang and the person known as Zhu Chongba find their fates clashing.

Review:
This is being marketed as the queer Mulan, and I just have to say that Mulan was already queer. Li Shang Mulan regardless of what gender she is presenting as. But there’s plenty of room for more than one queer ancient China war drama. 🙂

I loved the beginning of this book. The famine and Zhu’s entire time in the monastery just spoke to me. I was engrossed. But then when Zhu leaves the monastery the tone and setting of the book changed, and it worked less for me. To me the beginning of the book is about choosing your own destiny, and the clash of desire and faith. The end of the book is about being the best warlord with your brains instead of brawn, which just was less compelling to me personally. Actually, I think this quote from the book sums up how Zhu is at the end of the book, even though this is actually Zhu describing someone else:

[T]he ferocious, irreligious joy of a man who has willingly cast aside any chance of nirvana for the sake of his attachment to life.

(location 843)

The fantasy elements of this book include that Zhu and some others can see ghosts – hungry ghosts specifically, which is a Buddhist concept. Leaders also have a mandate from heaven, which presents itself as a visible fire they can summon into their hands. Different leaders have fire of different colors. It’s interesting to note that many sides seem to have a real mandate of heaven. Why is an interesting question that I hope the sequel will explore.

The queer elements in the book include both gender and sexuality. Zhu seems to experience some gender dysphoria – this is not presented simply as a cis woman passing as a man. It’s more complex than that. However, I do wish this was explored more deeply. For example, the omniscient narrator refers to Zhu as “she” regardless of how Zhu seems to feel about their gender at any point. Ouyang is a eunuch, and eunuchs fall under the queer umbrella. Ouyang has romantic feelings for another man. It was unclear to me if these feelings were ever consummated. Zhu falls for a woman, and they have sexual relations onscreen. For me, Ouyang’s relationship was a classic queer tragedy. Zhu’s is more complex, and I’m interested to see where it goes in the sequel.

There is a character who loses a limb in this book. The moment of the limb loss is presented as a turning point for this character. It lets them become who they need to be. I felt negatively about this. It read to me as a bit like disability inspiration p*rn. I understand that, for this character, their relationship with their body is complex. But I wish another way had been found to help the character come into their own rather than this.

Overall, I really enjoyed that this fantasy was set in a culture steeped in Buddhism as a nice change of pace for fantasy. Queer characters are central, rather than as tragic sidekicks. The qualms I had did not keep me from enjoying the book as a whole, and I am interested in its sequel. Recommended to fantasy lovers looking for a change or to those who don’t usually read fantasy but might enjoy it for the representation.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 416 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicharras by V. Castro

June 22, 2021 2 comments
Digital cover of the book The Queen of the Cicadas / La Reina de las Chicarras. A red silhouette of a woman is against a blue background. A quote reads "Dark, atmospheric, sexy, and dangerous, her fiction bringers readers her unfiltered Latinx essence and a unique pulpy flavor. Her work matters. Read it."   Gabino Iglesias, author of Coyote Songs.

Summary:
You’ve heard of Bloody Mary and Candyman but have you heard of La Reina de las Chicharras? The legacy says she’s a Mexican farmworker named Milagros who was brutally murdered in 1950s Texas then given new supernatural life by the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. In 2018, Belinda Alvarez arrives in Texas for a friend’s wedding on the farm that inspired the legacy of La Reina de las Chicharras. But is it just a legacy or is it real?

Review:

I’m a woman of a certain age. I know that shit isn’t always right.

Chapter 9

This struck me as a Latinx, female-led version of Candyman, only, over time, La Reina de las Chicharras comes to protect the downtrodden who call her.

Milagros’s life story that leads to her becoming La Reina is told in parallel with Belinda’s discovering her story and coming into her own realizations about Mictecacíhuatl. I really resonated with the Milagros chapters but struggled to relate to Belinda. She needed more depth and roundness to seem as real as Milagros. Some additional chapter breaks could also help with the jumping perspectives. In general, though, the dual perspectives worked and the uniqueness of the storyline kept me quite engaged to find out what would happen.

In addition to the strong Latinx content, the Indigenous history of Mexico is present. Milagros’s relationship especially to the Indigenous people who were brutally colonized is drawn clearly. There is also relatively significant queer content here. Milagros is a woman who loves women. There are two important gay male characters, and Belinda exhibits fluid sexuality, although she never gives a label to this.

Two things in this book were at ethical odds with me. First, Belinda is written as a woman in addiction who then never overcomes it (or even tries to) in spite of her character arc seeming to indicate that she has been transformed in a positive way. I’m ok with a realistic depiction that not everyone finds recovery, but it bothered me that it comes across as a positive transformation when she remains in addiction. It’s relatively clear that this is a bit of a vengeance fantasy. I understand the importance and role of having a place for anger at injustice to go. But my own spiritual beliefs uphold forgiveness over vengeance, so my world view differs.

If you like urban legend style horror and want to see women in the lead, then you will likely enjoy this read. Those offended or disturbed by the idea of the universe holding multiple gods and religions simultaneously should likely look elsewhere.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Digital image of the cover for The House in the Cerulean Sea. A cartoon drawing of a Victorian style home on a cliff over the ocean with two trees blowing in the breeze. A yellow bar on the side advertises that this is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.

Summary:
Linus leads a solitary life with his cat and his records and an ethical commitment to his job as a Case Worker for the Department in Charge of the Magical Youth in the UK. When his long-time commitment to investigating cases precisely according to the book by Extremely Upper Management with a highly classified case, he finds himself Marsyas Island Orphanage. Here six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must put aside his own fears and decide if they’re likely to bring about the end-times, all while keeping a particularly special eye on their mysterious caretaker, Arthur Parnassus.

Review:
When I picked this up, I expected to read a cheery tongue-in-cheek book about the end times. What I got instead was a cheery book, yes, but one about taking the risks that allow you to actually live your life in a fulfilling way. It inspired me and made me teary-eyed.

Klune simultaneously depicts the soul-crushing horror of working for a bureaucratic organization and makes it funny. This is evident just by the name Extremely Upper Management. It is just so relatable to see Linus working for a government organization that clearly has some nefarious tendencies and, at the very least, creates a terrible work environment, yet that Linus has convinced himself is him doing an ethical job. He clasps to the idea that he is making a good impact on the world, and therefore allows his life to be the horrible and depressing way it is. It takes going to Marsyas Island to snap him out of it.

Just as Linus’s depressing London life is drawn (the depiction of his commute alone is just so on point to a city commute), Maryas Island is depicted to beautifully that even now, weeks after finishing the book, I can send my mind back there for a mini-break. It’s not that it’s perfect, there are, of course, infuriating aspects to small town life (like the ferry) but! Linus can see the sun again. And he can see what can happen when people are encouraged that there is good in them they just need to draw out. My favorite of the children is the gnome, a little girl with a beard who loves her garden and threatens to kill with her shovel anyone who seems like a danger to it. But instead of focusing on the negative (the shovel threatening) Arthur focuses on encouraging her to show people her garden and guide them through what there is to appreciate about it and how to appreciate it respectfully.

I was surprised but thrilled by the blooming attraction between Linus and another adult male at the island (I somehow didn’t know that Klune is a Lambda Literary Award winning author). When I realized that a potential change for Linus might include finding love after 40 as well, I was thrilled. I would be hesitant to call this a romance, because I felt like it was really a book about living your life in a way that is authentic to who you really are and makes you happy, Loving someone who loves you back is part of that for Linus. But it’s not the focus. His life calling is the focus.

I want to encourage readers who might be distressed by Linus’s initial disappointment in his own body size and commitment to dieting that this is not a story where pounds magically fall away on an island and only then can our character find love. No, this set-up is part of making room for Linus to learn to love his body and care about other markers of health (like having a healthy glow).

This is a delightful fantasy about breaking out of your routine to find the life you really want to live. About helping children and adults find the good in themselves and draw it out. About a gay man learning to love his body and finding love in his 40s. It was so beautifully written it left me speechless, and I pre-ordered Klune’s next book. Recommended to those wanting to find inspiration to living a life that brings joy.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 394 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (Series, #1)

Digital image of the cover of the book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. A woman's body is in silhouette against the moon. She appears to have wings. Another body is superimposed over hers. A pull quote from Viola Davis is featured stating, "A book that shifted my life...epic, game changing, moving, and brilliant."

Summary:
Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who is immortal who has so far largely passed without notice. But when Doro, a being who maintains his immortality by stealing others’ bodies, discovers her, everything changes. He considers her to be wild seed for his project of gathering together all humans with special powers to breed them to try to create those who can match him. But is Anyanwu already a match for him? And can they ever produce children who are like them?

Review:
The simplest word to describe this book is unexpected. That’s something that’s difficult to achieve in fantasy about immortality, so I was pleasantly surprised.

This book immediately asks the reader to identify with and understand Anyanwu at least a little bit. Unlike in some other fantasies about immortality, she is already immortal when she meets Doro. So the challenge isn’t does she want to be immortal but rather what is it like to be truly seen by someone else? Doro is somehow more frightening than Anyanwu. The reader thus sides with Anyanwu, even though she is also a little bit scary. Anyanwu also says she goes with him to protect her children from him, an emotion it is easy to understand. Thus, the reader develops an ability to see Anyanwu’s viewpoint. When Anyanwu later does certain things that would have seemed shocking, this ability to see her perspective remains.

It is also interesting to see Doro and Anyanwu’s lives placed against a backdrop of slavery. Anyanwu is African. Doro can take the body of anyone he chooses, but he does state his original human body was in Africa. They are aware of slavery and even pull some seed away from being slaves to live in Doro’s villages instead. Doro breeds people regardless of their race. What he is interested in is their abilities. However, slowly the book comes to ask if this is in a way another form of slavery? Doro says the people view him as a god and that is their relationship, but Anyanwu feels differently. That sets up the reader to ask how free are these people in these villages really?

I was also pleasantly surprised by an appearance of queerness in the later half of the book. Anyanwu makes some interesting discoveries about her shapeshifting that leads to some pregnancies and relationships that are decidedly queer in nature. I was glad the book went there but surprised because so often books about shapeshifting and body inhabiting never do cross the line of gender.

Although this is the first book in a series, I felt it stood strongly on its own yet, simultaneously, propelled me to read more. The immortality angle is what makes it work this way. This is a solid chapter in the lives of Anyanwu and Doro. Yet clearly their story isn’t over, and there are new people who are going to encounter and challenge them. It was fantasy that felt possible and challenging simultaneously. Recommended to fantasy readers looking for a fresh take on immortality.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes

Digital cover of the book "The Deep" by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. A mermaid swims among what appear to be whales.

Summary:
Yetu is the historian for her people – the mermaid descendants of pregnant enslaved African women thrown overboard from slave-ships before they could give birth. As the historian, Yetu holds the painful memories of her people, helping them to experience them once a year. But the pain of holding the memories is more burdensome for Yetu than for previous historians, as she is more sensitive than any historian before her. One year, in the middle of the history ceremony, she flees for the surface in an act of self-preservation. Can she both preserve herself and not abandon her people?

Review:
This book wowed me, taking my breath away from start to finish. If you know you like mermaid stories and want a fresh take on them, just go pick this up immediately.

The number of authors is large because this book was inspired by a song by the hip-hop group, .clipping. I love that the song authors gave permission to Rivers Solomon to write this book inspired by the song, and Solomon in turn credited them for the book. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and the song is well-worth the listen.

No one ever says explicitly that Yetu is neurodiverse, but it’s clear that she is. Her neurodiversity both made her a candidate to be the historian but also made the task soul-crushing and life-destroying for her. I love that no one in the book ever decides that Yetu is the one at fault for this. In other words, Yetu is not blamed for this problem, rather the culture is questioned and it is wondered how sustainable this model is if it doesn’t work for everyone in the culture. Similarly, although Yetu on some level wants to break fully away from her society, she also feels a responsibility to them and wrestles with how to be loyal to both them and herself. The questions that Yetu asks herself in this process struck me as so poignant and painfully real.

Was there anything about her that wasn’t a performance for others’ gratification?

(location 17%)

Is this my curse? To be unfathomable? 

(location 58%)

But this isn’t just a book about a culture being a space for those both neurotypical and neurodiverse, it’s also a myth that demonstrates the role of intergenerational trauma. It shows intergenerational trauma rather than telling, and that is powerful.

As with all of Rivers Solomon’s work, there is also queer content in this book. There is gender fluidity (in the mermaids) and a queer relationship between Yetu and a two-leg. I thought this was one of the more artful relationships between a mermaid and a land dweller I’ve seen.

Recommended for readers looking for Black mermaids, a neurodiverse main character, and/or a queer relationship between a mermaid and a land dweller.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Cover of the book "Sorrowland."

Summary:
Vern desperately flees the strict, religious, Black Power compound she was raised on while she is heavily pregnant with twins. Giving birth shortly thereafter and raising her babies in the woods, she finds herself transforming inexplicably. But what is she transforming into? Why? And can she protect her children from both the compound and the world?

Review:
Another Rivers Solomon book was my favorite read of last year (An Unkindness of Ghosts, review), so when I saw their new book come available on NetGalley – featuring a religious, Black Power compound – I requested it immediately and was thrilled to receive a copy. Like all of Rivers Solomon’s work this book is a gorgeous, intertwining mixture of compelling and challenging.

I was startled by the focus on pregnancy and mothering at the beginning of the book. It hadn’t been the focus of the other Rivers Solomon books I’ve read, and I must admit as a person who has never been pregnant or a mother myself, I always struggle a bit more to connect to these characters. And, indeed, by the end of the book it was not Vern as mother I connected to but rather Vern as a person caught in a complex web of the world as we know it with her ability to right wrongs and change the future limited. That twist in the gut of being caught inside of something much bigger than yourself, that I was able to relate to.

Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?

location 5089

The fantastical elements are immediately engaging – beautiful and grotesque. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say her transformation took my breath away in a manner that reminded me of my feelings watching Season 1 of Hannibal. I mean that as a complement. It’s a fantasy that both feels like a fantasy and also real and leaves one wondering if Vern is right in the head or not? Can the world really work like this? What is happening to her?

The social commentary in this book is astute and apt without being preachy. Characters say what they say because their very lives have lived it – these are their experiences and real feelings. What may to some readers seem the most out there about the book can easily be traced to real occurrences in US history. It’s not far-fetched but one hopes its realness will reach more people because of how it is couched in fantasy.

There is rich queer content in this book, both in the sense of gender and in the sense of sexual relationships. There is two sex scenes, one of which I would consider explicit with people of multiple genders participating. However, contrary to how some booksellers are listing it, I absolutely would not call it “er*tica.” This is a serious fantasy book about issues of justice that just happens to have queer characters have sex “on screen” twice. Queer sex is not automatically “er*tica.”

With regards to other representation, there are many Black and two Indigenous (Lakota) people. Two characters have albinism, and this book eloquently depicts the visual impairments that come with that.

Overall, this book delivers what I have come to expect from a Rivers Solomon book – an engaging fantastical imagining with queer content and different abilities represented that draws attention to social issues. Readers who are able to keep an open mind to the book potentially not going the places they were anticipating or hoping for but who are willing to let the book lead where it may will enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Series, #1)

Cover of the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Summary:
Chih, a non-binary cleric, is on a walking journey when they meet an elderly woman, Rabbit, with a story to tell. Chih ends up staying and listening to Rabbit’s tale while cataloging the archives of her things. It slowly is revealed just how much of history Rabbit was quietly witness to and participant of.

Review:
The summary I read was nothing like the one I wrote above and, therefore, I was under the misimpression from the combination of the summary and the title that this was a magical realism book featuring an actual rabbit. I also didn’t know how each chapter would start with essentially an archives finding aid that Chih is writing. There was a time in my life when I wrote finding aids for work, and I must be honest – I didn’t enjoy it. The combination of these two things didn’t put me in a great headspace for this book. However, I do think it’s a good read when it finds its audience, and that’s what I’m hoping to do here.

This book features a non-binary main character whose sidekick is a fabulous talking bird. Female/female love is also well-represented here. It is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian period dramas with dashes of fantasy (like the talking bird). The entire premise revolves around respecting and listening to an elder – treating her as important simply because she is elderly. It of course then turns out that she has a pivotal role in history, but Chih would have never known that if they hadn’t listened to her. Those who love the history of items will also likely really enjoy reading the descriptors of Rabbit’s possessions at the start of each chapter. While this is a short book (novella length), it is the first in a series, so you can visit its world, and, if you like it, you can keep on going with the rest of the series.

Recommended to those looking for a fantasy with an Asian period drama fantasy written by an own voices author with a dash of magical realism and queerness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 112 pages – novella/short nonfiction

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Cover of the book The Conductors.

Summary:
Hetty Rhodes was once enslaved, but she ran away with her sister, only her sister was caught while she escaped. She began returning south to try to free her sister, but with her repeated trips became a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside a man named Benjy, using their magic to help others escape. Now the Civil War is over and she and Benjy, who is now her husband, have built a life for themselves in Philadelphia. He’s a blacksmith, she’s a seamstress, and they both solve crimes in their spare time that the white authorities can’t be bothered with. When one of their friends turns up dead in an alley, their investigation takes them throughout Black Philadelphia on a hunt for answers.

Review:
The premise of the worldbuilding for this book reminded me of Thieftaker (review), the first in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which I really enjoyed, only set in the 1800s rather than the 1700s and with a Black woman lead rather than a white man. I say this as I was excited and thought this was a good thing. I remember thinking at the time that I wished there were more alternate history fantasy books and I was excited when the next one I saw brought such diversity to the genre.

I liked the magic in this book. I thought it was a great analogy for colonizing culture versus Black and Indigenous culture. The colonizing culture (Sorcery) requires the use of tools (wands) but the wands make that magic very powerful. The Black and Indigenous cultures use Celestial magic, which doesn’t require tools (they draw sigils instead). It can become very powerful but takes more study and time to become so. Anyone with magic being able to pick up a wand and wreak some havoc with very little knowledge as an analogy for weapons like guns I thought was great.

The book also demonstrates the community the Black folks of Philadelphia built up, which included those who freed themselves by running away, those who were freed by the Civil War, and those who were born free. There is a male/male relationship included among Hetty’s friend group, as well as a woman who experienced infertility and adopted a baby.

What didn’t work for me was the order in which the plot was told. The book starts in post-Civil War Philadelphia with Hetty and Benjy (her husband) working together to solve cases, in much the same way they used to work together as Conductors on the Underground Railroad. How Hetty escaped, met Benjy, and how they worked together as Conductors was told through a series of broken up flashbacks throughout the book. For me, this didn’t work. I was much more heavily invested in the stories being told in the flashbacks than in the present mystery, largely because a lot of the present storytelling relied upon the relationship between Hetty and Benjy and, without the full flashbacks, I had no understanding of the relationship between Hetty and Benjy. I needed to know why they were, for example, married but just for propriety’s sake. I needed to know why they decided to work together as Conductors in the first place. What finally pushed them to get married? I was so confused and felt so much like I was dropped into the middle of a pre-existing world that I went and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally started with the second book in a series. Characters, even beyond Benjy and Hetty, kept talking about things that had recently happened in a way that felt like they had happened in a previous book. For example, the character who adopted a baby, the line about that felt like how the second book in a series will remind you of what happened in the first with that having been a key plot point in the first. I would say, in general, that for me, everything would have worked better if the first book in the series had been how Hetty and Benjy met and became Conductors together, maybe ending with them solving their first case as investigators after the War. Then this could have been the second book, perhaps with some additional flashbacks to inform us of some things from during the War.

I am sure that there are others that will read that paragraph and think “oh I like that vibe,” and that’s great. I hope this review helps this book find its audience. For me, though, I simply don’t like being dropped into the middle of the story.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 384 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows (Series, #1)

26225506Summary:
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

Review:
A fantasy written from a queer, female perspective that explores race and social justice featuring the common trope of multiple parallel worlds.

The basic plot is an intertwining of two common to fantasy: 1) there’s multiple parallel worlds 2) political intrigue warring societies etc… These are both done to a level I appreciate. They make sense without overwhelming me with world building and pages of explanations of how a society that doesn’t really exist works.

Both of these basic plots are used to explore queer viewpoints, feminism, and race, all through the lens of social justice. How much you’ll enjoy this lens depends upon the reader. I think the queer part is fairly well-done with a broad representation including: bisexual (by name!), lesbian, trans*, and polyamory. I’m not big on polyamory plots but I thought its inclusion in a parallel world made sense and was clearly not written from a perspective intended to purely titillate, rather, the emotional aspects of these relationships was explored. I do think the explorations of race lacked some of the subtlety present in the explorations of queerness. The white Australian girl being thrust into a parallel world where the majority race is black who is guided by another “worldwalker” who similarly fell through but decided to stay because she’s black and this world is better than Thatcher’s England struck me as a bit heavy-handed and overly simplistic. I’m also not sure how I felt about the black character being put into a secondary role as guide. I kept finding myself thinking how I would have preferred to have read her story. (You quickly find out she stayed in the world, gained some power, joined a polyamorous marriage, had a child, and more! What an interesting life!)

All of that said, I don’t often enjoy traditional style non-urban fantasy, and this one did keep me reading and interested. It’s fun to read a book about political intrigue and multiple worlds dominated by women, touched by dragons, and with no male gaze. I doubt I will seek out the second entry in the series, though, because I feel I’ve already got everything out of the story I’m going to get.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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