The Invisible Orientation, by Julie Sondra Decker

Today’s review will not feature an SFF book, so feel free to skip it if that’s what you come here for. But this book was am important one to me, a bit of a game changer in my life, and so I feel that it’s deserving of a review here even if it’s not what most people have come to expect from Bibliotropic.

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 2, 2014

Summary: What if you weren’t sexually attracted to anyone?

A growing number of people are identifying as asexual. They aren’t sexually attracted to anyone, and they consider it a sexual orientation—like gay, straight, or bisexual.

Asexuality is the invisible orientation. Most people believe that “everyone” wants sex, that “everyone” understands what it means to be attracted to other people, and that “everyone” wants to date and mate. But that’s where asexual people are left out—they don’t find other people sexually attractive, and if and when they say so, they are very rarely treated as though that’s okay.

When an asexual person comes out, alarming reactions regularly follow; loved ones fear that an asexual person is sick, or psychologically warped, or suffering from abuse. Critics confront asexual people with accusations of following a fad, hiding homosexuality, or making excuses for romantic failures. And all of this contributes to a discouraging master narrative: there is no such thing as “asexual.” Being an asexual person is a lie or an illness, and it needs to be fixed.

In The Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker outlines what asexuality is, counters misconceptions, provides resources, and puts asexual people’s experiences in context as they move through a very sexualized world. It includes information for asexual people to help understand their orientation and what it means for their relationships, as well as tips and facts for those who want to understand their asexual friends and loved ones.

Thoughts: I’ve talked in various places before about being asexual, and what that means for me. It’s something I’ve understood for a while now, and have grown pretty comfortable with, even if sometimes it’s a bit frustrating since it’s one of those things that isn’t very well understood and is often mocked or belittled by people who don’t know that much about it.

And for every person that’s ever asked me a stupid question about it, I wish I could just press a copy of The Invisible Orientation into their hands and say, “Here. All the answers are in here.”

I want to clarify. When I say stupid question, I don’t mean questions like, “So, what’s asexuality?” or “You mean you’re not sexually attracted to anyone?” These are smart questions. These are the questions that get asked by people who have understanding and compassion and the ability to realise that there’s more to the world than just what they’ve seen so far. Though really, most of the ignorance comes in the form of commentary rather than questions. “You can’t be asexual because you’re not an amoeba/bacterium/etc.” “You must have been abused as a child.” “My daughter went through a phase like that too.” “You’re too ugly to want to have sex with anyway.” And yes, I’ve gotten those comments, and others, over the years. The Invisible Orientation addresses this, from both sides. It’s not just a book for people who think they might be asexual. It’s also a book for people who’ve found out someone they know is asexual and they don’t know what to do or say, or just for those who want to understand asexuality better.

Asexuality, for those who want it in a nutshell, is a lack of sexual attraction to people. It doesn’t mean that a person’s genitals don’t function, that they are necessarily repulsed by sex, or that they can’t experience sexual pleasure. It simply means that someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction. Some asexuals experience romantic attraction, some don’t. Some are willing to include sex in their relationships, some aren’t.

It’s understandably a bit confusing for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t encountered asexuality before. The Invisible Orientation does stress a lot that behaviour is not the same as attraction, so yes, it is indeed possible for an asexual person to have sex and even enjoy it even if they don’t find it the driving force in their lives that many non-asexual people do. Decker likens it a few times to a gay man who has sex with a woman on a frequent basis; that doesn’t mean he’s not sexual attracted to men, nor does it mean he is sexually attracted to women. It’s taken for granted that a person’s sexual preference will dictate their romantic relationships, just as it’s taken for granted that a romantic relationship will become sexual (or else it’s not a “real” or mature relationship). But what if this isn’t the case? What if someone wants to be in a romantic relationship without wanting to bring sex into it at all? Does this lessen the romantic attraction in the relationship? Does it devalue the relationship somehow if both parties are okay with that?

It’s a complex issue, in no small part because asexuality isn’t well understood by most people. And Decker takes great pains to shed so much light on the whole thing, every aspect (or at least every aspect that I can think of, plus some I hadn’t considered before), and does so in a way that is brilliantly comprehensive and comprehensible.

Aside from being an amazing resource that gives clarity to many issues (“If someone has sex can they still call themselves asexual?” “What if I still have sexual attraction to people but it’s really low and not that important?”), this book gave me words to properly describe so many things that I’ve felt but didn’t have any idea how to express. I’ve known I’m asexual for some time, but how do I defend that against people who can rightly say, “Your experiences with sex weren’t that great, and your hormones were messed up at a key time of your development, and you did experience abuse as a child,” and that all leads them to the ‘reason’ I’m asexual. Those statements may all be true, and I can’t deny them, but every time someone brought that up, I didn’t have the right words to say why that all felt wrong, that they didn’t cause my orientation any more than an overbearing mother caused a man to be gay. I’d get frustrated and angry at my inability to express what I felt. Now, I have the words to say it all, and there is no end to the amount that I’m grateful for that.

This is, admittedly, the only book I’ve read on asexuality, so I can’t say for certain, but I honestly can’t imagine a better one. It came to me at the perfect time, erasing so much stress from my life within a week simply by allowing me to see, in someone else’s words and experience, all the things I’ve been struggling to reconcile. This is a fantastic resource for those who are asexual and those are who curious about asexuality, anyone who’s got questions about themselves or others, and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking answers about the issue.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Myth and Magic: Queer Fairy Tales, edited by Radclyffe

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Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 16, 2014

Summary: Myth, magic, and monsters—the stuff of childhood dreams (or nightmares) and adult fantasies.

Delve into these classic fairy tales retold with a queer twist and surrender to the world of seductive spells and dark temptations.

Thoughts: I’m not sure whether to call this my usual kind of reading fare or not. On one hand, it’s got a heavy romantic slant, sometimes outright porny, which usually isn’t what I’m looking for in a book and indeed tend to stay away from. On other other hand, it does mix two other elements that I’m very interested in: fairy tale retellings, and a non-heteronormative focus. I figured if nothing else, it was worth giving it a read, so I could broaden my horizons and see more characters who weren’t always straight-by-default.

I wasn’t disappointed. Some of the stories in here were damn good, and I wished a few times that romance was more to my taste because there are a few authors whose writing style and skill with words make me want to see more of what they can do. And it was great to see gay characters get some time in the spotlight, because, as I’ve become so aware of relative recently, this isn’t something that happens spectacularly often. So when it does happen, especially when it intersects with another of my interests, I want to show support and spread the word.

And there are some amazing stories to be found in Myth and Magic, too. A Hero in Hot Pink Boots didn’t go the way I expected, but it was still a good story and an interesting take on Alice in Wonderland in a modern setting. With street brawls and confidence boosters. Bad Girls riffed on the Disney versions of a couple of fairy tales, the sanitized versions most of us know from our childhoods, and made me chuckle a few times at the references. Goldie and the Three Bears was a retelling of, well, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, only with a noir feel and the setting of grimy streets and a pick-up bar.

But my favourite story of all was The Snow King, a retelling of The Snow Queen with a gay male couple instead of siblings, and while there was some dubious consent going on there, it was still a beautifully-written story that I could read a few times in a row and not get tired of.

Most of the stories had a fantasy setting, befitting the original versions of the stories they were retelling, but others were more modern. Some, like Riding Red, seemed to blend the two in strange ways, and I wasn’t quite sure of the setting even though the story itself was otherwise clear. I was surprised that I enjoyed the ones with modern settings as much as I did, given my preference for fantasy. I think that’s a testament to the authors and their skill, really, since any author that can make you enjoy stepping outside of your comfort zone clearly has some talent to speak of.

I’m sure some people are surprised to see me rate this collection so highly, given my general dislike for heavy romantic themes. Honestly, if I brought that into play, this book probably would have only been 3 stars. It may have featured some good stories, but in general, they’re not stories that are typically to my taste. But for me to rate the book down because of that would be akin to me buying something from a bakery and then demanding my money back because I’ve never liked bread. I’m not going to fault the book for being something I know isn’t my cup of tea. I knew that when I started reading it. So in trying to be objective, I’m also trying to ignore that part of myself and focus on the quality of the stories, and the stories that were told, rather than the genre they’re told in.

Though while some stories were good, some were less so, and it often came down to characters doing things that made no sense. In Heartless, a character rescues her girlfriend from the Snow Queen and randomly knows that stabbing the Snow Queen with a rose will not only destroy her power but give her the heart she’s lacking. It seemed utterly random and nonsensical, one of those quick ways of ending a story when you have no idea how it’s actually supposed to end. Some stories, such as my favourite The Snow King, featured dubious consent along the lines of, “No, really, you should sleep with me because it’s for the greater good and will save your partner.” Or things that seem right out of a porno, like two people meeting and immediately falling into bed because… a magic harp’s song was making them horny, I think, thought that really wasn’t explained very well in the text, and I’m reading between the lines to even get that far with an explanation.

What you get out of this really depends on what you go in expecting. If you’re looking for some quick stories with gay protagonists and some hot porn-in-prose, then absolutely, this is a book worth checking out. If you’re looking for darker fairy tale retellings, or something with a greater emphasis on story rather than love and sex, then you won’t really find that in Myth and Magic. I prefer the latter to the former, but again, I knew that wasn’t what I was going to get right from the outset, and I’m rating this on what it was rather than what I knew it wasn’t. It’s not a book for everyone. But I suspect those who enjoy romance and a little hot action in their stories will find this collection quite enjoyable.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Flight of the Silvers, by Daniel Price

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 4, 2014

Summary: Without warning, the world comes to an end for Hannah and Amanda Given. The sky looms frigid white. The electricity falters. Airplanes everywhere crash to the ground. But the Givens are saved by mysterious strangers, three fearsome and beautiful beings who force a plain silver bracelet onto each sister’s wrist. Within moments, the sky comes down in a crushing sheet of light and everything around them is gone.

Shielded from the devastation by their silver adornments, the Givens suddenly find themselves elsewhere, a strange new Earth where restaurants move through the air like flying saucers and the fabric of time is manipulated by common household appliances.

Soon Hannah and Amanda are joined by four other survivors from their world—a mordant cartoonist, a shy teenage girl, a brilliant young Australian, and a troubled ex-prodigy. Hunted by enemies they never knew they had and afflicted with temporal abilities they never wanted, the sisters and their companions begin a cross-country journey to find the one man who can save them—before time runs out.

Thoughts: While I was reading Flight of the Silvers, I was struck with the thought that the book feels very much like what could happen if you took an idea that might typically appear in a speculative YA novel and scaled the whole thing up for adults. A group of people being forced together after their world ends, discovering they have strange new powers, a parallel reality that still seems somewhat futuristic and alien. It has so much in common with many YA novels I’ve read. I have no idea if that’s what Price intended while writing this, but either way, I’m glad that I was given this impression. I’ve often wondered why some awesome ideas seem stuck in the realm of YA and never get expanded upon or switched around to see how they function with a more adult cast and written for a more adult audience. Here, I have something that I feel meets that description pretty well!

In a nutshell, the world is destroyed. But to select people, a man or woman appears, slaps a coloured bracelet on their wrists, and transports them to a different reality, one that branched away from the timeline of our world in 1912 after the Cataclysm, an explosion of tempic energy that destroyed a large chunk of New York. Rumours of strange children born near the blast zone trickle down through the years, rumours that say these children had weird powers and could manipulate tempis at will, without the aid of technology. The same powers that the transported people from our world suddenly find themselves with, coincidentally enough. At the heart of all this is the Pelletier Group, people who seem both determined to help the new arrivals — called Silvers after the colour of their bracelets — adjust to and hone their powers, while simultaneously shielding them from the outside world. But all that comes to an abrupt and violent end when it’s revealed that multiple hands are in play, all with their own objectives, including a time-travelling murderer, national law enforcement, and a group of people intent on saving their world from the same destruction that befell the world of the Silvers.

This book has a lot to take in, a lot of twists to the plot and playing with time and energy, and there’s a reason this thing clocks in at over 600 pages. If you have a hard time grasping the idea of time travel and multiple realities and the combination of both at once, then there may be too many twists for you to enjoy it. I don’t think so, though. There’s a benefit to having your main cast of characters be newbies at all the strange powers they have, and to a world that runs on power different from they’re used to, and that’s that it allows for good explanations. There’s enough scientific speculation about things to make it all seem very plausible, while still leaving room for growth later if there’s some gaping scientific flaw that I’m not knowledgeable enough to spot but other people are. The idea of harnessing what is essentially the energy of time in order to provide new technologies is a fascinating one, and one with a lot of potential, and it was fun to see the myriad ways that Altamerica was different from the America in the real world, which is (for all intents and purposes) the world that the main characters grew up in.

The characters themselves were decently interesting, though some of them felt a bit underdeveloped. For my part, I had difficulty at times remembering the difference between David and Zack, since they often acted and sounded quite alike in text. Mia and Theo seemed to have the most personality, and were the ones I was most interested in reading about, since they were the ones most likely to exhibit emotions more complex than just fear or anger, and also not as prone to having hints dropped about them involving some kind of shady past. Amanda was interesting enough, with her struggle between her faith and practicality, but she didn’t seem to experience that much growth.

And Hannah, well, let’s just say I’m on the fence about her. Like Amanda, she was interesting enough to read about, but her characterization seemed inconsistent. At the beginning of the book, I felt like I could relate to her quite a bit. An actress who loves the work even if it doesn’t pay the bills that well, friends who are more fair-weather than true-blue. Large-chested, and seeming a bit self-conscious about it, as evidenced in two scenes: one where she realised that someone in the audience of the play is likely ogling her chest and it actually makes her pause in her song, and a second where she mistakes someone staring at her in general as staring at her chest. Speaking as someone who has that, um, particular affliction, this reaction isn’t uncommon. People stare. It’s uncomfortable. So I liked seeing a book in which this was addressed. Only later, she gets tired of not being paid attention to and cheerfully invites people to comment on the size of her breasts. And goes from being presented as someone whose friends take her a bit for granted to someone who flits from relationship to relationship because she can’t stand not having the attention. And it just all seemed so incongruous that I wondered sometimes if Price forgot the character he started with and just went in a whole new direction without bothering to consider earlier scenes.

So over all, the characters weren’t particularly inspiring, but they weren’t all so dull as to be forgettable, either. But presentation was far from balanced, and some side characters felt better developed than main characters.

Price does have a talent for phrasing and a gift for wordplay, though, and some of the narrative was quite poetic in places. That being said, there was a bit of a tendency to ramble and let some scenes run longer than they really needed to, inflating the book to an almost unwieldy degree. The plot is complex enough, with different factions and their objectives, the plight of the Silvers and their powers, the new world they’re living in, and the notion that all of this is being scripted by people even further ahead in the future, for reasons I can guess at but weren’t stated outright. There much in this novel that leaves you guessing. Not in the way of dangling plot threads, but in the implications of events and technology and tempic power, and it’s fun to extrapolate how things might work and what might happen if this thing was different or that thing happened sooner. It’s a novel that stretches your comprehension of time, and does so in a very entertaining — if overblown — way. Even if some scenes were needlessly inflated, there’s plenty of action and intrigue to keep the plot going, with pieces of the mystery being unveiled little by little to give you a slow but solid grasp of the big picture.

Price’s novel is ambitious, and it shows, and I think for the most part the ambition pays off. It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong beginning to what could be a powerful series, one that has a lot of potential and I want to see go very far. It’s full of tropes and isn’t the most original concept, drawing themes from many other popular stories out there, but it puts them together in a way that I don’t see very often, and I think it ought to get some points for that. It’s worth reading, especially if you’re the sort of person who, like me, will read a YA novel and wonder what the concept would look like with further-reaching implications and an older cast of characters.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

New additions to Bibliotropic

The name of this blog implies books. Lots of lots of books. Which, honestly, is pretty much fine by me, because books are what I love and I’m happy to talk about them.

But sometimes I think that this blog has grown a little, well, stale. That it wouldn’t hurt to add something new to the mix. And there are a few ideas I’ve been tossing back and forth for a little while now, things I’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t implemented yet because doing so would either mean starting up a new blog or else making this blog not solely related to books, thus sullying the, er, good name? I dunno, chalk it up to mild OCD, maybe, me not wanting to advance due to the confines implied by a name…

Either way, I’m curious to see what other people think on the matter. Thus, this post, asking for opinions.

I have the following ideas in mind:

~ Reviews of SFF-related manga (Manga Mondays)
~ Reviews of SFF and horror movies (Videotropic)
~ Reviews of SFF-related video games (no fancy name ideas yet)

Or something else entirely! I dunno, is there anything you’ve ever wanted to see me or this blog tackle that’s related to SFF?

Either way, I’d love to know what you think. Leave a comment, and maybe the opinions of others will help me settle on what to do to breathe some new life into this blog.

Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 2, 2014

Summary: In a world of chances, one decision can bring down the house, one roll of the dice could bring untold wealth, or the end of everything. In this anthology of all new short stories the players gather, their stories often dark, and always compelling.

The players and the played, this new anthology from Jonathan Oliver (Magic, End of The Road, House of Fear, The End of The Line, World War Cthulhu) brings together brand new stories from an international team of talented authors, each with their own deadly game. This collection is set to include a full house of top authors including Hugo award-winning American writer Pat Cadigan, Brit Gary McMahon, Mexican Silvia Moreno Garcia, plus Tade Thompson, Rebecca Levene and more!

Thoughts: Games are something that just about everyone can relate to in some form or another. Board games, card games, video games, live-action role-playing, the options range on and on. And that’s just a typical sampling of games! Add in things like Russian Roulette, which is technically a game of chance, and you start to see how a concept can go from seemingly harmless to outright deadly.

Which is how it all works in Dangerous Games. Some stories, such as Lavie Tidhar’s Die, make their point very quickly, so you know that the name of the game is really death. (Also, in the case of that particular story, possibly somebody’s own personal literal Hell experience.) Others, like Nik Vincent’s The Stranger Cards or Pat Cadigan’s Lefty Plays Bridge, seem innocent enough at first, though get far more sinister as the story progresses.

There were some true gems in this collection, seriously amazing stories that made me want to find more of what certain authors have written so I can appreciate their writing and storytelling more! Paul Kearney’s South Mountain was an interesting, though somewhat unoriginal take historical re-enactors finding themselves actually in the middle of one of the battles they’ve come to re-enact, but the way the story was told and the detail behind the characters was what made the story great for me. Yoon Ha Lee’s Distinguishing Characteristics is a story that hints at much but says little, presenting a complex world that readers get to see only glimpses of before the story is over, and this is the second time that I’ve marvelled at this author’s ability to world-build like no other! Hillary Monahan’s The Bone Man’s Bride was evocative and raw, creepy in a way that makes you shiver but still leaves you with a shred of hope right to the very end. Rebecca Levene’s Loser may not have had the most compelling writing style, but was told so ambiguously that you think you understand what’s going on until the story’s almost done and only then do you get the revelation that it’s about something else entirely.

Perhaps it was just my perception, but it seemed that the best stories in this collection were in the first two thirds of the book. While the last third wasn’t bad, I felt that there were more stories in that percentage that didn’t have the same level of oomph as earlier on, like the stories there were ones that were definitely good enough to make the cut but held for later on in the book because the earlier stories were ones that definitely would compel a reader to keep going, but later ones were more of a take-it-or-leave-it bunch. As I said, I’m not sure if this was solely my perception and tendency to launch myself into anthologies with glee but soon find myself craving something novel-length again before the collection’s finished, or whether this is something that was felt by other readers too.

But even so, there are no stories in Dangerous Games that I didn’t like, or that I felt were dull or that I’d rather have skipped over. Which is very rare for me when reading a multi-author anthology; more often than not I find at least one story that resonates with me considerably more poorly than all the others. And this wasn’t the case here, so I can definitely class Dangerous Games as being a cut above other collections of its kind, and one that contains some serious talent that deserves recognition. Most of the stories do have some degree of genre element to them, hauntings or secondary worlds or events in the future, but even so, I can see this book having a good appeal to those whose primary interest isn’t SFF but just involves some good stories with a creepy setup and a heavy dash of mystery. Definitely one of the better anthologies that I have read ever, let alone just this year!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 23, 2014

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

Thoughts: Horrorstor is one of those rare books that actually manages to combine disturbing imagery and good tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at not only foreign-sounding product names but also the unique experience that is Retail Hell. It’s hard not to grin when you get to read amusing descriptions of Tossur treadmill-desks and Rimmeyob shelving. The whole thing is an Ikea riff, which the book doesn’t pretend to hide; it cheerfully says that the whole Orsk store idea was a company deciding it wanted to do exactly what Ikea was doing, only cheaper!

The story of Horrorstor centres around Amy, a disgruntled Orsk employee who doesn’t get along with her manager and who finds her life at loose ends. Barely hanging onto her shared apartment, fearing having to move back in with her mother, a university drop-out who sees no real future except for mediocre employment at a store and company she doesn’t really feel any attachment to. So when she and model worker Ruth Anne get hand-picked to join the investigation team to find out who’s been vandalising the Orsk store at night, the only reason she agrees to do the extra work is the money and the fact that her supervisor will put in a transfer to get her to another store.

And that alone can provide some creepiness, as anyone who has ever been in a building after hours can attest to. Go into a store or school when the place is closed, dark, and devoid of the usual crowds of human life you’re used to seeing, and suddenly everything echoes, odd sounds are louder, the shadows deeper. So even when some of the mystery is explained by the unexpected presence of 2 other employees and a homeless man, this part of he novel is still creepy.

And then he real haunting begins.

I loved the book’s prodding of Retail Hell. I loved the characters, who were real and diverse and carried their own quirks admirably. I didn’t love the lack of originality that the story held, which was analogous to just about any one of a dozen or more horror movies that relied more on imagery than plot to keep you interested. The Orsk store was built upon the site of an old psychiatric treatment centre from the 1800s, run by a sadistic overseers, and right there I think you can see what I mean by the way it’s a little lacking in the originality department. The actual plot of the novels seems to largely just be a frame for the creepy images to hang upon, rather than a real driving force behind the novel’s progression.

Admittedly, the imagery was terrifying, and those with an active imagination are forewarned not to read Horrorstor at night. (And definitely don’t read it if you’re working after-hours security at a retail store!) If you don’t find the idea of a woman working her fingers literally to the bone in a madness-induced bid to claw an escape from the now-tangible monsters of her childhood to be disturbing, then you’re more jaded than I am. Oddly, the only part that I found decidedly undisturbing was the most action-packed scene in which the entire store is being flooded with dirty water and the remaining two employees are desperately trying to escape before drowning. At was at that point that I realised that I’d already hit my limit on being creeped out, that the balance had swung too far, and that what should have been a tense scene was just being read with detached curiosity.

However, this was, I think, an entirely person thing, as everyone’s limits for horror are different, and I suspect plenty of readers viewed this as being more intense than I did.

Horrorstor would make a fantastic movie. I can say that with utter certainty. Hendrix has a good flair for both approachable wry humour and characters that you want to know more about, and these aspects of the novel were brilliant, highly enjoyable! And the imagery was crystal clear throughout, so I was never in doubt as to what was happening even when things were chaotic. Seriously, I would love to see this transformed with visual media.

One minor downside I feel I should mention is that if you’re not reading this book on a tablet or as a dead-tree version, there are things you’re going to miss. The booked was packed with images that provided some more background detail, amusing little tidbits, and as I’ve seen mentioned in a couple of reviews, even the ads of Orsk products carry some small detail that really adds to the flavour of the story, and all of this was utterly missed by me because I read it on a basic e-reader that only displayed a small fraction of whatever image was actually there. Finding out there was more to it was disappointing, since it’s a drawback to anyone who doesn’t have the option of reading it in one of two specific formats. I can see why such formats would be needed to properly display the images, of course, but that doesn’t make the lack of them for everyone else any less disappointing.

Still, Horrorstor was a good horror novel, a quick read with a fast tight plot, excellent characters, and disturbing imagery that will stay with you long after the last page. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a good blend of horror and humour, or for those looking to hip their toes into the horror genre to see what it can provide.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Market Demand, Misogyny, and Mansplaining.

Unless you’ve been living under the Internet equivalent of a rock lately, you’ll know that the portrayal of women in media is a big bone of contention among many. Not just in video games, though that has been the big focus thanks to the minds behind GamerGate. In general. Portrayal of women in media is a minefield of stereotypes and people getting their backs up because more than ever they’re being told that they should stop being so narrow about their treatment of women.

This stuff blows up. It makes news. It’s starting to make news channels now, TV and newspapers and their Internet equivalents. The explosions are starting to get way more attention, and this is good because the more attention it gets, the less it can continue unchecked. People are watching. People know.

But if the explosions are what get attention, then it should be said that the grumbling in back alleys doesn’t. And while it’s not a new argument, it’s one I started to see crop up in smaller ways in a dozen or more low-key places these days, and it’s really getting on my nerves. And that is this: Those lousy feminists aren’t leaving us the ability to write ANY women!

By the supposed rules these grumblers claim feminism has lain down, you can’t write a woman who’s not in charge of her sexuality, because then you’re not being fair to women who really like sex. And you can’t write a woman who is strongly sexual because then you’re just making her a sex object. And you can’t not write any women at all, because then you’re just being unbalanced in your representations. You have to get it just right, not too little and not too much, or else you’re just being a horrible horrible man who should die in a fire.

Are you seeing the problems with this argument?

Well, first of all, nobody’s saying those things. Different people have said them, sure, looking at things from different angles, at different times, and different situations, and if you assume those are the laws of the land then sure, there’s a problem. But nobody’s actually saying you have to strike the absolute perfect balance or else you’re horrible, while at the same time pretty much saying that there is no perfect balance. To assume that’s what everyone wants is like saying that because a restaurant one day served me soup that was lukewarm, and on a different day a different restaurant served me ice cream that had melted, then thus I am a picky eater who will only eat things at exact temperatures.

Second of all, did you notice those ‘rules’ only have to do with sex, and subsequent nonexistence? Yeah, that’s just a touch problematic right there.

Here’s what it actually comes down to. Many women are fed up of having their only representation in popular media be either a sexual conquest for a hero, or a someone in trouble who needs to be rescued. Or both. And before somebody points out to be any number of characters who don’t fit that stereotype, I’m going to ask you to stop right there. Using that as a way of saying the problem doesn’t exist is like saying America doesn’t have a problem with racism because they currently have a black president. One exception does not disprove the rule.

Overwhelmingly, this is what women get relegated to in video games, in TV and movies, and yes, even in my beloved books. I’d love to say that the problem exists less in book form than other forms, but to be truthful, I think that’s more of a sign of the kind of books I read rather than some representation of a whole.

But despite the Internet’s current focus being on the issue of women in video games (where it is painfully prevalent, given that there’s a common but mistaken idea that the overwhelming majority of gamers are men, or that only men play ‘real’ games and women just play sims and puzzle games and maybe if you’re generous, RPGs so they can have a nice story to focus on instead of the ‘real’ fun of blowing up aliens all day long), it’s definitely evident elsewhere. I’m going to use one of my favourite TV shows as a good example: Supernatural.

This show’s issues with women are pretty well known. And when I first started watching, I thought it was going to buck the trend. In monster-of-the-week episodes you’d see men who had to be recused as often as women, women who knew how to use guns when their boyfriends didn’t, women who would rush into danger to save themselves and those around them. It looked promising. I was impressed.

Then the show wore on, and it became obvious where the problems were. If you were a recurring female character on that show, you had limited options. You were either evil, a romantic interest, or going to die without the show’s typical resurrection machine bringing you back. In one very memorable event with a mother-daughter competent knowledgeable demon-hunters, you were going to die in a sacrificial blaze of glory so that the main men could escape and continue to save the day.

…Yeah…

I still like the show. So much. But I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t have problems with the treatment of women. Hell, some of the actors have even publicly spoken out against it. It’s not an unknown problem. The point is that it is a problem. You can’t just hand a girl a gun and claim she’s a great example of a strong female character and claim you have no problems treating women fairly if what you’re going to do in the end is kill them off, make them evil, or make them a sexual or romantic conquest for the main man/men.

So to the people grumbling and grousing about how ‘the rules’ are so restrictive that you can’t write any women at all without being shat on, consider this: maybe the problem isn’t the evil women who want to take control of or shut down your creative process. Maybe the problem is that you can’t write for beans. Maybe the problem is that you have no clue how to write a women without her glorifying a man.

Consider this: Does your story involve a woman being rescued by the male lead? Yes? Then why? Can the story happen perfectly well without the rescue scene? Then why is it there to begin with?

If the story needs a rescue scene, then okay. You get a pass. But when I say needs, I don’t just mean something flimsy like, “If he doesn’t go to rescue her, he won’t be in a position to find out info from stupid guards who are talking about stuff they shouldn’t, so he won’t know to do something else later on.” That doesn’t get a pass. Aside from being really sloppy writing, what you basically did was turn a person into a plot device, something that exists only to get the man what he needs. Can he find out this info some other way? Yes? Then do that instead. If you really can’t think of another way to accomplish that info-getting, then I strongly recommend you take some creative writing classes.

Consider this: Does your story attempt to circumvent the whole “women are weaker than men” stereotype by giving her a weapon, psychic powers, etc, but she still needs the man to rescue her? See above for the problems with that, but add on a dose of, “Why did you give her strength only to take it away?” Because what you did there was even more painful. You gave her the ability to be awesome, but took it away at  convenient moment so that, once again, the hero could accomplish hero things. She became a thing, a means to an end, and ceased being a person.

Consider this: Is your main female super hot, legs from here to tomorrow, a great body, outstanding with martial arts or some weapon, all guys want to sleep with her but she won’t give them the time of day, but oh, when she gets to know the leading man, she gets all gooey for him and totally wants to sleep with him? Dude, what the hell? You basically just use the woman as a marker of standards to prove that your male lead is so awesome, even the pickiest of women want to get in bed with him. At that point, it doesn’t matter so much that you made her awesome. What matters more is that you dipped your toe into murky waters and threw her into the growing pile of stereotypes that so many people, women and men alike, are trying to stop!

“But,” I hear some of you say, “You don’t get it. I wrote a character like that, and my main male character is misogynistic, but see, she exists to show him that women can really be awesome and shows him the error of his ways.”

You wrote a women that exists for the sole purpose of improving and advancing a man’s development. Do you want applause for this? To be hailed as some great visionary writer who will bridge the gap between the sexes?

It’s actually not that hard to write good realistic women in any form of fiction. If you really want to simplify it to the most basic and easy way to tell if you’re writing a character in an unsexist way, do the following: Say, “[Character name]’s purpose is: [fill in the blank]” For all your characters, male and female alike. And if you find yourself with a lot of lines like, “Joe’s purpose is to defeat evil because he’s the Chosen One,” and “Jane’s purpose is to marry Joe because their baby will be the host for all human evils,” then there’s a problem. You’ve made your female character’s purpose in the story entirely dependant on the male’s. If they have no other purpose in the story than to prop up or advance the male in some way, then you’re doing it wrong. And when you’re answering this question, don’t just stop with one event. It’s not enough to say, “Jane’s purpose is to unearth an ancient tomb and activate an artifact that starts the apocalypse,” and stop there when the rest of the story is “…so Joe can stop it.” Can she have a story independent of the males around her? Then great! You’ve got yourself a better beginning than so many other writers out there.

The problem isn’t that the damsel-in-distress and romantic conquest stereotypes exist at all. It’s that they’re used so often that it’s practically become the status quo. When it’s seen as normal to reduce half the population to a couple of tropes, there’s a problem with portrayal. And if you honestly can’t think of a way to not reduce your female characters to those tropes, then, as I said, the problem isn’t the narrow confines feminazis are supposedly giving you to work within. The problem is that you can’t write well.

And the blame for that doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the people who are sick and tired of seeing hundreds and hundreds of women written that way.

So instead of grumbling about the fact that you’re supposedly not allowed to write the way you like to write anymore, spare a moment to think about why you like to write that way. And spare another moment to consider that nobody’s actually telling you that you have to stop writing that way. What they’re telling you is that they don’t want to see it, they won’t keep buying it, and if you want to keep selling your books, your screenplays,your video game plots, you might just have to try something new. They’re not making you do anything. They’re telling you what a new market demand is. If you can’t supply, well, that’s not their fault either. When a product loses sales, it does no good to sit in a board room and gripe about how it’s all the fault of your customers, that if only they’d just buy more of your product, this wouldn’t be happening.

Well, yes, that’s true. If you only look at one very tiny perspective that doesn’t allow for a significant fraction of the whole picture. The reason they’re not buying is because you’re not selling anything they want to buy anymore.

People tell me all the time that if you want to make money from a creative endeavour, you must have some business sense too. And this is true. It’s not enough to make an awesome product. You have to market it. You have to advertise, you have to convince people that they want to give you money in exchange for your product. Otherwise, you’re not going to be making any money. Simple as that. Econ 101 (or so The Simspons have explained to me): money is exchanged for goods and/or services. If you’re selling stories, you have to make sure that somebody’s going to want to read them enough to hand over the cash.

So if you’re ignoring the market demand and continuing to churn out a product that sold well in the past but that more and more people are saying they don’t want anymore, what good does it do to complain that fewer people are buying? People are telling you they want less sexism. Selling more sexism isn’t the way to counter that.

Clearly, the product still sells. But less than it used to. Because society marched ever onward, people who were silenced are finding ways to find their voices, and those voices are getting heard more and more often. And judging by the reactions commonly seen online, daring to tell suppliers that they don’t want more of the same product is freaking dangerous. Imagine if Coke issued death threats every time you drank a Pepsi. Or vice versa. That shit doesn’t fly! That’s what’s being done, though, sad to say. The status quo is having a bright light shone upon it, and examiners are finding that what’s there needs some polish and repair and outright change, and all the little creepy-crawly bugs inside the machine are afraid of losing their homes. But when your home is rotting around you, clinging to the remains and biting the hand that wants to show you how to live in a better place isn’t the voice of reason. It’s the voice of rabies.

End rant.

 

Closer to Home, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 24, 2014

Summary: Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King’s Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds’ Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.

Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags’ mentor, King’s Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King’s Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?

Thoughts: Even though I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the last 5-book Valdemar set, figuring that it could have been cut down to 4 books if there weren’t as many long descriptions of sports games or copy-and-past flashbacks from previous books, I still knew that I was going to end up reading the latest book in the very large series, Closer to Home. It was still a Valdemar novel, and even if some of the stories haven’t impressed me, the world probably always will. As with the Collegium Chronicles books, Closer to Home still centres largely around Mags, with the addition of more chapters from Amily’s viewpoint, which was good to see as a bit of variation.

There’s a bit of a double meaning going on with the title. Closer to Home represents both how Mags and Amily are a step closer to settling into their lives and roles as adults and finding themselves at peace with the situation, and also incorporates the struggle of handling problems at your doorstep instead of the far-flung or nation-wide issues that were the focus of previous novels. ‘Potential’ is the name of the game, as this book deals very much with the role of women in Haven and through Valdemaran society in general, and whether or not their wants are determined by actual personal desire or by ignorance of anything else. It’s a complex issue, one that sometimes it seems Lackey is trying to present as complex while also trying to simplify it to an either-or debate. The argument came down to a lot of agreeing that much of it was determined by upbringing and awareness of potential, with also a lot of shrugging and saying, “You can’t win ‘em all,” when it came to actually doing anything about those views. Given that it took the intervention of the King to stop one man from marrying off a daughter who didn’t want to marry and to make sure she got additional education that might awaken interest in other avenues, it’s clear that the society has a long way to go.

It does, to its benefit, ask some of the hard questions. Aside from asking why women can’t do things that men do, or why they’re only treated as marriage prospects, it also addresses class difference, asking why common workers don’t get the same benefits afforded highborns when it comes to rights and privilege. It was a question that ultimately had no answer, except to say that it was simply a matter of time and resources; there weren’t enough people with enough eyes on the comings and goings of everyday folk whereas the rich and titled had eyes on them all the time, so what they did was more visible and easier to address. It’s an unsatisfactory answer, but to its credit, it was realistic for the setting, and at least the question was asked, openly and boldly, instead of being hinted at vaguely and hoping that someone, somewhere, would pay attention to it.

Looking at this book on its own, out of context from the series whole, it could easily be taken that the book is trying to just handwave a serious issue by declaring, “Eh, we can save a few but not all, and that’s good enough for now.” And I suspect that a lot of people probably got annoyed at that. In context with the rest of the series, however, and keeping in mind that this book takes place far in the past of the main Valdemar stories, I’m tempted to forgive it this sin. As the world’s timeline advances, great societal changes get made. It would be like getting angry at a historical fiction novel for portraying history accurately. There’s a certain amount of allowance that I think can be made, even if the attitude and behaviour of many characters is difficult to swallow.

And by difficult to swallow, I do mean difficult. There’s a scene that can essentially come across as rape apology. A 14 year old girl sends a besotted love letter to a handsome man she’s only ever seen the once, and when it gets found out, she’s dressed dow quite fiercely by someone who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that the guy could have raped her and the law could do nothing if that letter was brought into play because clearly she threw herself at him. Despite the fact that Heralds can literally tell when somebody is lying, and despite the fact that in a previous book that appears chronologically before this one it was said that Heralds accept mental and emotional evidence in crimes, no no, the law could do nothing because a girl sent a letter saying she loved a guy from the moment she saw him, so that apparently means all sex is okay.

Yes, this scene raised my blood pressure. I can’t give that one a pass, because while it may be how people think a lot of the time, it grated against what has been established time and again in the Valdemar novels, which are largely about hope and improvement and how anyone can be something great and so long as justice can be done it will be done.

When it comes to the story, though, I can’t say that much about it. Most of it was a Romeo and Juliet retelling with a sick twist, though that sick twist doesn’t really get revealed until after a few eye-rolls at the way the story was mirroring Romeo and Juliet so closely. It’s a story that requires patience, given that it seems at first to be rather unoriginal and trite. And very little really develops outside of one mystery being solved and a few characters adjusting to their new roles in life. The story seems to be mostly a backdrop against which questions of social justice can be asked, the solid story being an unimportant prop for nebulous “what if”s. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but if you’re like me, who spent years reading Valdemar novels for tales of epic adventure, it would be a bit disappointing.

Lackey’s smooth writing style does make up for a lot of that, though, since I’ve always found her storytelling to be as welcoming as a hot bath on a cold night. You sink into it and you get so lost in it all that you don’t notice the passage of time. Her novels are 99% of the time such fun that the writing itself covers up a multitude of minor sins, and since I started reading her in my teen years, it always brings with it a sense of comfortable nostalgia that draws me back every time, not just to read whatever new story she’s written but also to experience the storytelling.

In the end, I have to say that while Closer to Home had its problems and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who hasn’t read previous Valdemar novels, I still enjoyed it and I’m curious to see how the rest of the books in this branch of the series will go. Some plot threads regarding Mags are still dangling (though I’m starting to suspect I may be the only one who’s noticed them…), and Amily’s new role as the King’s Own has the potential to give rise to some interesting stories. Hopefully they’ll just be a bit more exciting next time around.

White Space, by Ilsa J Bick

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date  – February 11, 2014

Summary: In the tradition of Memento and Inception comes a thrilling and scary young adult novel about blurred reality where characters in a story find that a deadly and horrifying world exists in the space between the written lines.

Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian whom a stroke has turned into a vegetable, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives so ghostly and surreal it’s as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. But one thing Emma has never doubted is that she’s real.

Then she writes “White Space,” a story about these kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard.

Unfortunately, “White Space” turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer. The manuscript, which she’s never seen, is a loopy Matrix meets Inkheart story in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page. Thing is, when Emma blinks, she might be doing the same and, before long, she’s dropped into the very story she thought she’d written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, Emma meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities: Eric, Casey, Bode, Rima, and a very special little girl, Lizzie. What they discover is that they–and Emma–may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose.

Now what they must uncover is why they’ve been brought to this place–a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written–before someone pens their end.

Thoughts: Throughout reading this book, my brain went through three different stages. First it was lightly poached. Then it started to get a bit fried. Then at the end, it was thoroughly scrambled. White Space is one of those novels that I say without a doubt isn’t for everybody, because it’s confusing as anything and requires twisting your mind in about 5 different directions at once and spending the majority of the book not knowing half of what’s going on.

But because of this, it’s a book with amazing reread potential. Not just that, but I think it requires multiple reads to fully appreciate, because the story is beautifully complex, a multifaceted gem of storytelling. It’s told from multiple viewpoints, all of teens with abilities that they don’t quite understand and definitely don’t want to reveal, thrown together by painful circumstance and forced to solve the mystery of what brought them together and what keeps attacking and killing everyone around them, before they themselves are killed. Emma experiences strange blinks where she loses time and gets visions and memories of someone else’s very disturbing life, as well as getting glimpses of a famous author’s unfinished works. Rima can sense the whispers of the dead in things that were close to them. The gifts of the others, don’t become clear until much later on, so I won’t give any spoilers in that regard, but suffice to say that some of them aren’t quite what I expected. Everything is important, everything in its place, which is impressive for a novel that’s so steeped in utter chaos.

There’s some extremely disturbing imagery in White Space, more than I’ve come to expect in novels aimed at teens, and enough to make me feel pretty squeamish at times. From people being torn apart from the inside to just knowing that any character you may get attached to might not make it out of the story alive, it’s a book that evokes a lot of emotion in the reader, and it’s something that I think some may need a bit of a warning before they get fully into it. I may not have the weakest stomach, but there was some stuff in here to make me feel uncomfortable. The imagery was terrifyingly clear.

Which is one of those things that, as the book goes on and pieces of the overarching story get revealed, gives me pause in retrospect. Much of the story is about characters in books being real on another plane of existence, part of a separate multiverse that their creator/artist reaches into in order to bring out books, paintings, and so on. To tell stories. The best books get under your skin, are so real that the reader feels them deeply, sinks into them, and sees them as if they’re really there. So when a book that plays with that notion is just such a book, well, you may start to understand why my mind felt like a cooked egg by the end of it.

That notion also can appeal to just about any writer who’s had the experience of dealing with characters as though they’re real people. Characters don’t always want to do what they’re told. You want the plot to go one way, they want to do something else entirely. It’s practically a running gag amongst those who have fictional people inside their heads. Not only does White Space address the issue of popular works of fiction being part of a real multiverse, but it also looks at what might happen if a character was unfinished, without a set beginning, middle, and end to their story, and what happens then. What also happens when the author puts enough of themselves into a character; do they become part of the character, or does the character become a part of them? Honestly, at times I started to feel like Bick must have been present for one of might late-night conversations with friends in which we discussed these very issues, because so much of this book’s exploration of reality and multiverse theory matched closely with the general consensus we all reached at the time.

Which begs the question: is Ilsa J Bick writing my life and made me have those conversations and reach those conclusions?

This is what I mean when I say this book isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have the kind of mind that enjoys those sorts of hypotheticals, and throwing a bunch of “what if” questions together all at the same time, then much of what makes this book so brilliant for me will be lost on you. It is, however, a fantastic YA horror novel with powerful imagery that challenges the notions of what teenagers can and cannot handle in their fiction, and for that alone I think this book deserves a greater amount of attention. I can’t wait to read the second book of the duology, due out in 2015, and at least this time I’ll know what a head-trip I’m getting myself into when I sit down with it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

Thoughts: Previously, I was enamoured with the first book in this series, A Natural History of Dragons, which caught my attention for taking place in a world like ours (albeit ours about 100 years back, and with dragons), and for being the fictional memoir of a woman who disliked the role that society had decided for her based on her gender and decided instead she’d be an adventurer-scientist and make a proper study of dragons instead of just sitting there and being a good pretty housewife. Isabella was a wonderful narrator, and I went into The Tropic of Serpents expecting more of the same. I clearly was not disappointed.

Readers of the previous novel will understand why her husband is no longer around, so I won’t go into details of how sad that sill makes me, because I really enjoyed seeing them as a wonderful pair of partners, not just in marriage but also in science. Here, Isabella has a young son whom she’s not quite sure what to do with, a friend and protegé who accompanies her on her journey to the strange new lands of Eriga, and, as before, still must deal with social gender norms, albeit slightly different ones than she’s used to as she encounters unfamiliar cultures and comes to a greater understanding of them.

You can’t read this book without a sense of wonder, the kind that accompanies great stories of adventure and exploration and discovery, and there’s enough of the familiar in this series to make readers feel as though they could be reading a memoir from our own history. Which is exactly its point; it’s written as though it’s a real memoir, complete with commentary on various issues, first-person viewpoint, and Isabella’s lack of immunity from her own criticism. Exactly as one tends to do when they’re writing about an event in hindsight. Brennan also pulls more inspiration from the primary world to build her secondary world, drawing up cultures and societies analogous to ones that exist here, adding another layer of realism to an already beautifully designed story.

Unlike A Natural History of Dragons, however, The Tropic of Serpents is less concerned with the dragons themselves and spends more time detailing the lives of the people Isabella encounters, especially the Moulish, whom she spends a great deal of time with as she hunts down the dragons that were her primary reason for going on the expedition in the first place. Most of the knowledge she gains about dragons happens in the final few chapters of the book, and the rest is entirely about the reasons for her hunt, and the people she meets. Which is no bad thing, and given that this book provides and expansion of the world and takes place mostly in locations she’s never been in before and is presented as mysterious and foreign, it’s understandable why so much time would be devoted to that. As an anthropology geek, I ate it up, and adored every bit of the cultural exploration. Those looking for more information on dragons, however, may have found themselves a bit disappointed.

I’m not sure I could love this series more. Taking a scientific approach to fantastical concepts is something that has appealed to me for a long time, and Brennan does this with the ultimate fantasy trope of dragons. How they’re built, how they live, what they do, it’s all in here. And despite this book having more of an emphasis on the people than the dragons themselves, there is an ultimate reason for that; the lives of the Moulish are inextricably intertwined with that of the swamp-wyrms. You can’t tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. Dragons in Brennan’s world may not be commonplace as such but they are everywhere, a presence in every corner of the world. Studying them is like studying, say, birds; it’s not enough for some people to know that they can fly, but they want to know how they fly, how their bodies allow it when our bodies don’t, whether flightless birds are still technically birds, all the questions that scientists and explorers in this world have asked about any number of things over the course of history. Applying real scientific laws to such things instead of just handwaving it all by saying, “It’s magic,” or, “It’s fantasy so it doesn’t have to follow rules” allows for the creation of not just a richly complex real world but also shows that there’s plenty of room for rational thought within fantasy, something which I’ve heard is the biggest perceived detriment to a highly creative genre.

Fans of A Natural History of Dragons will likely still love this book as much as they did the first one. And those who haven’t yet started reading Brennan’s fantastic novels really ought to do so. They’re intelligent, creative, and a powerful deconstruction of so many things we take for granted even here and now, making them well worth paying attention to in more ways than just the obvious good storytelling. I know there’s going to be at least one more book in the series, and I, for one, can’t wait to dive back into the world and see what Isabella discovers next!