Writing on Reading // Where the B in LGBT goes

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So I’ve been slowly but surely putting together rec lists. And I hit a bit of a problem when trying to categorise books that kind of… caused me a minor existential crisis.

If that’s not a good hook for a book blog post idk what is.

This one’s very much tied to all sorts of issues with genre, with representation, with how I relate to my own sexual identity.

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Book Review // Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen // Mature Adults Romance and Babies in Space

So, one of my reading goals for the year was to catch up with the entire Vorkosigan Saga. I started 2017 on the 8th book, and here I am, finished!

This is kind of going to be a book review and a series review in one, because you can’t really look at this particular book through a ~queer lense without also considering the… entire series before it. So there will be sections to this review. One discussing this book as a book, one discussing this book and the Vorkosigan Saga as LGBT fiction. Alternatively, these unfold as What I liked and What I didn’t like.

A longer review will be on GR, where I go through and process all of my feelings about this book as it is part of the Vorkosigan Saga, and the experience of finishing this Saga itself. Because I have about a thousand of them. So, like, spoilers abound for the Vorkosigan Saga yo.

This was an incredibly unique sci-fi book.

It’s about characters, and life. It’s about Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, revisiting her after forty years and fourteen books as a narrator, as she embarks on an entirely new story. It’s about Cordelia, seventy-six years old dealing with the death of her husband. It’s about Cordelia reconnecting with Oliver Jole, her husband’s other partner in their polyamorous V relationship for the past twenty years. It’s about their romance, her decision to have posthumous children with her husband – and offering her husband’s partner the same opportunity. It’s about Oliver trying to decide between career advancement and having a family of his own.

It’s not at all your average sci-fi novel. I’ve never seen issues like this explored in literary fiction, let alone genre – it made for a fascinating read on that end. The concept of average lifespans being 130 years, of biological technology changing, how that affects one’s life choices. The concept that women can have multiple stages in life, multiple moves in family building and careers is great to see – Cordelia’s embarking on, gosh, her fifth one, now she’s seventy-six? And is still thinking about what will come next after her new set of children are grown, what her career could be then. And it’s the same for Oliver, too – hitting fifty, dealing with the death of his partner, of reconciling his bisexuality, his attraction to women after twenty years of a same-sex relationship and his polysexuality, dealing with the idea of fatherhood. His and Cordelia’s stories deal with single parenting by choice, and non-traditional families – I cannot tell you how important the idea of technology making same-sex reproduction viable is to me. I love that this book was about a polyamorous relationship, and the different stages and shapes it takes as life unfolds.

And I think it was beautifully done. It was done with fierce love and poignant grief, something that’s just so wonderfully true to life. It was all the complexity of humans and how we behave in the face of loss, happiness and life, how we react to the people in our lives, how our parents and children and friends end up shaping us, making all the difference to how our lives unfold. It was a very mature novel, such a contrast to the earlier Miles books – a coming of age not from adolescence to adulthood, but moving into the nebulous stages of adulthood. We saw it in both Miles and Cordelia, and it damn well made my heart ache.

It also deals with something else I’ve hardly seen in sci-fi these days – colonising, administering and exploring a new planet, but in such a delightfully ordinary way. Cordelia and Oliver are Vicereine and Admiral of Sergyar, this new colony. It was certainly interesting enough to be led through these intricacies – Bujold’s ironic humour is present throughout, and Cordelia and Jole – Cordelia especially, gosh I love her – are great eyes to see the quiet chaos of Sergyar through. Not… terribly exciting at all, sure, we could have used a bit more plot, or some more fun, familiar side-characters, similar to how A Civil Campaign worked so fantastically, or maybe Cordelia or Oliver digging themselves into a vastly entertaining hole. It went a bit too smoothly, too uneventfully. But hey, I was still hooked the whole time.

But you know, Miles saved this book. I truly could read about Miles doing anything. Miles’ family, Miles reconciling with his mother’s new family-building venture, Miles and Ekaterin dealing with Aral’s death, Miles connecting with his father’s second-spouse – this was wonderful. My favourite scene was when Alex and Cordelia had their talk, and Alex discovered Aral’s hobby as an artist. It was a wonderful exploration of identity, family, legacy, and I’m truly in love with these characters – if we got a book from Alex Vorkosigan’s perspective, I would be delighted.

But I was unsatisfied with this story, as a fan.

I enjoyed this story because it was refreshing, but there was a story within this novel that I thought would be much more interesting to see told – but someone clearly didn’t think was. I think a lot of the intensely negative reactions to this book by long-time fans were because she executed the story kind of… oddly.

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Book Review // Swearing Off Stars // A Tragic Romance Spanning a Lifetime

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Amelia Cole, Lia for short, is an American attending Oxford University for a semester in 1919. On her first day she meets Scarlett Daniels, a beautiful women’s rights activist and aspiring actress, who pulls Lia into the movement. The two slowly fall in love, but have to overcome decades of obstacles to be together.

I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed – and very much in a phase of reading where I had very little patience for weaknesses in books. And this book was just… weak.

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I wanted more from the characterisation and plot.

In the first ten pages, Lia has a cancelled class on her first day, her braid comes undone and her book bag falls off her shoulder, and this overwhelms her to the point of immediately breaking down crying on the ground, convinced she isn’t good enough for Oxford. The scene ends with Lia noticing, after being helped by her love interest, that all the other students are standing around and pointing at her. Already I just sighed and went ah, these characters won’t be acting like humans, then. Sure, Lia could have an anxiety disorder, but this is never mentioned as an in-text justification.

Odd things happen with these characters with very little explanation. A short time into their acquaintance, Lia and Scarlett undergo a little incident that causes Scarlett to break down and admit to Lia she once had a female lover. To me, this was baffling – it was too soon into their relationship, especially in that time, to be admitting such a secret so easily – and to top it all off, Lia hardly reacted at all. Which is disappointing, considering she started the story a little confused about her sexuality, especially regarding Scarlett. So, really, I never got a solid grip on either of their personalities, nor their growth.

The plot, as it unfolds, isn’t particularly compelling. The main selling point is that it’s a lesbian romance set in the early 20th century – sad to say, that isn’t particularly novel for me, considering how much historical LGBT romance I read. For others, this might be absolutely compelling so go at it. But there was very little nuance, and she didn’t do anything particularly new or interesting with it.

The years at university are the most rich, but the depiction of the following decades of story is brief, mostly summary, which really hinders any potential elevation of the characters. And, truthfully, I was disappointed by the way the plot turned out. Of course, life was harder for LGBT individuals in the past, but this story seemed so… relentlessly cruel to Lia and Scarlett, and so removed from the history of the community. And their problems with their homosexuality wasn’t fleshed out, and led to frustration at their continued behaviour that prevented them from being together. Again, I just felt baffled at the lack of justification at the characters, and since this was a character-driven novel, it let the plot down as well. And the ending… it didn’t seem deserved, within the plot. But that might have been the mood I was in while reading.

Also, I ended up questioning the plot and premise a lot. Iwanted to know immediately how an American girl in the 1940s who wants to go traveling ends up studying at Oxford, on exchange, in her first year – does that work? How does it? How does someone whose parents are only restaurant owners in America send their child to Oxford? It’s never explained. Her father is a German migrant, but her surname is Cole – he could have anglicised Kohl, but never is this mentioned. There’s just so many of these questions in the first twenty pages.

The writing was a major weakness, and led to a poor execution of the plot and characters

It’s a pretty short story, about 280 pages, that covers three decades worth of story – already, it’s going to fall under my too-often expressed complaint of there wasn’t enough to make it good. But, whereas this usually leaves me with a likable enough book that just needed more time to be good, this just. Wasn’t very good to begin with.

Within about ten pages, I immediately got a grasp for the author’s abilities and knew what kind of story would unfold. The first-person perspective isn’t used to its strengths at all – Lia’s voice is bland, much like Scarlett’s, and you’d hope coming from such different cultures as America and Britain would easily give an author something to distinguish character voices, but they sounded identical. And none of the characters’ voices ever evolved over the years, Lia sounding the same as a middle-aged woman as she did as a ~naive eighteen year old, and Scarlett, who becomes a famous actress, still sounding the same as her.

The majority of the story was telling instead of showing, and the writing for the majority of the time struck me as dull and flat, without nuance or detail. And, since it tried to handle issues of gender equality and domestic abuse as well as the love story between Lia and Scarlett, these more serious scenes came off as heavy-handed and clumsy in execution. I was baffled again by Lia being surprised at the dismissive attitude towards her at Oxford, and her realisation that it was because she was a woman. How is this an absolute shock to someone in the 1910s? Isn’t this the culture she’s grown up with?

You can also tell this is an American’s idea of Oxford, and one who hasn’t done an awful lot of research either. Again, within the first twenty pages, I spotted some inaccuracies – a British character calls Lia a freshie and asks what Lia’s studying at Oxford. I’m not even British but know that nobody uses ‘freshmen’, let alone freshie, and you say read instead of study. This majorly took me out of the story.

To be honest, I never felt much in the story in the first place. It’s historical fiction, spanning from 1919 to 1930 to 1953. I forgot it was 1919, had too much Outlander on the brain, I don’t know, but I read the first 50 pages thinking it was 1949 and wondering why marticulation was still a thing at Oxford. I mean, there’s a lot of difference in culture and society in Britian in that 30-year gap. Skilled historical fiction truly transports you to this utterly foreign time – competent historical fiction should be at least able to express this. So, this ended up being neither. This could have been set in 2017 and I would have bought it, honestly.

But, I do have good things to say about some of the writing. Descriptions of the sex scenes, and some of the setting and character description, were lovely – the dialogue between Lia and Scarlett could come up with some beautiful prose, very romantic turns of phrase, used to good effect. I’m just sad it couldn’t elevate the rest of the novel for me.

Also, my ARC was really badly formatted. Missing punctuation all over the place, which makes for a much more difficult read.

2/5. A weak story without much in the way of writing or development to prop it up.

Series Review // Kushiel’s Legacy, Phedre’s Trilogy // Sex, Courtesans, Spies, and Epic Fantasy

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Even as far as trying to read every good LGBT+ SFF book out there, I felt really late coming to this series. This is probably one of the last of the ‘classics’ in queer SFF that gained prominence prior to the 2010s – that I’ve gotten around to reading. I think I only have the Astreiant books to go.

Anyway. I’m glad I saved such a good one for the end, and savoured the hell out of these books. What a series.

Our heroine is Phèdre, who was born in Terre d’Ange, an alternate fantasy France founded by Elua, the son of Jesus, Magdalene and the Earth (yes really) and several rebel angels. She is sold into indentured servitude in a brothel as a young child, but cannot become a religious courtesan due to the scarlet mote in her eye, a blemish. A young, scholarly nobleman, Anafiel Delaunay, recognises this mote as something more –  a sign that Phèdre is a chosen by the angel Kushiel, blessed and cursed to find sexual pleasure in pain. Phèdre is taken into Delaunay’s house, who raises and trains her as a scholar, a courtesan and a spy. Phèdre is drawn into Delaunay’s web of intrigue, and discovers plots that threaten her homeland’s very existence. And that’s just book one.

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The Kushiel’s Dart, the first book, is nigh perfect, and the series overall is very strong.

It can be read as a standalone, but it’s the introduction to nine books of a great fantasy saga. It’s 1000 pages each of high courtly intrigue, high fantasy adventure, and brimming with lovely character-driven moments – basically, ticking a lot of boxes in what I look for from queer fantasy.

The worldbuilding for this series is rich. It’s an alternate earth, and I was kinda blown away by some parts of it – I’ll laud Terre d’Ange forever. The way Carey wrote d’Angeline society and its religion was so lush and detailed, with such an atmosphere and a fully developed society and culture, so unique, and it all comes through even in the first chapter.

The next two books continue the themes of courtly intrigue, high adventure and fantasy travelogue. I actually loved what Carey did with this world’s version of some lands. Plenty are pretty straightforward analogues, like Aragonia is just… Spain, La Serenissima is just Venice, Illyria is just Croatia. But there’s other pretty interesting stuff – Alba is the British Isles that never had Anglo-Saxon migration, where Celtic culture is still dominant. Islam never developed in this world – Elua came instead. So we have an Egypt still ruled by the Ptolemies, Sumerian culture rising back in the Fertile Crescent over old Persia, a Zoroastrian South Caucasus, a Sudan that still worships ancient Egyptian gods, and a very different version of Ethiopia, still descended from Soloman and Makeda, but with a history unique to this world. Some parts of this were just ‘huh, neat!’, but some were really fascinating, especially to myself as a Middle Eastern studies/political religion student. While the travelogue sections aren’t nearly as cool or compelling as the intrigue, it’s something to appreciate imo.

There’s magic in this world, too, but subtle – the gods and angels, who are pretty much all the same as various gods and deities in our world (Odhinn, Ahura Mazda, Yeshua ben Yosef and Adonai are all featured) are considered real and play parts in influencing the plot and characters, but often in ways that aren’t immediately evident. After all, Phèdre is born a divine masochist. Prophecy and soothsaying is common as well, and one character has weather and ocean-controlling magic – divinely attained, though.

The second book, Kushiel’s Chosen, is weaker in my opinion – weaker on the intrigue, weaker on the magical plots, weaker on the new, interesting lands and all in all less cohesive. There was about 300 pages in there that could have been cut and nothing would be lost. But the final book, Kushiel’s Avatar, was on-point, absolutely fantastic, raising the bar for the series in so many ways. The character development, the emotional moments, the cohesion of all the series’ thematic threads, the adventures – it was incredibly satisfying, and an especially great note to end the series on

The characters, if not terribly complex, are so likable.

I found Phèdre a wonderfully subversive fantasy heroine. The leitmotif of her arc, that which yields is not always weak, is so great to see when even now so many authors in genre fiction think “strong female character” means “sexy action girl”. Phèdre cannot fight, is never physical – her skillset lies in her training and talent in observation, subterfuge, intrigue and scholarship, as well as her spirit. She is a protagonist that is so utterly brave and is so well developed in both her strengths and her intense vulnerabilities – kind and loving, but selfish and headstrong. And you just don’t usually see characters that prostitutes, spies and politickers portrayed as such paragons of heroism, resilience and courage.

I could wax on lyrically for the characters I loved. There were so damn many, every books starts with a dramatis personae. My favourite is Ysandre de la Courcel, heir to the throne of Terre d’Ange, for playing right into my hands every damn trope I love in female characters. Delaunay, Alcuin, Joscelin… Barquiel, Nicola, Drustan, Kaneka… Melisande as an incredible villain, and oh, Imriel.

But, yeah, the characters aren’t particularly nuanced or multi-dimensional for the most part – only a few manage this. But what we do have are a lot of characters who are immediately interesting, if not outright really likable . It’s these characters who make me interested in reading beyond to the sequel series, set about ~10 years later  – a pretty ringing endorsement, motivation to continue on reading another trilogy of 800 page books.

The sexuality and relationships in this series is refreshing.

The relationships in this series are wonderful. Romantic, sexual, platonic – Phèdre finds fond lovers, deep friendships, intimate loves and new families, that grow and change throughout each novel. Phèdre is bisexual, and has significant relationships with both men and women equally. Her eventual committed love interest is male, but the entire thrust of the series hinges on her tempestuous relationship with another woman. For anyone who enjoys a good hateship, it’s this one – the most heart-aching moments in the final book of the trilogy were most definitely the scenes between Phèdre and Melisande.

Bisexuality and homosexuality is so commonplace in the world, so casually inserted, and I am so grateful to Carey for this. It’s not necessarily a gay book, boiling down to that Phèdre’s love interest is male, but so much of it is about same-sex relationships that it’s just so damn great to read. I’ve read books about straight up M/M or F/F relationships with less of a sheer amount of queer content than this series. Homophobia isn’t non-existent, but Carey inserts so much diversity so easily, and makes so many of our main characters queer. I wish this was more commonplace in fantasy – well-written, plot-driven fantasy.

This is a very risqué series, very saucy, very often. As sexual as it was, though, it’s not the entire series (something many reviewers kinda… miss while they’re clutching their pearls), and I thought it was all actually used to a genuine purpose, furthering the plot and contributing to the lush, tense atmosphere. The amount of worldbuilding around the Night Court, the organised houses of sex workers (religious courtesans, because their work is tied up in d’Angeline religious beliefs) is fantastic and really sets a lot of the tone. The culture of Terre d’Ange values sexual freedom and consent, and love as a virtue – the religion is based on the tenant love as thou wilt. Our protagonists, raised in this culture, act very much in according to these norms and values.

The fantasy angelic masochism is a gateway for saucy BDSM sex, but it’s also a vehicle for some of the more nuanced character moments in the series. A lot of Phèdre’s heroics is tied to her sex work, her skill in the arts of love . In the first and second books, I did kind of go heh at some of these moments, where it’s her skill in the bedroom that motivates monarchs to form key alliances, her charm and lovemaking that makes patrons confide to her key secrets of courtly intrigue. While it works in the story, and it’s kind of cool to see a protagonist’s valour come from their sex work as well as their prowess as a spy and scholar, it can all be very… heh. But then, there’s moments where it goes deeper Phèdre has some very, understandably, complex feelings on being Kushiel’s chosen, finding humiliation and cruelty pleasurable, sometimes aching for it – that does a number on her, at times, especially in regards to her relationships. And, as the series develops, it turns into a realisation that she was blessed and curse to be able to withstand physical suffering, to bear the burden so all the hurt and evil in the world could be balanced.

And, besides, the writing wasn’t particularly erotic or arousing – at least I damn well hope it wasn’t. The fancy French word for fellatio, plus the usage of phallus in the sex scenes made me laugh a lot of the time.

Carey’s writing is the most divisive thing about this series, though.

The prose is baroque, overwrought, grand, luxurious so very purple at times. I can see why it drives people nuts… but. Personally, I loved it. I found it fantastically suitable for the plot, atmosphere and characters of this novel. Phèdre is a devastatingly clever girl trained in observation and subterfuge, a kind, beautiful, divinely masochistic courtesan spy in a fantasy France that was founded by beautiful Angels. It’s so very fitting and true to who Phèdre is, and makes up so much of who Phèdre is. I love this girl’s ridiculous, dramatic, foreshadowing narration, very fondly. Whenever she waxes lyrical about the beautiful dresses she wears, wryly bemoans her nature as an anguissette … it’s ridiculous, but it makes the novel what it is. I became so very fond of Phèdre’s overdramatic ass but it turns many, many others off.

The whole series is absolutely 5/5, for being such a unique, satisfying queer fantasy experience. 5/5 for Kushiel’s Dart, 3/5 for Kushiel’s Chosen, and 5/5 again for Kushiel’s Avatar.

Book Review // Amberlough // Burlesque, Spies, and Resistance

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It took me a while to even start putting thoughts down on this book because I just kept going. What the hell. This was so good. This is one of those novels that epitomises exactly what I crave in my reading experiences. High drama, intense character investment, some fucking phenomenally unique ideas. I haven’t quite seen anything like this published in queer fantasy.

Don’t let my photos of my ebook posed with beautiful flowers on a sunny day inform any impression whatsoever, because this novel is painful, beautiful, absolutely not for the light of heart. There’s torture, death, and no happy ending – but there’s some fucking fire here.

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It was just absurdly good – an exploration of the sociopolitico consequences when fascism is allowed to thrive.

An intelligence operative in Amberlough City, Cyril dePaul is forced to turn traitor and align himself with conservative, authoritarian coupmakers, the Ospies, to save himself and his lover – Aristide Makricosta, a burlesque dancer and drug smuggler – from the consequences. As Cyril continues his complex game of deception with the Ospies and his own government, Cordelia Lehane, a desperately poor former-prostitute who now works as a burlesque dancer with Ari, is drawn into the piece with them, and each has to use all their resources to just survive this slow rise of a fascist government.

It’s a fantasy, sort of alt-universe Weimar Germany, it’s Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries and turn-of-the-century Paris, and Prohibition Chicago, but not quite a direct analogue in terms of worldbuilding, with elements of ethnic chaos of the Balkans. It’s the upper eschelons of government, the intelligence institutions that hold security together and electoral politics in the downfall of democracy, and of the minorities, the downtrodden, the freaks and queers of society who face the consequences, who survive and who die. It’s brilliantly unafraid and unashamed of its sexuality, which was refreshing after reading a batch of YA. It was published in February, with the ARC out in December, is just really fucking eerily well-timed.

The first half was slow and explorative and thoroughly buried us in the lives of the main characters, then the second half exploded, burned hot and bright, furious and painful.

The characters were absolute masterclass, and made this novel complicated and painful and wonderful.

This novel is about the ugly brutality of intelligence work and politics, especially when democracy dies and gives way to fascism, and the way it examines this dynamic from both sides – from those moving the chesspieces around and from those who bear the brunt of fascism’s brutality – is through the characters.

Nobody came out looking like great human beings. All our main characters, Cyril, Ari, Cordelia, are deeply, morally questionable and so interesting, complex and well-crafted. And this is exactly how I like my characters, because it makes their goodness and vulnerabilities all the more painful. Their utter humanity shines through, their fierce wants and loves, the horrible lengths they’d go to to save themselves and each other.

Cyril is very much part of the state establishment, a man whose actions is key to determining whether fascism can rise and thrive or not. His story is fascinating, of torn obligations, utter selfishness and love. I may disagree with his actions, but he’s enough to draw empathy from me.

Ari is very much outside the Amberlinian establishment, but very much inside the establishment that gives Amberlough City its, uh, colourful character. He’s a kingpin in the drug smuggling trade when he’s not being an emcee and burlesque dancer at a nightclub, he weilds his own power within the city – but one that’s vulnerable after the fall of democracy.

But Cordelia, she’s one of those many who are utterly powerless. She’s a stripper, a drug runner, a situation that’s a step up from her former life. She, and her character arc of increasing agency, conviction and courage in the face of oppression’s brutality and death, brings an angle to the novel that wonderfully complicates the story.

The love story between Cyril and Ari. I die. I cannot, absolutely cannot wait for the next book, but the note on which this story finished between these two – so fantastically painful, I ached. It is a ~bad ending~ for the queers, but it was earned – and there’s so much potential for where it can go now.

The rest of the novel was a fantastically well crafted experience.

The worldbuilding is at once overwhelming and interestingly nuanced. The novel immediately dumps you into the complex, fraught politics of Gedda, the federation that Amberlough is part of. I managed to follow well enough, but, yanno, I am a politics student. And once you can follow, it complements the complexities of a solid spy intrigue story fantastically. There’s so much happening in this novel, so much of it simmering in the background underneath the rise of fascism. There’s two conflicting religions touched upon, foreign affairs and conflicts that get mentioned alongside Gedda’s domestic issues, ethnic tensions alongside the socio-political ones. It makes me extremely keen for the next few books.

The concepts within the plot, that I touched upon above, made for a fantastic premise, but Donnelly really did execute them fantastically. The first half of the novel was very much build-up, light on the action and heavy on the atmosphere and introductions, but it was still well-plotted and compelling – and this continued all the way through to the climax. Truly, once you hit halfway point, this novel blasts ahead and doesn’t slow down, not for a moment. The climax is wonderful in its tension and its emotion. The balance between plot and character is truly fantastic in this one.

And the prose was absolutely gorgeous. I haven’t read a book with this great a quality of writing for sooooo long. It’s beautiful and so evocative but doesn’t get in the way of telling the story – it enhances. It brings life to the horrors of Cyril’s world, the glamour and grime of Cordelia’s. It makes every interaction between Ari and Cyril blaze.

Absolutely 5/5. Executed excellently, and so wonderfully painful and unflinching, in the best of ways.

Review // Turf Wars // The representation from the Avatar world I’ve been waiting for

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Korrasami is here.

I’ve been a huge fan of ATLA for ever, and then The Legend of Korra was a huge, very fond part of my memories of the undergrad years. The group I watched the final season with, my then-flatmate and my future-flatmate, had been hyping up the final season week-by-week. By the time the finale was about to air, we were out of our minds with excitement.

And it was a fantastic episode. My emotions were high all throughout, by the final few scenes I was so, so thoroughly satisfied with how everything had played out how everything had been tied up, I was wondering how what note the showrunners could possibly end on.

And they ended on a scene of Korra holding hands and gazing into the eyes of Asami.

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To me, this was something wonderful, something iconic and groundbreaking for young adult shows – hell, even in 2014, shows full stop. How often do we ever see media go there like that, deliberately go out of their way to depict a same-sex relationship in a show not about being gay – let alone one that started out with a pretty big emphasis on heterosexual relationships. I can’t count how many of my favourite tv shows/books just needed to go there. So many just don’t – hence the community-wide hisses whenever the word ‘queerbaiting’ comes up.

And yet. And yet. What we got in LoK was never quite enough for me. And I don’t mean not enough regarding representation – whether it was even made obvious enough in the finale that Korra and Asami were a canon couple now, whether it was a cop-out, or other things people have been debating for years now. The ending, to me was clearly confirming the pair as a romantic couple – there was no other way to interpret the scene. It was enough on that front. But it was just… not enough to make me actively get into the ship, to be a big fan.

This is something I never, ever say to lesbian/bi female friends unless I want certain death wished upon me, though.

My support for the pairing was on the principle of it being F/F and pretty groundbreaking more than anything else, which isn’t a bad reason to support anything, but like. I want more from my romance subplots. I don’t want to write up all the reasons why Korrasami was never enough for me, but I found it lacking in build-up, especially romantically charged build-up, with tension and longing and yearning, and with interactions that were electric. Their scenes in books three and four were sweet, but I mostly just relieved, thinking ‘oh, good, they’re finally showing us Korra and Asami are friends – proper storytelling!’. Asami was always rather peripheral to Korra’s character arc, unlike how Mako so central to her life in Book One.

So I’ve been waiting for this comic. I’ve been waiting for the creators of ATLA and LoK to give me reasons to really ship this for years.

So, my review of the comic itself?

Sadly, it didn’t give me what I really wanted, deep in my heart – which is more something like a 300 page romance novel chronicling the entire developing relationship between Korra and Asami. But, well, a comic was never going to give me that. What it did give me, though, was lovely. A very sweet, tender depiction of a blossoming relationship between old friends who have been yearning for each other for a while. They have had circumstances preventing them from fully exploring or even articulating these feelings, but now they can.

But the thing that made the comic for me was that it dived into how the ATLA LoK world views sexuality – something never looked at before in this rich world. It genuinely made me emotional, to see diverse sexuality woven into the worldbuilding of a fantasy world I’ve loved for so long. I think I was happier seeing Avatar Kyoshi revealed as bisexual, Kya confirmed as the awesome lesbian aunt and acting the lesbian elder – and that Aang was super supportive because of his Air Nomad heritage – than any of the Korrasami stuff lol.

I’ve never been a fan of the ‘why create a fantasy world and keep homophobia??’ attitude. I like seeing different attitudes towards sexuality explored in my fiction. I love some escapism ‘society without homophobia’ fiction, but I also like stories with conflict and different, multi-faceted dynamics happening, something to engage with in relation to my own life and society as an LGBT individual. I actually got a little overwhelmed when Korra came out to her parents, because her father said exactly what my mother did when I came out as bi. And I like it when fiction can grab my heart like that. Maybe not all the time, that’s exhausting, but seeing my experiences reflected in fiction is, well, validating. And putting these experiences in speculative fiction and fantasy worlds, fiction with an even more universal quality than regular, contemporary fiction in some ways, can amplify these feelings. I know it did for me.

So I find it makes the ATLA world even richer and more interesting to now have differing attitudes and unique histories for queer people within. That Ozai made same-sex relationships illegal in the Fire Nation during his reign, that the bisexual Kyoshi tried to effect change in the Earth Kingdom but couldn’t quite get there because of tradition, that the Air Nomads had been accepting and compassionate throughout history, and that Aang continued that history in his own family, that Tenzin and Kya will pass that down in the new Air Nation… I just love it. Especially seeing this with old favourite characters, rather than an entirely new cast.

But, alongside the Korrasami and sexuality elements, this comic is basically nothing all that special. It’s just a straight up continuation from the LoK finale, much like the ATLA comics are. It weaves the threads left dangling in final episode into a new story, exploring the implications of the new spirit portal for both Republic City and the Spirit World – but only just starting to. The issue was just so, so short it couldn’t do much else. I’m definitely intrigued by the new villains, though, and more Spirit World stuff. And also, it seriously made me so happy to see the LoK cast again. I was so, so fond of them all by the finale, Tenzin and Lin and the airbabies and even Bolin and Mako, I’m so glad to see them back!! I can’t wait to see who else will pop up, I’ve missed them so much.

So far, this issue was 4/5 just because of how damn happy it made me. But it’s only one part of a much larger story – one I can’t wait to see pan out.

Review // The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue // A grand romp around 18th century Europe

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This is like, one of the first times in my life I’ve been on a hot new book only a few weeks after its release. Like, this isn’t even available in Australia yet. This is what starting a book blog is doing to me!

So, like, disclaimer. I don’t really read a lot of YA. The only ones I do are classic fantasies and hyped up LGBT novels. The last one I really enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, when I was still technically a teen. I don’t know – I’m 23 now, I’m just not in the demographic – rarely does anything YA become a massive favourite of mine anymore. But this has Georgian England and Gentleman’s Grand Tours and diversity, something that would appeal to me no matter the ideal demographic honestly.

And yeah, I definitely enjoyed it.

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(ok I’m just showing off how well my Venetian glass bookmark goes with my copy hoohoo terribly suitable)

It’s about a rakish, roguish young lord, Henry ‘Monty’ Montague, in the mid-1700s who embarks on his Grand Tour after being expelled from Eton, the last hurrah before he has to return home to begin learning how to run the estate he’ll one day inherit from his father. With him will be his sister Felicity, who is due to be dropped off at a finishing school in Marseilles, and Percy Newton, a half-African bastard child of a lord and Monty’s childhood friend – and long-standing unrequited love. They’ll have to follow his father’s rules if Monty wants to redeem himself. And, well. He doesn’t. Monty turns his Grand Tour into an adventure with his and his friend’s life at stake, still trying to make progress in his love life along the way.

It was just really, ridiculously fun.

This was a romp, a caper, one hell of a fun adventure novel. Don’t go in expecting it to be anything else lol. There’s pirates, travelling carnivals, highwaymen, trips to prison and alleyway fights, all thanks to the shenanigans of our protagonist. And Monty is a great one – a good guy at heart but a complete ass, careless and clueless and also arrogant as a defence mechanism. Under his merriment and has actually been a rather rough life. He’s an ass, but he’s also that protagonist who eventually sits down, listens and learns. The whole novel is narrated by him, and his voice was so distinct and injects a lot of fun and hilarity into the novel.

Felicity was yet another ‘female scholar/scientist in history rebelling against her place’ character that I just love, but sometimes she felt a bit too on-the-nose Cool Badass No-Nonsense Snarky Girl. Not necessarily bad – absolutely fun and a great foil for Percy and Monty – but not necessarily terribly complex either lol.

And in addition to being an adventure, there’s a lot of heart.

The romance between Percy and Monty was sweet, and the way their relationship unfolded and developed actually surprised me – and made total sense for their characters. Percy was a sweetheart, a great foil for Monty and I could see why they fell for each other – and why it took them so long, in the grand scheme of their friendship, to get together. They’re both hardheaded and stubborn, and make ridiculous mistakes and each live under difficult circumstances. But they way they found each other in the end was, aw, it was sweet.

But it actually touches upon some very serious issues – ones that I wasn’t expecting at all. The author set out to write some diversity in historical fiction, and it shows and is very appreciated. It goes into Monty’s childhood, his life as a recklessly open bisexual man in the 1700s, and the consequences he faces from school, his peers, his father. And it goes into the difficulties of those around him, as well, which was what I mainly hadn’t expected. While Monty may be ignorant, blinded by his own privilege and self-centredness and his own internal defence measures, the novel is very much so aware of the hardships facing Felicity and Percy, women, people of colour and disabled individuals in Europe. I was really pleasantly surprised, that such a fun rompy book could pull off exploring these issues and still making

The adorable, happy ending definitely helped, too.

But I still don’t think I was the ideal demographic?

My problem with YA – not even a problem, but why I can never have YA books as absolute favourites – is that it’s all delivered too simply. This book covered numerous universal issues with gravity and respect, so I’m not talking about YA being simplistic, it absolutely isn’t. But everything in YA, across the board, is just all done more… simply, less rich and textured than “adult fiction”. The way the characters were done were just, hmm, for simpler consumption. Honestly, until their ages were confirmed 70%~ of the way through, I couldn’t tell if Monty and co. were supposed to be mid-teens or in their twenties, they veered from wild and sexed up to just sounding so young. It was eighteen in the end, so, fair ground lol.

I kept comparing this to Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John novels, set roughly a decade after this book, which similarly told the story of a gay nobleman in Georgian England, always travelling across the land and onto the continent in his mystery adventures. Except those books truly, vivdly painted Georgian London – and of the German states, of Scotland and even colonial Canada and Jamaica – and the lifestyle of a queer nobleman in that time, specific to the mid 1700s. This… did, but nowhere near as richly as Gabaldon. I didn’t feel it really portrayed the deathly secrecy of being same-sex attracted in the time – at times this was kind of veering into the unrealistic or wishful. Which, hey, the author acknowledges. And apart from a few things this could have been set anywhere from the late 1600s to the Industrial Revolution, not bringing his historical world to life  nearly as well as I like in historical fiction, not in the settings nor especially the dialogue.

And, yeah, I feel this was a lot to do with the audience. Because this book and a lot of historical fiction, like Gabaldon, or Heyer, are doing very, very different things aimed at very very different people. This was an adventure novel, then a queer romance, then a historical fiction. But while I would have liked to see some richer historical elements it wasnt enough to put me off the novel. Just made me go ‘ah, YA’.

Definitely 4/5. Really, ridiculously fun and terribly sweet.

Series Review // Sins of the Cities // A lot of Murder, Fog and Romance in Victorian London

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So, I don’t read that much romance/erotica. But let me tell you, when I’m in the mood for it, there is literally nothing better than K.J. Charles. Not only does Ms Charles straight up own my ass, but I genuinely think she’s something special in M/M romance.

I’d happily recommend anything written by Charles, having read, like, basically every book she’s published. I was sent An Unsuitable Heir by NetGalley after having the first book of Sins of the Cities sitting on my ereader for months, so! Here’s my honest review of this book and the series at large as a great fan.

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The Sins of the Cities trilogy follows a single mystery, but examines its unfolding through several different POVs.

Each POV examines the mystery from a different angle, and also brings its own inner world to the mystery, including some fascinating characters and pretty excellent romances. The mystery drives the story throughout each book, rather than the romances being the story. But the pagetime is split pretty equally between both elements, neither being an afterthought to the other. An Unsuitable Heir provides all the answers to both threads of mystery, so basically I am beyond thrilled to have been able to read and review this ARC copy ♥

I liked the first book, An Unseen Attraction fine – it took a while to grab me, the initial murder mystery plot was slow to unfold and the romance between Clem Talleyfer, a landlord and Rowley Green, a taxidermist, was nice enough! The leads were likable and sweet, but I didn’t feel invested… until I got to the other mystery of the series that’s revealed at the end. The next two books – I devouredAn Unnatural Vice was an absolutely fantastic build-up of the mystery, almost solving it completely by the end, and had a stellar romance – between Nathaniel Roy a grieving journalist having to work together with Justin Lazarus, the cunning Seer he’s trying to expose – honestly my favourite out of the three.

An Unsuitable Heir was probably the best novel out of the trilogy, though, and a great conclusion to the series. It starts a little earlier than where An Unnatural Vice ended, when Mark Braglewicz, a one-armed enquiry agent discovers the twins he set out to find in the previous book. He finds Pen and Greta Starling, a trapeze artist duo who want nothing to do with their heritage – and a surprising romance with Pen – but, the murderer from the previous books is still out there killing anyone who would bring their inheritance to light. Mark reveals their heritage to keep them safe, betraying the twins and threatening his blossoming relationship… nor stopping the murders, neither.

It tied up all the loose ends of the trilogy in a really satisfying way

The solution to the two conflicts – Pen’s rejection of his inheritance, and the great bloody murderer out to get everyone – were resolved fantastically, and emotionally satisfying as well, since nearly every protagonist became affected by the mayhem they caused, their lives and characters being challenged by this threat and growing in the face of adversity. I could fully believe the identity of the murderer when the big reveal came, and almost fell for a few sneaky, clever red herrings Charles tried to place around.

And I was so happy with the way the problems with Pen and Greta’s heritage was resolved – it was so central to their character arcs and the romance plot, the emotional crux of the story, and the ending was true to their characters and managed to satisfy everyone involved. Particularly for Pen and Mark, who I really became invested in, and Pen’s gender identity and wellbeing. I was so, so happy Charles never let him compromise on any of that, in his romance or his inheritance, it was so important to see imo. Not only that, but our old leads, Nathaniel, Justin and Clem all had parts to play in this plot (not Rowley so much – I think he got one line of dialogue? lol), important to their arcs in the previous books, and had really satisfying endings as well making this novel a really satisfying end to the entire series. Have I said ‘satisfying’ enough? Because it was really bloody satisfying.

Also, it was a pretty great historical read, too. Not as deeply immersive as some historical fiction tomes, but you can tell Charles does her research – Victorian London comes alive in such short books, each one only about 250 pages. She shows a variety of people who existed in the time, from the working class to the gentry to the richer upper class to the truly Dickensian folk. Have I ever seen a (historically accurate) taxidermist in a novel? Definitely not. It’s something different to the usual fare of historical fiction.

One thing that I love about K.J. Charles is the diversity in her romance novels.

Seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an author in the M/M genre who includes as much sexual, ethnic and gender diversity in her romances and even in the wider stories themselves as Charles does – which is even more fantastic to see considering she writes historical romances, and most people seem to think black people were invented in the 1960s when it comes to fiction. While writing so much of it, her characters are all so subversive to the norms of historical fiction.

This series features plenty. Clem is half-Indian and, to me, appeared to be on the autism spectrum (I don’t see a lot of reviewers mention this but in my experience his character rang true to that?). Pen uses male pronouns but identifies as something akin to non-binary, without having the modern vocabulary for any label in the Victorian era, and Mark was born with one arm, and a Polish immigrant as well. There’s a variety of sexualities too, with most of the leads being gay, but Justin’s bisexuality and Mark’s pansexuality is explored as well – without putting down their attraction to women/non-men to validate their attraction to men.

And Charles actually does things with this diversity. It’s not just set dressing. And it doesn’t feel exploitative. There’s some nuance and complexity whenever she looks at the ethnic, sexual, socio-economic aspects that she places in her novels, challenging the eras in history she portrays rather than glorifying them. She thoroughly explores what these mean to her characters, too – even the story of Justin and Nathaniel, two cis white, able-bodied males, explores the dynamics of class, wealth and freedom of the Victorian era. They’re still primarily romance novels, but, oh my god, they also try to do something else, too! It truly goes a long way, in my opinion.

These books explore what this means for the characters, and what it does for these characters in this plot. An Unsuitable Heir‘s unfolding plot practically hinges on how the main character relates his gender identity to his class and his society. The exploration of Pen’s experience of his gender identity is something I rarely see done in fiction, let alone done so thoroughly. Not only did it matter to the plot, it was also the emotional crux of the novel – it was so important to Pen’s character and development, and his romance with Mark. The most emotional, heartbreaking, lovely moments came with the understanding Pen found in Mark. I also noticed some very subtle elements of xenophobia directed at Mark, the constant careless mangling of his surname English characters – something that can truly beat you down, make you feel something less than.

She also very refreshingly unapologetically writes about kink. Unlike half the romance writers I come across, who write kinky sex but still somehow manage to deny that’s actually what they’re talking about, Charles lays it all out that ‘yep, this character is submissive’ and nothing in the book is ashamed of this. On another note, Charles gets what’s hot about erotica – it’s not the set dressing, or the prose used (although it helps when it’s not absurd), it’s the psychology of sex – which comes across in all her novels.

I like that Charles writes interconnected stories of queer men through actually portraying these communities and tight friendship circles of queer people seeking companionship and understanding. You know, opposed to the ‘everyone is actually gay!’ kind of thing that happens in MM. This is especially significant when writing historical fiction – I just love, love the depiction of our community thriving throughout history, the best and worst of the realities they faced.

Honestly, I don’t think you could find more fantastic novels in M/M, Charles goes above and beyond. 5/5 for the series as a whole.

Writing on Reading // Queer Retellings

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So, I kinda went hard ranting on twitter the other day. I went hard, because I had just read two short stories and one anthology of queer retellings of fairytales, and they were all tragic disappointments. I was dissecting why, how, what the fuck… and then I realised I actually had a book blog. Like, a space on the internet specially carved out for me to talk about books and reading.

And I was also debating whether to repost my reviews for those novellas here, considering the gist of the short write-ups was ‘disappointing’… why not turn it into one big rant about the concept as a whole?

Brilliant idea. So, here I shall.

Here’s the thing. A really, really high portion of LGBTQ fiction out there is a retelling of some sort, or a queer ‘twist’ on an existing story. Fairytales and folklore are the most common, but plenty take on myths, or classic literature. In such a small genre – compared to hetero fiction – this becomes really apparent, because of how very little LGBT fiction is being written, published and self-published. When so much of it has a blurb with ‘a gay/lesbian twist on the classic story of X’, you really have to sit back and look at what these stories actually are.

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Review // The Well // A murder mystery with a few twists

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Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review! And finally, a novel that I’ve requested has turned out to be genuinely good!

It’s a sharp, concise mystery novel, focused on the murder with a M/M romance.

This isn’t an adventurous or genre-changing plot but it made a damn solid novel for an afternoon at home. Twelve years ago a group of teens – Haven, his cousins Linsey and Elise and a few others, including the boy he’d had his eye on – broke into an abandoned haunted house to hold a seance. By morning, Elise had vanished. Twelve years later, Haven is contacted by his old crush, Pierce, and his twin – now paranormal investigators – for help in hunting down the truth. The plot is a page-turner, no wasted words in telling the story of ~what happened on that spooky night~ – and the added diversity is always a point in a book’s favour.

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It was really good fun! The unfolding investigation always kept me interested, it was easy to follow and the conclusion and eventual murderer reveal wasn’t contrived at all. There were some really great, genuinely suspenseful moments towards the end of the novel where I couldn’t stop reading and didn’t want to – I would have read this in two sittings instead of three, thanks to work lol. The twists in the mystery were fun and definitely heightened my interested instead of making it convoluted, and the paranormal twist was especially fun – I enjoyed that it was used, primarily, for a really emotional touch rather than spooooky happenings. I was actually quite pleased with how the ending focused on resolving the murder for the mystery as well as in an emotionally satisfying way.

The M/M romance was a really nice addition

The ridiculous teenage longing and resulting adulthood reunion was sweet and added more emotion and depth to a story that always had plenty. I enjoyed that Haven’s emotional connections were given equal importance between his lost cousin and his love interest – in a mystery novel Elise would have taken precedence, and in an M/M novel her importance would have been (rather stupidly) downplayed in favour of ~sexy gay love~ so I’m glad Sexton gave both aspects the pagetime they deserved to be explored. And yet, because this was a mystery first and M/M romance second, the romance plotline in the present section wasn’t as compelling as it could have been – it was a sweet complement to the mystery, but this novel would have gripped me even more if it had put more effort into the relationship building.

My only qualm, really, is that I wish there had been more

And not because it was lacking – I just genuinely had fun with it, and felt more could only improve the experience. I really did enjoy all the characters, the various dynamics going on between the supporting cast and the mains. I would have adored this if it had been a 400 page novel. Sexton is absolutely a competent writer with great, clear prose, but this barely scrapes up to 200 pages – it did a lot of things that I enjoyed but it only touched upon them, the fast-paced plot taking precedence. The flashback chapters were perfectly concise and well paced throughout the novel, I wouldn’t change them, but I would have loved more on the present day. If it had gone into greater details on the facets of Haven’s life, as a writer, on living life after such a great tragedy; on bringing the town of Hobbsburg to life; on injecting even more tension and longing into his relationship with Pierce, or exploring Pierce and Jordan’s life… honestly, I enjoyed all of it, I would have happily read more Sexton had to write about any part of this story.

Overall, 4/5. A lot of fun, and I could have easily read more – I wish there had been more.