ARC Review: THE SOUND OF STARS by Alechia Dow (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Year Release: 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC

Read an ARC from NetGalley

Electricity-powered Ilori attack Earth and subjugate humans as part of their expanding their reach across the galaxy. Janelle “Ellie” Baker keeps an illicit library. When another type of Ilori, a labmade named Morris, returns one of Ellie’s missing books, their friendship and connection sends them on a journey far from New York to neutralize a vaccine which could spell doom for the human race.

The music and references to other young adult novels are absolutely spot on. Dow deftly peppers them through the narrative, especially when connecting them to both the oppression brought by the Ilori, but also the rage that comes from injustices plaguing our world today. I appreciate Ellie’s musings of if humanity really is worth saving, especially given her lived experience as a Black girl in the United States. It gave her character so many layers as a heroine who wants to protect the things that matter to her most, rather than becoming a hero whose triumph saves the world.

The presentation of anxiety in this book is so spot-on. Even as Ellie gathers her courage to save her family and runs cross-country with Morris, her anxiety maintains a steady presence. It’s always there and doesn’t get magically cured by the end.

Definitely give this book a read for an alien invasion narrative in which humans find resistance in protecting their stories, music, and the people they love.

Review: FOUL IS FAIR by Hannah Capin (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible audiobook

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings can be found on the author’s website

This book blew my mind. I had been seeing so much hype for this cathartic young adult retelling of Macbeth, I just had to jump in.

The hype was so real.

Elle goes out with her friends on her sweet sixteen. The night takes a horrible turn when untouchable, privileged white boys make her the target of their sick idea of “fun.” Instead of relying on any judicial system, Elle cuts off her hair, transforms into Jade, and takes justice into her own hands. She infiltrates St. Andrew’s Prep to get her bloody revenge on those golden boys.

Capin does not shy away from the horror of what had been done to Jade. The sharp prose only enhances the rage and venom seeping through the page. Jade’s scheming and voice are simply excellent, with the more stream-of-conscious narration working super well. In some places, the plot and descriptions become so over-the-top to the point of delightful. The murders are so intricately spaced out, keeping the tension tight from start to finish. I found myself cheering Jade on in her vengeance and in her manipulation of Mack in particular.

The fact that Capin included Jade’s parents who agreed to her transferring schools was, honestly, an unexpected touch. This novel leans deeply into its own dark revenge fantasy. No one tells Jade that her methods are questionable at best or tries to stop her, but that is part of the magic of this book.

Breath-taking, suspenseful, and delightfully violent, Foul is Fair is a perfect addition to books starring female rage like The Female of the Species and Sadie.

ARC Review: RED HOOD by Elana K. Arnold (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Edelweiss ARC

Read an ARC acquired via Edelweiss
Trigger warnings: gore, murder, sexual assault (off-page, but heavily implied)

I devoured Damsel—Arnold’s other take on classic tales—last winter break. The way the story examined common tropes of princess narratives blew my mind, so naturally, I couldn’t wait for Arnold’s next work. Red Hood uses Little Red Riding Hood as a vehicle for a tale examining feminine power, menstruation, and how to survive in a world that protects awful men.

Though mostly downplayed, I really liked the fantasy elements in this. The villains in this book are men who have the inexplicable ability to turn into wolves. Bisou, our main character whose introspection and journey we follow through a second-person narrative, magically has the ability to sense when these men are afoot, and when wolves attack. I wish this element had been more explored from a world-building standpoint, but it very much fit what Arnold seemed to be doing with the narrative.

I especially admired how Bisou and her friends gain more agency as the story progresses, turning into a coven alongside Mémé, Bisou’s grandmother and parental figure.  The atmosphere here is also exquisite. Arnold works magic when it comes to melding contemporary and real-life fears with the terrors of the fantastic. The mysterious wolf attacks are horrifying, but so is the awfulness that is being a girl in high school.

A must-read for fans of more literary prose and loose but terrifying takes on classic fairy tales.

Review: CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS by Lila Bowen (2016)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult speculative fiction/fantasy western
Year Release: 2016
Source: Library physical copy

The Wild West reimagined with more monsters and queer folk definitely is having a bit of a moment. Wake of Vultures, the first installment of The Shadow quartet, introduced us to Nettie Lonesome. In this sequel, Nettie fully becomes Rhett Walker, a truth which helps him get better at shifting. This book also introduces other shifters and new characters.

Much like the first installment, this book is so much fun. The monsters are terrifying, the villains are dastardly, and everyone has survival on the mind so no one can really be trusted. Rhett undergoes so many excellent sequences of self-discovery throughout. They range from him spending quality time with his gender identity and having a variety of romps with several characters.

The antagonist of this novel is also so good. A true robber baron stealing blood from magical creatures (seriously, there’s a unicorn). Bowen does a great job outlining the rules of magic, so the twist is both shocking but makes the reader feel smart for figuring it out.

A rootin’, tootin’, shapeshiftin’ time in the weird west with some decent trans rep.

 

ARC Review: FINNA by Nino Cipri (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Year Release: February 25, 2020
Source: The author

Received an eARC from the author

The nightmare of IKEA—I’m sorry, LitenVäld—is made so much worse when it turns out that there are multiple versions of each one scattered throughout a multiverse. It doesn’t help when you have to navigate it with your ex who is also your co-worker.

The relationship between Ava and Jules is so completely. Both of them are bona fide disasters. Cipri expertly sets up the conflicts and that ended their relationships as the kinds of arguments which help them survive being lost at sea and cannibal sales associates. It’s another one of those books where you’re rooting for the main characters to both be brave enough to be cowards and cowardly enough to be brave. Did I cry at the end? Yes. Retail is a hellscape, but can be survivable with the right people at your side.

Wormholes, retail hell, and a queer love story. What more can you want?

Review: THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu (2018)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Adult historical horror
Year Release: 2018
Source: Audible audiobook

Listened to the audiobook

This book has been on my mind ever since I learned the story of the Donner Party over at Last Podcast on the Left. Having survived a horror read like The Devil in Silver, I figured I dive in with this historical horror.

Dear reader, I found something far more upsetting.

Come for the rumors of cannibalism, stay for a story of human error, loyalty, and fear of the unknown as a wagon train falls under a series a mishaps. Could it be the witch, Tamsen Donner? Could it be the scoundrels of John Snyder and Lewis Keseberg? Could it be biting off more than you can chew when trying to escape your tragic past, a la Charles Stanton? The book answers these questions and more.

Katsu expertly navigates several points of view while trying to humanize the members of the Donner party. After finishing the book, I think the tragedy came from an unfortunate concoction of error, fear, and interpersonal conflicts. From the outset, it’s hard to decide whom to trust and the morality there is kept so gray. If you know the story, then you’ll know who the villain is. Worry not, there’s no sympathy given there.

This read left me equal parts nauseated and the crying kind of upset in a way that makes me say thank you.

 

ARC Review: INK IN THE BLOOD by Kim Smejkal (2020)

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Year Release: February 2020
Source: Edelweiss eARC

Read an ARC acquired via Edelweiss

Not to sound like SNL’s Stefon, but this book had everything: queernorm, a four-faced god with six eyes, blood magic, art as propoganda, a traveling theater troupe, Italian-esque city- and country-design, disaster bisexuals, killing gods.

Celia and Anya are best friends who are inklings, devotees of the religion of Profeta, which worships a Divine who can only communicate via tattoos. Fed up with their church’s abuses, the two see a chance to escape when they audition for the Rabble Mob of Minos. But their performance proves more subversive than Profeta would like and it turns out that the Divine isn’t just a religious figment of mythology.

There was so much to like here. The highlight for me was the friendship between Celia and Anya. They are very close, both queer, and love each other, but that does not mean they are together. Overall, the queerness in this novel is so casual. Celia has two moms, multiple characters use “they” pronouns, the tenors which indicate a person’s gender identity aren’t binary. I crave this kind of queernorm world-building. It made me squee with each new detail.

In addition, I really enjoyed that Profeta itself proved a character in the novel. The religion takes on a life of its own throughout the novel. Smejkal deftly drops details both about Celia’s past and the machinations of the religion throughout the narrative in ways that feel like they add context instead of an information dump. Keeping the novel structured in three acts with interludes really fits the theater aesthetic as well.

After all, this dark fantasy is about the performance and interpretation of art, just with some disaster queers, and I want to throw it at everyone I know.