Review: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

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Setting a fantasy novel in a rainforest is, with the benefit of hindsight, a genius idea, due to the genre’s historical love of stratified societies and hierarchical social structures.

Canopy is home to those who worship the thirteen gods and goddesses of their pantheon. Residents are closest to the sunlight, have more access to resources, and are the safest from the creatures that roam the forest, thanks to the magical barrier that separates Canopy from Understorey and Floor. This barrier also traps those who live in Understorey to the mercy of harsher, more dangerous living conditions and fewer resources. To those in Canopy, Understorians are savages fit only for slavery.

Unar, a Canopian born and bred, knows she has a powerful destiny. At the age of twelve she ran away from home to avoid being sold by her impoverished parents and gained entry to the Garden of Audblayin, the Waker of Senses and the goddess of birth and life. There she easily masters the magic that lies in Audblayin’s province, arrogant in her knowledge she was meant to serve one day as the bodyguard for her patron deity’s next incarnation.

Instead, Unar’s plan is thwarted again and again. Refused to ascend in rank in the Garden, entangled in promises and debts to a family of slaves, Unar’s destiny takes her beneath the barrier into Understorey. There she learns of another, powerful type of magic, and discovers an organized plot to overthrow Canopy—a plot that Unar has the power to aid or destroy, at the cost of everything she’s striven for.

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale is rooted in Russian fairy tales and mythic creatures, early Russian history back when Moscow paid tribute to the Mongol Empire, and spiritual warfare between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Slavic pagan beliefs of the peasantry. It’s a straightforward story and a compulsive page-turner (always a plus for me these days) with an engaging storyteller voice.

Vasilisa Petronova is the last daughter born to Pyotr Vladimirovich and his first wife Marina. Independent, inquisitive, and more than a little stubborn and unruly, Vasilisa is most at home inside the surrounding forest and amongst the guardian spirits inhabiting her home and the land. Everything changes when her father brings home two additions to his household: Anna Ivanovna, his second wife, a devout Christian who fears and despises the household spirits as demons, and Konstantin Nikonovich, a priest with a magnetic presence, powerful voice, and deep-seated need for devotion. As Konstantin instills fear within Pytor’s people, the guardian spirits wither, and the village’s strength weakens. But more is at stake than just the village. Medvev, the Bear, has been entrapped for several years, but he is slowly growing strong enough to break free and gorge himself on the fear of the world.

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Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows

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Sixteen-year-old Saffron Coulter’s life is changed forever when she witnesses a strange woman she met a few hours ago enter a giant portal leading god-knows-where. Almost unthinkingly Saffron follows and finds herself in a whole new world. This strange woman, Gwen, is originally from Earth but years ago became a worldwalker and made this world and its country of Kena her home.

Kena is in the midst of political turmoil. To Gwen’s eternal regret, she supported a candidate for the thorne who turned out to be a backstabbing tyrant. Now Gwen and the group of rebels she belongs to have laid their sights on forming an alliance with the neighboring country of Veksh, whose government is rife with its own set of tensions and factions. Immediately thrust into a bewildering landscape of magic, politics, and religion, Saffron comes to play an integral role in determining Kena’s future. But at what cost? And what price will she have to pay upon the day she returns home?

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Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

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Late one night on the outskirts of Kolkata, a middle-aged, lonely college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger who claims to be part-werewolf. He gives Alok mesmerising, terrifying visions, a prologue to what will become this stranger’s unbelievable story. Captivated by what he’s seen and wanting to know more, Alok agrees to transcribe the contents of two ancient scrolls the stranger possesses.

These scrolls contain a bloody, magical tale that transcends recorded history and legend both. The first tells the story of a powerful Nordic shapeshifter, one of whose many names is Fenrir, who travels east with two other shapeshifters and seeks to fuck a human woman in order to partake in what his people do not—the creation and bearing of children. The second scroll is written by Cyrah, the woman who was raped by a bestial-looking white stranger. Her story is one of resistance, sought clarity, and dissolution of boundaries as she straddles the two worlds she—and her unborn child—will inhabit.

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Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

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It feels a little odd to write a review of a popular, NYT best-selling book published four years ago—not only does my review inherently veer towards obsolescence (what’s the point of reviewing a commercially popular book several years after its publication? Most people have likely already read it or made up their minds whether or not they’re going to), there’s a good chance I’ll compound its obsolescence by not having anything new or worthwhile to say. But hopefully people reading this are interested in my thoughts because they are my thoughts. (And if not, I hope you stick around anyway.)

A good friend of mine has been regularly prodding me to read this book and its sequels for over a year now, and now I’ve finally made a start. (Also I reeaally want to read the Six of Crows series, but I want to have read the Grisha Trilogy first for context.)

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Review: Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

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Maggie was the glamorous, larger-than-life, shining star all her friends revolved around. Maggie was Jude’s best friend, the only one she told her secrets.

Now Maggie’s dead. Her body was found floating face-down in her family’s pool. Drowning? Overdose? Suicide? No one knows.

No one except for Jude. Jude knows it was murder. And as she investigates Maggie’s friends and family, the facade Jude had built around Maggie while she was alive starts to crack open. And, unwillingly so, does Jude’s armor as she comes head-to-head with her past.

Pasadena is a noir YA novel clocking in at a breezy 228 pages. I’d read Sherri L. Smith’s apocalyptic/dystopia novel Orleans and was a huge fan, but hadn’t read anything of hers since, and so I was curious to see what kind of noir story she would write.

228 pages and a week and a half later, I have little to say about it. It’s engaging overall, and the writing style and atmosphere is suitably noir-y. The scorching-hot, tinder-pile of a city that is Pasadena and the outskirts of L.A. is evocatively rendered, and the over-bright sunniness of the setting is effectively utilized in direct opposition of the hidden, shadowy secrets scattered throughout the book.

I really liked the portrayal of Jude and Maggie’s friendship through Veronica Mars-esque flashbacks. (And if you like Veronica Mars, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Pasadena). I especially liked the mystery that was Maggie Kim, a rich, confident, melodramatic glamorous girl, the glue that kept her friends together, the balm that soothed and assured them they mattered and their troubles had answers.

The dealbreaker is the climax—it negates the entire purpose of the story being a noir. (Highlight for spoilers.) Dead people don’t commit suicide in noir—other people kill them. Even though Maggie’s death was aided and abetted by an outside figure, it’s still suicide. All this tension had been built up about what kind of person Maggie was, what secrets of her own she was hiding, the closer Jude gets to solving the mystery of Maggie’s death, and what ended up being the big reveal deflated that tension, big-time. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I am.

My disappointment with the ending has colored my overall feelings towards Pasadena. Other readers may appreciate the book as a contemporary YA exploring friendship, loss, and sexual assault with zero gloss. I picked up Pasadena for the promise of a noir story, and IMO it did not live up to its advertising.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

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I am Pen and Pen is me.

We’re not identical. Yet this is the first time I have read a book with a character whose relationship with their gender and their body  felt relatable for the reason of  OMG I HAVE HAD THOSE SAME EXPERIENCES. Not all of them, but many. The details are different, the essence is the same.

Pen Oleivera is a masculine, butch teenage girl who for all her life has been getting shit from her parents and her peers for being the “wrong” kind of girl, the kind who wears men’s clothes, hangs out with dudes, loves FPS video games, and is an overall un-feminine person. Pen’s never had a problem with herself, with being female, or being into other girls. What Pen does have a problem with are people’s expectations and assumptions. Her traditional, Portuguese-immigrant parents expect respeito from her in the form of acting like an appropriately feminine daughter. Her douchebag-of-a-best friend Colby expects loyalty for his “bros before hos” mentality in return for treating Pen as “just another guy.” All three of them accuse her of trying to be something she’s not, trying to be a man, because why else would she look and act the way she does?

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Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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I can’t remember the last time I read a steampunk novel, but I always knew I would be reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair as soon as it came out. A what-if take on the outcome of the colonization of Africa and the enslavement and brutalization enacted upon the people of the Congo, Everfair uses steampunk not as a shiny gloss, but as an integral mechanism powering her alternate history in which the existence of the Belgian Congo takes a markedly different turn for the better.

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Review: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

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In some far future in what used to be the midwest of the United States, monsters walk the streets of V-City at night. If a human commits violence, a monster comes to life as a result of the crime. The Corsai are violent maulers, and the Malchai are emaciated vampires. The mysterious Sunnai, that most rare of monsters, eat souls. Not only are they the most destructive, no one knows what they look like, and that makes them the most dangerous monsters of all.

Kate Harker is a human who wants to be a monster. The daughter of the crime boss who rules half of V-City, she’s gotten herself kicked out of six boarding schools so she can return to be with her father. She’ll prove one way or another that she’s a Harker, her father’s daughter, and worthy of his time and attention.

August Flynn is a monster who wants to be human. He lives on the other half of V-City, the side where humans decided to fight the monsters rather than pay exorbitant fees for Callum Harker’s protection. August and his two siblings look human but are all Sunnai, and they live with the man who runs the task force dedicated to monster hunting and crime prevention. August is tired of being who he is and the things he’s capable of doing when he doesn’t eat for too long.

Kate and August are two sides of a coin, and they are both able to see the city for what it is, and each other as the people they truly are. As the power structure in V-City teeters and threatens to make collateral damage of Kate and August, the two of them are on the run for their lives to save the city, themselves, and each other.

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Review: Infomocracy by Malka Older

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Do elections become more democratic when everyone has access to to the same infinite, universal information? Does ease of access to information and universal availability and ability to vote diminish voting disenfranchisement and lead to smarter, more thoughtful voting outcomes?

Maybe. Ideally. It’d be nice if that happened.

Malka Older’s cyberpunk election thriller Infomocracy posits a late twenty-first century future in which microdemocracy is the norm. Instead of traditional, old-fashioned nation-states, Earth (or rather its participating constituents, but that’s still most of Earth) is divided up into 100,000-people voting blocs called “centenals.” Rural areas may have only a couple of centenals spread out over hundreds of miles, while densely packed cities can have a couple hundred centenals within the space of several street blocks.

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