Category Archives: Fantasy

The Hidden City

Epic fantasy about an orphan girl and a forgotten city

I am still chipping away at my to-read shelf, and in my efforts to tackle some of the fantasy books I have had lying around for some time, I remembered I had this one. I actually won 6 books in this series in the annual Worldbuilders fundraiser. Money donated goes to Heifer International, and each US$10 you donate secures you an entry in their lottery. I’ve donated over a few years, and one year was lucky enough to win a prize! I talk about it in much more depth in a podcast episode. Anyway, these books have been collecting dust for way too long so it was time to at least read the first one.

Image is of “The Hidden City” by Michelle West. The paperback novel is resting on a wooden table next to a carved bowl and below a knife with a burnished blade and a wooden handle. The cover has an image of a girl with curly hair holding a blade set inside a triangle. Outside the triangle are flowers made of stone.

“The Hidden City” by Michelle West is an epic fantasy novel and the first in the series called “The House War”. The book is about a young homeless girl named Jewel, who insists on being called Jay. When she tries to rob the mysterious and reclusive Rath, his attempts to reclaim his goods end up with him reluctantly taking a very sick Jay in. As the unlikely pair form a mentor-mentee bond, Jay begins to share her newfound fortune with other street children. However, Rath’s clandestine activities retrieving treasures from a forgotten city, Jay’s untested powers and an unspeakable crime ring reveal many more children in need of help and a growing danger that could threaten the entire world as they know it.

This is a deliberate, thoughtful novel with a strong focus on character development and morality. Despite Rath’s initial denial, the bond between him and Jay steadily strengthens and they each begin to have a profound effect on one another. I really enjoyed the other children who steadily trickled into Jay’s life, and how she slowly coaxes them out of their shells and unites them. I particularly liked Carver, and how West wove a bit of mystery around his background and why he was there at the right time. It is a high stakes novel, and West is not afraid of pushing her characters and their loyalties to their limits.

However, it is a slow-paced novel, and at times West’s painstaking review of the intricacies of each relationship feels like it stalls the story. While quirky at the beginning, Rath’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the extent to which he has welcomed Jay into his life begins to lose its impact. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that I felt could have been stronger. Although a street urchin, Jay’s abilities mean that she could potentially have secured a home studying to strengthen her powers, everyone dismisses that as an option for her without any adequate explanation. Many of the conversations are indirect and full of politicking, but West never really makes it clear whether all this dancing around is a cultural feature of this world or simply an attempt to build suspense.

I do also want to mention the book cover. As I said in the photo caption above, the cover has an image of a girl holding a blade. The girl has fair skin, curly light brown hair and light eyes that could be hazel in colour. In the book, Jay is described as having “[b]rown eyes, dark skin, unruly hair” and is later described as being biracial. This book was originally published in 2007, and there has been a lot of discourse about whitewashing book covers since then. I completely appreciate that authors often have very little say in these decisions, and that publishing houses like DAW have come a long way when it comes to representation, however I think it’s still important to acknowledge that this is something that happens – even to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin!

I could see a lot of potential in this book for an epic fantasy series, and those who like to get absorbed in for hours and hours in another world may very well get a lot out of it, but I don’t think I’m quite hooked enough to read the other 5 books I won (let alone the rest of the series).

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The Beast’s Heart

Beauty and the Beast Retelling from the Beast’s Perspective

Content warning: suicide attempt

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. The author is a Canberra local, and one of the authors whose books were available at the pre-lockdown VIP fantasy and science fiction event. I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy streak recently, and this book is another one that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I really love the copper foil detail on the cover, and you can see from the photo below how it catches the light.

Image is of “The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross. The paperback book is resting against a wooden fence overgrown with vines and flowering bushes. The cover is navy blue with a black metal gate and vines and the title in copper foil.

“The Beast’s Heart” by Leife Shallcross is a fantasy novel that retells the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” from the Beast’s perspective. After years of running wild in the woods, a beast finds his way back home to his overgrown chateau. Over time he begins to regain some clarity of thought, and the chateau in turn awakens to do his bidding. When a man arrives at the chateau in need of help, Beast shows him hospitality. However, using his magic, Beast contrives to trap the man into an unthinkable bargain: his life for a year with his youngest daughter. When the beautiful Isabeau arrives at the chateau, she has everything she could ever want and more: a beautiful garden, entertainment, delicious food and friendship. However, when Beast asks her to marry him, she cannot possibly say yes. Unbeknownst to Isabeau, Beast is under a curse and if he cannot find true love, he is doomed.

This is a gentle, lyrical reimagining of one of the world’s most well-known fairy tales. Shallcross depicts the Beast as someone who is rigidly principled, in an unwinnable war between his passions and his morals. Shallcross contrasts the idyll of Beast and Isabeau’s days with the much simpler, busier lives of Isabeau’s sisters who are left behind to learn how to work in their much reduced station. Telling the story from the Beast’s point of view is a unique take on a classic story. A slow-burn romance, Shallcross spends a lot of time exploring friendship as the foundation for a relationship. Shallcross’ backstory for the Beast, especially in relation to his beloved grandmother, was probably my favourite part of the book and showcased her creativity. I also did enjoy the scenes with Isabeau’s sisters, and I felt that out of all the characters they underwent the most character development, learning to live within their means and open their hearts.

Although Shallcross has stayed close to the original version of the fairy tale, in which Beauty is too obtuse to work out that the Beast and the man she dreams about are one and the same, I found it really frustrating that the otherwise bright and insightful Isabeau wasn’t able to put two and two together. I also found it frustrating that she seemed to lack curiosity, and although Beast asks her again and again to marry him, she doesn’t every consider why on earth he would put himself through the emotional torture. Without much productive conversation, the many chapters of Beast and Isabeau sitting in parlours felt a bit slow and while the scenes of Isabeau’s family broke things up a bit, I think there was room for a bit more fire and chemistry between the two. Perhaps Isabeau’s agreement to stay for a year was too long.

An original take on a classic story that perhaps needed fewer magical fireworks and more metaphorical fireworks.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Pretty Books

Betrothed

Urban fantasy young adult romance novel

I am currently on a bit of a fantasy bender in an attempt to get through my to-read shelves, including some which are taken up by fantasy series. In a previous post, I talked about how my book club and I won a fantastic trivia event: well, this was my prize! A series of four books including one signed by the author. I hadn’t read them before, but the covers are all quite beautiful with a reflective, pearlescent effect. They have waiting on my shelf for three years collecting dust and now was the time to read them.

Image is of “Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire. The paperback book is resting on top of some shiny purple wings. The cover has a silhouette of a young man and a young woman holding his hand in hers. They are standing on a rock with ocean and mountains behind them. The cover has a pearlescent effect and behind the man is the faintest outline of wings.

“Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire is the first book in the urban fantasy young adult romance series of the same name. The story is about a 17 year old girl called Amy who has had a challenging upbringing. Living in Sydney, her delicate health and countless allergies have drastically impacted her life, not to mention the fact that she is adopted. While she has some close friends, school is difficult and she is frequently picked on because of her skin reactions to just about everything. When she starts having incredibly realistic dreams with a voice calling out for someone called Marla, Amy initially doubts that they could be true. However, when the mysterious Leif arrives in person, Amy begins to question exactly who she is.

This is a light-hearted that is about love and identity. Wiltshire doesn’t take herself too seriously, and Amy leaves upbeat Sydney for even more upbeat Faera, and we gradually learn the truth about her heritage. Wiltshire gently explores some of the real difficulties of living with severe allergies, and Amy’s struggles with her health are counterbalanced by the enjoyment she is able to derive from the simplest things like scented baths and lavish food in Faera. Wiltshire introduces some tension with a loose love triangle and intergenerational grudges, and a countdown to Amy’s 18th birthday upon which her future hangs.

While not overtly religious, there are certainly some very traditional ideas about male and female roles including the idea that female faeries are created from a piece of a male faery’s soul which is all very Eve made from Adam’s rib. A lot of the book is spent examining Amy’s feelings and disbelief in relation to her newly discovered identity, and everyone in the human world seems happy to exist as a supporting cast for her. I found the Faera world a bit disconcerting. Wiltshire describes a utopia with no money, nothing wanting and no aging, and I found it hard to wrap my head around a society where everything appears to be predetermined. I felt that although a lot of information and conflict had been introduced early on in the book, the plot plateaued and it didn’t feel like much was happening for the second half. Amy didn’t really undergo much character development, and I would have liked to have seen more depth to her than romantic interest.

Readable enough but not particularly ground-breaking in terms of concept or themes.

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The Midnight Library

Speculative fiction novel about life after death

Content warning: suicide ideation, suicide completion, mental health, self-harm

A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan. The cover has a building in the centre that appears to be made of paper coloured white on the outside, and vague rainbow on the inside. The building is set against a night sky filled with stars, and there is a silhouette of a white cat to the left. There is text that says “One library. Infinite lives.”

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?

Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.

One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!

While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.

A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.

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Darkskull Hall

Fantasy novel about a noble born girl sent to learn magic

Lockdown in Canberra continues, and I am still making an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf by whatever means necessary. One thing I realised is that I have a lot of fantasy books that, for some reason or another, I just have never gotten around to reading. I picked up this book when the author held a fantastic fantasy trivia night about 3 years ago that my fantasy book club went along to and absolutely dominated. In addition to winning a prize, I bought a copy of the first book in the author’s series and had it signed.

Image is of “Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy. The paperback book is in shadows and has a “staff” to the right illuminated with blue/green light at the top and warm “fire” light coming from the left. The cover is black with a picture of a young white woman with long brown hair who is holding green light in her hand with flames to the left.

“Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy is the first novel in the fantasy series “The Mage Chronicles”. The story is about a 16 year old called Alyx who is of noble blood and who lives a privileged, carefree life. All she thinks about is riding her pony and the budding romance with her oldest friend. However, her idyllic life comes to a grinding halt when she is told that she is the daughter of a mage and must go study across her nation’s border at a place called Darkskull Hall. The journey through contested territory is perilous, and some at Darkskull Hall even more so. Without any clear magic ability, knowledge of her true history or the protection of her family, Alyx must forge new friendships and find the courage to survive.

This is a readable book and Cassidy captures the voice of a teenage girl struggling with the abrupt transition from her previously pampered life. I enjoyed the gradual character development and while it is incremental, Cassidy does a good job of showing how the experience of Darkskull Hall, and loss of trust as a result, irreparably changes who Alyx is as a person. One thing that was incredibly refreshing was that Cassidy actually clearly knows a thing or two about horses, unlike some other fantasy novels I’ve read recently.

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking example of the genre, and plenty of the hallmarks of a typical fantasy novel were there: magic school, yet-to-be-discovered magical talent, war with neighbouring country, irritatingly and unnecessarily vague teacher. Reading this, I had the sense that despite the diversity of the characters, the world is quite small and we don’t get much sense of different languages, cultures and geographies. I am sure the world gets explored more in later books.

I wasn’t sure after reading this book whether I would read the next in the series, but I was pleasantly surprised that it really got under my skin. This is, at heart, a character-driven book and I kept finding myself thinking about them after the book was finished.

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Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

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

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.

One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Magic Realism

The Wonderling

Children’s book about an orphan fox boy

I cannot remember where I bought this book from, but there is no mistaking why. It is a beautiful hardcover book with copper metallic detail on the lettering both on the slipcase and beneath. Then, of course, is the premise. As I have mentioned many times on here I am a big fan of animal fantasy, and the little anthropomorphic fox and suggestions of steampunk had me hooked.

Image is of “The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok. The hardcover book is resting on a slate grey background with a pocket watch, a clockwork mechanism with a bunny and a key to the right. The cover is outlined in lime green with a teal band across and filling in the middle. There are clockwork beetles in the corners, ribbons, a key and a red fox with one ear wearing a great jacket and a necklace with the number 13.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok is a children’s animal fantasy steampunk novel about an orphan fox boy known only as 13. A “groundling”, a mix of both fox and boy, he lives at the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures run by the cruel Miss Carbunkle. Bullied and downtrodden, when he makes a new friend called Trinket who gives him a new name, Arthur agrees to escape the Home and try to find the truth about his past and his destiny.

There were a lot of positive things about this book, and I think Bartok’s writing is probably the strongest selling point. It is lyrical and playful and her descriptions are lovely to read. I really enjoyed the art sprinkled throughout the book and the all the different types of groundlings. Trinket was one of the best characters who, despite being tiny and almost entirely birdlike, had lots of gumption and pizzazz. I enjoyed the interludes with the young boy Pinecone and his family in their treehouse, and they were some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.

However, this book was heavily inspired by “Oliver Twist” with the hapless Arthur just as much a victim of circumstance as the orphan Oliver, and even Quintus is just like a hybrid of the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Despite these broad plot and character similarities, the story was rather confusing and there were a lot of elements that didn’t make sense or simply went nowhere. For example, someone out of kindness put something in Arthur’s pocket, but didn’t help any of the other groundlings? But Arthur inexplicably never checked his pocket? And then the thing was lost anyway? I also felt that while individually the elements of Arthur’s world were very whimsical, collectively the worldbuilding was a bit lacking. Some of the choices (e.g. men wearing top hats walking cats in Lumentown) seemed to be based more on aesthetics rather than logic.

An easy if somewhat meandering read that draws a lot of inspiration from Dickens.

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Nevernight

Italian-inspired fantasy about a school of assassins

Content warning: sex, very mild spoiler about one character

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club and, given lockdown, likely to be the last one for a while. I have seen these books for sale with that typical white cover, black silhouette with a splash of colour that is pretty standard across the epic fantasy genre.

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, Book 1) | Rakuten Kobo Australia
Image is of a digital book cover of “Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff. The cover is of a black crow overlaid with other images such as a cat, a barrel, a sword, hands, stars, a cross, a vial and a mask.

“Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff, the first book in “The Nevernight Chronicle”, is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Mia who is gearing herself up for an assassination. In a world with three suns, it is very rarely dark yet shadows creep through the city she calls home and Mia has been in hiding since she was a child. Once she collects her tithe she, and the mysterious catlike shadow she calls Mr Kindly, flee the city to try to find the Red Church: a school of assassins full of students driven by revenge. However, the Red Church may be even more deadly than the city of bones she left behind.

Once this book got going, it was an engrossing read. Kristoff’s Italian-inspired Senate and city of Godsgrave was a unique setting, where geography meets anatomy under an almost never-ending daylight. I liked the magic in this book, and Kristoff manages to strike a good balance between maintaining the mystery of Mia’s abilities yet keeping the reader satisfied by exploring them in a variety of situations. He also is ruthless about who lives and who dies, and particularly in the later parts of the book, keeps you on your toes. I really liked the politics between the students and it was in these scenes that Kristoff’s writing really shone.

However, I found the first half of the book way too overwritten. Kristoff used a particular sentence structure multiple times along the lines of “all [noun]-[adjective] noun, and [noun]-[adjective] noun” which grew a bit tedious:

  • “all open mouths and closed fists”
  • “all milk-white skin and…bow-shaped lips”
  • “all crushed red velvet”
  • “coal-black eyes”
  • “feather-down smile”.

I did feel like Kristoff found his groove as the book progressed, though he did like to write a passage, go back in time to give it context, then write the passage again which felt a bit repetitive. There was a really, really long chase scene through a desert that seemed a bit unnecessary, and it was after that the book started to come into its own. There were a few other things that bugged me. In the opening scenes, Mia loses her virginity to a “sweetboy” (a sexworker) and it is a painful, bloody cliché that is treated like a universal occurrence even though it isn’t. Unbelievably, she paid for the experience even though he was clumsy and she didn’t orgasm. It is not until page 326 that she realises perhaps she paid the sweetboy too much.

At some point Mia acquires a horse she nicknames Bastard, and although he is described as being 20 hands high, she easily is able to jump on him. It always disappoints me a little reading fantasy where the author gives away how little they know about horses, and this was a classic example: 20 hands is the size of the Guinness World Record holder for tallest horse, it is absolutely ludicrous that Mia could mount him without a stepladder. On top of that, Kristoff says that he is a thoroughbred which Wikipedia will quickly inform you ranges from 15.2 to 17 hands high i.e. a foot shorter than Bastard. Slight spoiler: another thing that didn’t make much sense was the character Hush. Although Hush is frequently described as beautiful, it is revealed at one point that he has no teeth. Another quick Wikipedia search indicates that loss of teeth can result in a sunken face and a shrinking jawbone.

A readable book with good worldbuilding and an interesting premise that annoyed me from time to time.

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You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife

Anthology of comics about death and what comes afterwards

Content warning: death

I have read and supported a few books by Iron Circus (previously called IronSpike), including some that are quite racy! However, I heard about this book because one of my favourite webcomic artists had a comic in it. If you have never come across SE Case’s “Rigsby WI” slice of life, early 2000s, small town comic, then I strongly encourage you to check it out immediately. Anyway, when I checked out the Kickstarter I saw it was by a publisher I had backed before so I decided to back this one as well. When it arrived, I put it on my shelf for a bit and was delighted when I realised after going to bed one night that it glows in the dark.

Image is of “You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrea Purcell and Kel McDonald. The image is a photograph of the paperback book with the lights turned out, and all you can see is the glow-in-the-dark (phosphorescent) detailing of moths and fungi.

“You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife” edited by Andrew Purcell and Kel McDonald is a collection of short comics about the possibilities of what happens during and after death. The book has a foreword by Caitlin Doughty, an advocate of death acceptance and the creator of the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube channel. There are 24 comics that each deal with death and dying in ways that are meant to be poignant, reassuring and even beautiful.

Image is of the book with the lights turned on. The cover has the title in stylised central alignment, surrounded by the black outline of a coffin. The cover is decorated with the moths and fungi that glow in the dark as well as a skeleton hugging its knees in the background and red flowers in the foreground.

This is a diverse collection of interpretations on the theme, which is reflective of the contributors. The comics broach the topic of death from a range of cultural perspectives. Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld by Ahueonao is a tongue-in-cheek Mesopotomian story about goddess Inanna, siblings and and the cyclic nature of life and death which I really enjoyed. Danielle Chuatico’s story All Souls Day is a heart-warming depiction of a Filipino tradition of packing a picnic and visiting the cemetery to share memories about cherished family members. I Promise by A. Shinozaki and Cheryl Young gently considers the difficulty in upholding someone’s wishes and traditions around death when rituals such as kotsuage are not permitted in Western countries. Bone Ink by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Smith and Grace P Fong is a beautifully illustrated comic mixing illusions with Chinese traditional painting and exploring the meaning of legacy.

There were also plenty of diverse relationships and I especially liked the signature honesty and rawness of remember by SE Case and coming to terms not with what you’re facing but with what you’re leaving behind. Arkou by Isabelle Melancon & Megan Lavey-Heaton with a queer twist on the stories of Ankou in Breton, Welsh and Cornish folklore. I’m a big fan of animal stories of course so I also liked the biological education of What Eats Us by Letty Wilson and the heart-rending concept of Herd by Shae Beagle. The Last Wreath by Juliette GMM Lopez was kind of delightfully surreal and Peat, Bone, Oak by Laura Ketcham was a really enlightening comic about bog people.

While there were certainly some standouts in this collection, I felt that there was a range of quality and impact in the comics and some stories worked better than others. There were a few science fiction/fantasy interpretations that I felt took the theme too abstractly, and quite a few comics that unfortunately just weren’t that memorable. I know the anthology was about the afterlife, but I think I had expected something a little more along the lines of Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel: a bit more matter of fact and tied a little more to the natural world.

A creative and contemplative collection, with a number of really strong comics that unfortunately outshone the others.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction

Sweet Tooth

Graphic novel series about genetic mutation

Content warning: pandemic, gore

Keeping in theme with my recent run of books that have been adapted into TV series or films, I saw recently that this graphic novel series that I had read some (but not all) of had been adapted into a Netflix series and the trailer looked pretty awesome. I checked my shelf and I had 5 of the 6 volumes. I remembered when I had last tried to complete my series the volumes in these editions were out of print, and although I’d managed to find some secondhand, I still had one missing. After it finally arrived from eBay, I was ready to tackle this series from the beginning.

Image is of “Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire. The paperback graphic novel is stacked on top of 5 other books and is resting on a wooden table. Two antlers are emerging from behind the books. The cover is of a stylised boy in a flannelette shirt with the ears and antlers of a deer eating a chocolate bar.

“Sweet Tooth” by Jeff Lemire is a speculative fiction graphic novel series about a young boy called Gus who lives in the woods with his father. Gus learns from an early age that he is different: a deer hybrid. His father teaches him never to leave the woods and to hide away from humans who will do him harm. However, when his father dies of a mysterious illness, Gus is left to fend from himself. When a man called Jeppard saves him from two hunters, Gus agrees to leave the woods with him to make his way to a safe haven known as the Preserve. However, outside turns out to be far, far more dangerous than even Gus’ father could have imagined and Gus must decide who he can trust to survive.

This is an iconic story with a memorable artistic style. I really love stories with biopunk and genetic mutation themes and Lemire’s is a great idea. Although Gus is ostensibly the main character, the story is really about Jeppard, his past and the choices he makes moving forward. Gus spends a large proportion of the story static and in the same place, while we watch Jeppard grapple with his morals and decide whether he has anything left to live for. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was meeting the other hybrids and enjoying the diversity of animals and abilities they represented.

I think a really important thing to note about this book is how violent and gory it is, which at times does make it a bit difficult to read. Lemire doesn’t shy away from depicting physical violence and the effects of illness in acute graphic detail, and you should really bear this in mind prior to reading. The book could have gone one of two ways: science fiction or fantasy, and without giving too much away I was a bit disappointed that it ultimately wasn’t more of a science fiction story. I felt that would have been the stronger path and Lemire drew upon some particular cultures for inspiration, which has drawn some criticism (spoilers).

Even though this is ultimately a book review blog, I did want to note that since watching the Netflix adaptation, I think it is better than the graphic novels. Lemire has very few women in his story, the majority of whom are exploited sex workers or die from illness or childbirth, and there is not a lot of backstory for some of the characters such as the hybrid pig girl Wendy and the conflicted Dr Singh. I also felt that Gus himself received a lot more airtime and elements to his character hinted at in the story were really fleshed out in the show. By introducing some new characters and providing additional backstory, I felt that the TV series was a much more well-rounded story that showed more than one facet to life following a pandemic and, slightly disturbingly, incorporated elements of masks, isolation and santising that have become so commonplace for us now.

A thought-provoking series that, in my opinion, has been improved by the TV adaptation.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction