Category Archives: eBooks

Children of Blood and Bone

West African-inspired young adult fantasy

Our feminist fantasy book club has been cranking through the books this year. We picked our list by nominating two books each and drawing them from a hat, and this was my first book of the year. I’m always on the lookout for diverse books to read, and fantasy is a notoriously homogeneous genre. I had come across this book in a list, and it has since caused a bit of a stir winning a Hugo and being turned into a film, so I decided to nominate it.

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“Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi is a young adult fantasy novel about a land called Orïsha where people are either born as maji or kosidán. Once, all maji wielded magic, but since the kosidán king Saran took the magic away and killed all the maji, the powerless maji children, distinguishable by their white hair and known as diviners, have been subjugated by the kosidán. Zélie, a diviner who lost her mother in the raids, tries to keep her head down and help her father and brother eke out a living. However, when her path crosses with kosidán princess Amari on the run, Zélie’s humble life is lost forever.

My attempt at some West African inspired cooking for our book club

This is a spirited novel that takes the hallmarks of the young adult fantasy genre and recasts them against a backdrop of West African culture. This is a very readable book, and Adeyemi writes from the heart and her strength (and focus) is emotions and relationships. There are three point of view characters, but by far the most compelling are Zélie and Inan, Amari’s older brother and the crown prince. Without giving too much away, there was an element of magic that I really enjoyed – the ability to conjure a dreamscape and people you know inside (although there were some elements of magic that I found really disturbing). I was also really on board with everyone riding giant lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs everywhere.

As readable as this book is, it definitely had plenty of fantasy and young adult tropes. Lost parents, hidden powers, runaways, royalty. These themes are common throughout lots of fantasy novels, and aren’t fatal to a good story. I absolutely believe that fantasy and science fiction needs more authors of colour, and I understand the statement the author was making about the subjugation of a class of people (with darker skin colour) by another. However, I think that for a novel to use tropes and still be good, it needs to have something extra and I’m just not quite sure this book has that extra factor. I’m also not quite sure that there was the correct number of point of view characters. I think that maybe it should have been two or four, because three just seems a little off-kilter.

An easy read with some ambitious world-building and some interesting magic, I’ll be curious to see how it is adapted on screen.

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Binti

Himba-inspired afrofuturism

My feminist fantasy book club has been in full swing, and we deviated a little for our most recent book and tried a Hugo-award winning science fiction novella instead.

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“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor is an eponymous science fiction novella about a young Himba woman who defies her close-knit family’s wishes and runs away to accept an offer as the first Himba person to study at an intergalactic university. Although far from her family, Binti proudly displays her distinct culture with her very visible otjize. However, when the ship is boarded by a hostile alien race, it is Binti’s unique culture that may be salvation.

This is a quick, intense novella that throws you headlong into Binti’s world. Okorafor pulls together all the classic elements of science fiction with space travel, aliens with tentacles, futurism and social commentary. Okorafor is a spirited writer, and this is an incredibly quick read. There are lots of pockets of technological ingenuity scattered throughout the book, and I love Okorafor’s approach to Afrofuturism and how it pays homage to traditional culture while weaving it seamlessly with science and space travel.

I think the only difficulty, which is one I have experienced with novellas before, is that because the story is so quick, it’s a little bit hard to get attached to the characters. There is an incident that happens about halfway through the book, and Binti refers to the impact of it several times afterwards, but the affected characters were introduced so briefly it is a little hard to empathise.

Nevertheless, this is a creative, enjoyable story that you will whip through in no time.

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The Dark Fantastic

Non-fiction book about black women in fantasy

Content warning: racism

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“The Dark Fantastic” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a non-fiction book about the representation of black women in fantasy. Thomas focuses on four examples of popular fantasy books and television series that feature a black female character. Thomas presents her theory of the Dark Other as a lens through which to understand how black women are marginalised, even in magical worlds. Exploring the themes of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting and emancipation, Thomas analyses “The Hunger Games”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Merlin” and “Harry Potter” in depth while making mention of many other examples of afrofuturism and black fantastic stories.

This is a meticulous and thoughtful book that gives characters like Rue, Bonnie Bennett, Gwen and Angelina Johnson the attention and analysis that they often did not receive in their own stories. There were some very compelling arguments in this book, particularly Thomas’ discussion of hesitation and the rationale behind why readers, writers and publishers find black characters so disconcerting – even in fantasy worlds. I thought that the idea of waking dreams and the hypocrisy of how the idea of magic doesn’t break the illusion but an empowered black woman does was particularly piercing. Thomas is very frank about her experiences in fantasy fandom, and this first-hand knowledge and response enriches this structured and well-researched book.

I think the main question I have after reading this is who is the intended audience? Although softened y the autoethnography parts of the book, as well as the appealing subject matter, Thomas nevertheless has a very scholarly writing style that indicates her significant academic experience and qualifications. While I highly doubt anyone could fault her theories, research or conclusions, part of the advantage of writing non-fiction books is to bring complex yet important concepts to a broad audience and I think that some parts of Thomas’ book could be a little too intellectual for the average reader.

A fascinating and academic work about a phenomenon that any pop culture consumer has been exposed to but most probably haven’t even noticed.

 

 

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Relative Fortunes

New York flapper suffragette murder mystery

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

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“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.

There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.

I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.

Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.

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Broken Humanity

French crime thriller about three linked people

Content warning: child abuse, trafficking

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.

This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.

The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.

A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.

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Echo North

Retelling of Norwegian fairy tale

Our feminist fantasy book club rolled around again, and this time we were tackling a reinterpretation of a Norwegian fairy tale. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but given how cold it is in Canberra right now, it seemed a very appropriate winter choice. Our host put together a wonderful Winter Solstice feast on the night and we discussed the book in earnest.

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“Echo North” by Joanna Ruth Meyer is a fantasy novel that reimagines the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon“. The story follows Echo Alkaev, a young woman with a facial difference who lives with her father, a bookseller, and her brother. When her father remarries, and then disappears, Echo is heartbroken. However, when she finds him near death in the forest months later, Echo is given a choice by a talking wolf: live with him for a year in exchange for her father’s safety. Echo agrees, and soon finds herself in a strange and shifting underground castle that requires magical care. She eventually discovers the library, an enchanted room that allows her to enter books through mirrors. There, she meets new friends and begins to unravel the secrets of the castle and the wolf.

This is a creative story that borrows elements from the original fairy tale but combines them with enough new ideas to really make it a unique tale. Everyone in the book club agreed that the magical library with mirrors that allowed you to step into books was a stroke of genius and we all really, really wanted one. Meyer explored some interesting themes including the way people treat Echo because of the way she looks, friendship, honesty and perseverance. There were also some interesting twists in this story that kept it engaging.

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Winter solstice feast

Where this story falls down a little is the plot. Although Meyer has lots of interesting ideas when it comes to magic and place, I felt that a lot of the narrative choices didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a lot of loose threads that I felt could have been tied together a little more neatly, like the stepmother, the witch, the north wind and Hal. I also wasn’t super happy with Echo as a character. I appreciate this is a fairy tale, but the idea that if you love someone ardently enough everything will work out really needs to be thrown into the bin. Fate hangs on whether Echo can prove her love enough, but I think that it was Echo who needed her community, her father and later her lover to prove to her that they could love her enough. I also felt that Echo was woefully unprepared for her trip north, and there was a scene where she sells her winter coat and then continues on through the snow. I didn’t believe that she would survive for a second.

An inventive story that, while enjoyable enough to read, probably needed a little reworking to tighten the plot and give poor Echo the love and survival skills she deserved to have a true adventure.

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The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

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“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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