Review + Giveaway (INTL): Gather the Fortunes – The Most Neil Gaiman Thing I Read Since I Last Read Neil Gaiman

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Title:
Gather the Fortunes (A Crescent City Novel Book 2)
Author: Bryan Camp
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Gods, Mythology
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Renaissance Raines has found her place among the psychopomps—the guides who lead the souls of the recently departed through the Seven Gates of the Underworld—and done her best to avoid the notice of gods and mortals alike. But when a young boy named Ramses St. Cyr manages to escape his foretold death, Renai finds herself at the center of a deity-thick plot unfolding in New Orleans. Someone helped Ramses slip free of his destined end—someone willing to risk everything to steal a little slice of power for themselves.

Is it one of the storm gods that’s descended on the city? The death god who’s locked the Gates of the Underworld? Or the manipulative sorcerer who also cheated Death? When she finds the schemer, there’s gonna be all kinds of hell to pay, because there are scarier things than death in the Crescent City. Renaissance Raines is one of them.

 

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(Note: I got to Gather the Fortunes after reading about 1/4 of the first book–I ran out of time!–and while having some prior knowledge of some of the characters might be beneficial, it can absolutely be read as a standalone.)

That title isn’t hyperbole. Not in the slightest. Because holy shit, I am in love with Bryan Camp’s imagination.

Gather the Fortunes is set in an alternate world of gods and demigods and spirits and other supernatural beings, and the result is a beautiful, rich conglomerate of various mythologies–Greek, Norse, Native American, Haitian, you name it, he has it–each carefully constructed and all woven seamlessly into the narrative.

It’s not just the premise and the complexity of the story that reminds me of Gaiman’s work; it’s the utter confidence with which he crafts it. As if this isn’t some fictional world he pulled from his imagination but a reality that actually exists in some alternate dimension. Bryan Camp understands his world inside-out and he has the talent to manipulate it in ways that are not only exciting but also thought-provoking. I love the way he interprets death and afterlife and posits the idea that there are always, always two sides to every coin.

And what astounds me is how polished and detailed everything is. Nothing is done half-assed–from the process of soul-taking (which involves unbraiding and distilling a part of the soul and then turning it into a piece of fruit, eating it, and escorting the remaining spirit through the Underworld. Camp lends grim reapering a sense of craftsmanship, turns it into an art form. It’s fantastic) to the various gates of the Underworld (in the last gate, your life in the form of a coin gets weighed on a scale and that decides whether you’re sent off to a good afterlife or tossed into oblivion).

The prose is just as rich and hard-hitting. There are passages that have this internal rhythm, so that when you read them out loud, they play out like spoken poetry. It’s stylish as hell. Of course not all of it is written that poetically–that’d be exhausting–but Camp knows exactly when to turn it on and off, and that in itself is praiseworthy. And the opening paragraphs that you find in some of the chapters are tiny art pieces in and of themselves–brief narrations about topics like death and luck and premonitions as they apply to different mythologies.

And the last two paragraphs? Chills down my spine. Gave me hard, hard vibes of the Dream vs. Choronzon scene from Sandman. I had to read them aloud multiple times, once to a friend.

Here’s a snippet:

Everywhere Death walks, Life follows. Everything Death takes, Life gives to another. She is Asase Yaa. Onuava. Demeter. Coatlicue. Phra Mae Thorani. He is Kokopelli. Makemake. Geb. Lono. They plant the seeds in the earth and children in the womb. They gave birth to the gods and to the first mortals and to the cosmos and to the sea. They gave their lives to water the earth, to bring plentiful game to hunt, to keep the sun in the sky. They are the sky. They are the sun. They are the buds of new growth in spring, and after a fire, and after a flood, and in the shadow of a failed nuclear reactor. They are everywhere we swore they couldn’t be, in the exothermic vents of the deep ocean, in the ones and zeroes of information, in the fossil records of Mars. Death can end a life, or lives, or this life, or very life.

But not Life.

Our heroine is Renai, a young black woman who, five years previous, had been dead and subsequently resurrected with very few memories of when she was alive. Now she works as a psychopomp, someone who guides the dead to the Underworld. I really quite liked her. She’s a great mix of fierceness and vulnerability, with sass running through it all.

I did have issues with the plot and characters. The story goes through a lot of moving from point A to point B, doing one thing, and then moving to point C, and then doing something else and moving on again. And while parts of it were interesting, others…weren’t. They often felt disconnected from each other and I wasn’t sure what the point of some of them were.

I was also disappointed that Ramses didn’t play a bigger role in the story (at least, not directly) because the synopsis had me anticipating a sibling relationship forming between Renai and Ramses. But sadly, no.

Overall, though, this was a very impressive read and Camp’s New Orleans is one you absolutely need to experience for yourself.

 

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GIVEAWAY

10 people can win finished copies of Gather the Fortune. Open internationally!

ENTER HERE

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He can be found on twitter @bryancamp and at bryancamp.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero.

      

TOUR SCHEDULE

WEEK ONE
MAY 20th MONDAY JeanBookNerd INTERVIEW
MAY 21st TUESDAY BookHounds INTERVIEW
MAY 22nd WEDNESDAY TTC Books and More TENS LIST
MAY 23rd THURSDAY Movies, Shows, & Books EXCERPT
MAY 24th FRIDAY Insane About Books REVIEW
MAY 24th FRIDAY Pages Below the Vaulted Sky REVIEW

WEEK TWO
MAY 27th MONDAY A Dream Within A Dream REVIEW
MAY 28th TUESDAY Nay’s Pink Bookshelf REVIEW
MAY 29th TUESDAY Sabrina’s Paranormal Palace REVIEW
MAY 29th WEDNESDAY Port Jericho REVIEW
MAY 29th WEDNESDAY Book Briefs REVIEW
MAY 30th THURSDAY Two Points of Interest REVIEW
MAY 30th THURSDAY Gwendalyn Books REVIEW
MAY 31st FRIDAY Crossroad Reviews REVIEW

Review: Nevernight – Nevermore Will I Give into Hype

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Title:
Nevernight (Nevernight Chronicle 1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: August 6th, 2016
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fantasy School, Assassins, Revenge
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, a sixteen year old Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic ― the Red Church. Treachery and trials await her with the Church’s halls, and to fail is to die. But if she survives to initiation, Mia will be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the only thing she desires.

Revenge.

 

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Lying cat! SHHHHHH. I can’t think of a better title right now, okay? Let me have this clickbait one. Also, I think you’re just jealous because there’s a cat character in the book and he has cooler powers than you.

 

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I’ll preface this by saying that I didn’t think this was a bad book (so hold your rotten vegetables ’till the end). I thought it was an okay fantasy story with quick pacing, snappy action, and good humour. But from all the things I’d heard about it, I was expecting something a little more…exceptional. I had an image of Harry Potter bathed in blood and guts and dripping sensuality, and instead I got a typical school fantasy with stabby action (of several sorts) and illogical plot points. It was underwhelming to say the least.

(Also, I read this as a buddy read with my friend and it took us nearly four months to finish–which isn’t an indicator of the quality of the book but rather my lamentable efforts at buddy reading.)

Quick points on what I did enjoy about the book:

  • The footnotes provided interesting details about the world and its history. Some facts were silly, others more serious, and I liked the variation in tone. They’re akin to codex entries in video games; information that won’t hinder your understanding and enjoyment of the story if you choose not to read them, but will add extra depth to the narrative.
  • Mia’s shadow powers are pretty cool. And I’ll always champion the existence of magical animal companions in fantasy. I heard great things about Mr. Kindly the shadow cat and I wasn’t disappointed.
  • I really really liked the teasing of a possible enemies-to-lovers F/F for the sequels (it’s probably the main reason why I want to continue reading)

 

The biggest problem for me is that I couldn’t take the Red Church and its people seriously.

This is an assassin’s school (church/organization–whichever) that one enters knowing full well that it’s an assassin’s school. It’s an organization of the best cold-blooded killers in the realm that churns out more cold-blooded killers into society. Its teachers aren’t there to whack you over the head a few times and then hold your hand afterward. They’re there to let you break or be bent into their image of the perfect assassin.

So it makes ZERO sense for the apprentices to be constantly dumbstruck by the trickery that occurs during their lessons. I can give a pass for the first few times; they’re still kids, after all, and there are probably dregs of naivete still pooling around in their collective psyche. But when poisoning and maiming and “gotcha!” moments are part of your weekly routine and yet you’re still fooled time and time again by situations you should be learning to recognize as suspect, I have to ask what you’re even doing here.

“They’re not playing about anymore,” exclaims Mia two-thirds of the way into the story, somehow forgetting that they’ve been poisoned and tortured and thrown to the enemy since day 1.

These characters act like they’re in a boarding school and like they’re playacting as assassin trainees. Which would be fine if at any point the apprentices or the instructors address this by saying, hey, maybe they’re too soft to be here. Maybe they’re not cut out for this. But they don’t.

The lack of seriousness given to their situation (exacerbated by Kristoff’s upbeat, over-the-top writing style) combined with the fact that no major side character dies during these lessons/trials takes all the tension out of the story.

The characters are interesting enough but I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them very well. And while I like Mia’s attitude, she’s a combination of “over-powered hero” and “plot-convenient obliviousness” that frustrates me. Also, Cassius? The Black Prince? The Lord of Blades? The most powerful and feared assassin of the realm? He ended up being the biggest disappointment of the book. (spoiler: you either live long enough to become a villain or die unceremoniously in a random inn, skewered with a sword)

Other than that, there’s a myriad of plot points and character actions that don’t make a whole lot of sense. Like the convenient series of events leading up to the ending (spoiler: how is it that the greatest–and probably only–assassin’s guild in the world gets so easily infiltrated via the actions of two teenagers?) There’s also a criminal “investigation” at one point that ends with the church’s higher-ups accepting circumstantial evidence as concrete proof which I found fairly ridiculous. You’d think that as criminals they’d have seen their fair share of unfair judgments handed down by the Luminatii. So you’d think their justice system would be a little more robust. A little more on the just side. But nope.

I absolutely get why so many people love the book. I mean, firstly, it’s a fantasy in a school setting which is the literary equivalent of crack. There’s also a certain addictiveness to Kristoff’s writing that I can’t deny–a combination of flowery imagery and dry humour (the latter comes out really well in the footnotes). I just expected less plot holes and more of…well, everything.

 

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Now you may begin pelting the vegetables!

Monday Chatter: Portal Fantasies and the Best Game of 2019 (So Far)

Happy Victoria Day to all you Canadian readers! I meant to go for a bike ride around the coastal beach trail in “celebration,” but it’s pouring rain so I’m writing this post instead.

 

Last Week – Books

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All the Worlds Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller:
A YA F/F contemporary featuring a swimmer protagonist. I liked parts of it but I think it’ll hold more appeal to teenage readers. [Review here]

 
Dedicated (Rhythm of Love 1) by Neve Wilder:
A M/M contemporary featuring two bandmates. I liked reading about the creative process of song writing more than the relationship aspect, but it was an enjoyable read overall.

 
Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron:
I came into this book expecting one thing (a quirky portal fantasy) and got something completely different (a quiet and profound look at the hardships of life) and I can’t say that I’m disappointed. Really, I’m the furthest thing from disappointed. This was a lovely read and I’ll need to check out Sophie Cameron’s other book because she writes in a style–sad and wistful–that I’m very much into.

 

This Week – Books

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The City of Lost Fortunes (A Crescent City Novel) by Bryan Camp:
This was one of the top books I meant to get to in 2018 but didn’t have the time for. But the publisher kindly offered a review copy for the Gather the Fortunes (book 2) blog tour and I couldn’t say no. It’s an urban fantasy set in New Orleans featuring a biracial protagonist with an ability to find lost things. I started it yesterday and I’m already enamoured by the setting.

A Crescent City Novel (A Crescent City Novel) by Bryan Camp:
This is the second book in the series featuring a different protagonist. Characters from Lost Fortunes pop up but the story’s not directly related to the first so I could probably get away with reading this before book 1. And it might come to that if I run out of time.

Jade War by Fonda Lee:
STILL reading this! Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it, but I keep getting distracted by other books.

 

Last Week – Games

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I’m currently in the latter half of A Plague Tale: Innocence, a linear narrative (mostly) stealth game set in France during the Middle Ages. It follows Amicia and Hugo de Rune, children of minor nobles, as they try to navigate through a land devastated by a strange rat plague.

And I can safely say that it’s the best game I’ve played so far this year.

Everything about it–from sound and environmental design to gameplay mechanics–is super polished and satisfying, and the balance between the brutality of the setting and the tenderness of the siblings’ relationship is heartstoppingly beautiful. And it does so many things with its characters I can’t get enough of (that I need to ramble about in a separate discussion/review post): a female protagonist who is openly vulnerable and loving, female friendships, small heartwarming moments that have nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with the characters.

And if that doesn’t convince you, here’s a video trailer with Sean Bean being super dramatic:

Trigger warning: This is a bleak, horrific story. There are scenes of rats devouring humans, mounds and mounds of corpses strewn around, and just a whole spectrum of human depravity. So take care if you’re sensitive to that.

 

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Holler at me about your plans for the week!

Double Reviews: The Guildmaster and All the World Between Us – Water-themed Romances

One book has pirates. The other has swimming. Both involve water. (And I’m a sucker for themes)

Let’s get to it.

 

The Guildmaster (Vanguards of Viridor 3) by T.S. Cleveland

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Having helped foil the attempt to kill Viridor’s queen, Merric’s return to the Guardians’ Guild should have been celebrated. Instead, his support of elementals has earned him nothing but scorn. With the man he loves presumed dead, and fearing his injuries may prevent him from ever becoming a full guardian, Merric believes his life may as well be over. But when a series of mysterious attacks puts the fate of all Viridor in jeopardy, Quinn, a handsome and dangerous pirate, may be just the man to help save the kingdom – and Merric.

Genre(s): Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance
Publisher: Self-published

Rating: 7.0/10

 

Do you like charming pirates?

Do you like charming pirates who are openly kind, respect boundaries, and engage in hurt/comfort?

Well, do I have a book for you.

The Guildmaster is the third book in the Vanguards of Viridor series set in a loosely constructed fantasy world where magic users called “elementals” are feared and discriminated by the general public (it’s always the mages, isn’t it?) Reading the previous books would probably add to your enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I thought it was a fun, romantic read with a good balance of action and intimate character moments. Merric’s struggles to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow are compelling, as is Quinn’s efforts to help him heal, both physically and emotionally.

I did have issues with the second half of the story. At one point, there’s a lot of deliberate vagueness and lack of communication from the love interest (which didn’t really make sense considering how open he is about everything) and that contributed to a lot of unnecessary angst on the MC’s part. I also wish the worldbuilding was more robust than “*shrugs* It’s high fantasy. Half its characters run around waving swords. The other half runs around shooting fire from their fingers.”

Overall, I really enjoyed it. Also, bonus points for a completely unexpected reference to Dragon Age: Origins–“And swooping was bad.” Actually the first time I’ve seen that line in a book. Delightful.

 

 

All the World Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Quinn Hughes needs to be in top shape if she wants to medal at the swimming World Championships in ten months. This means no easy distractions, no matter how pretty they are.

She’s still piecing her confidence back together after not qualifying for the Olympics, her relationship with her twin brother is getting worse the more he hangs out with the popular kids, and then Kennedy Reed suddenly squeezes herself back into Quinn’s life. The girl who was her best friend. The girl who gave Quinn her first kiss. The girl who hasn’t spoken to her since.

Soon, Quinn finds herself juggling her new girlfriend, training for the biggest competition of her life, and discovering she’s not the only Hughes twin with a crush on Kennedy Reed. All these distractions are getting to her, and if she wants that medal she needs to find a way to stop drowning on dry land.

Genre(s): YA Contemporary, LGBTQIA+ Romance, Sports
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books

Rating: 6.0/10

I’m a girl of simple tastes. I see “swimming” and “gay” in the same sentence and I glomp onto it like an overattached koala. All the Worlds Between Us is an ownvoices second-chance story about two friends navigating the rocky paths of first love. It was quick and light and fine but didn’t really scratch my swimmer romance itch. Most of the story revolves around highschool drama and less of Quinn’s experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer, which was kind of disappointing. When a romance story is set against the backdrop of a sports world, I want the sports side to be as well-developed as the relationship aspect. That’s not always the case, though.

The narration also felt more juvenile than Quinn’s age warranted, and combined with a few explicit scenes, it got a bit jarring. I did find Kennedy’s experiences of being a closeted teen portrayed pretty well, however, and I enjoyed the mix of sweet and heartbreaking moments.

Overall, it’s not a bad sports f/f (especially if you’re new to the subgenre) but definitely not the best I’ve read either.

 

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Review copies provided by the author and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Top 5 Wednedsay – BFFs in Fantasy (plus musings about intimacy, societal expectations, and friendships in western vs eastern media)

The prompt for this week is actually BFFs in SFF, but since this is Wyrd and Wonder month, I figured I’d just stick to fantasy. Also, a special shout-out to Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen who totally would have made the list, but things were turning into a bit of a sausage fest so I ended up replacing them with a female duo.

This post is brought to you by Wyrd and Wonder, a month of fantasy-loving for fantasy lovers by fantasy lovers.

Join us, friends. There’s plenty of love to go around.

(This sounds like I’m advertising a cult and I’m okay with that)

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Fitz & Fool & Nighteyes – Realm of the Elderlings:

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“I set no limits on that love.”

There are many reasons why RotE is my favourite series of all time, but Fitz/Fool/Nighteyes stands at the top of the list. I. Just. I don’t know how to explain how much this OT3 means to me without coming across like a crazy person. They have been the subject of too many poems scribbled out in the fury of 2 AM writing sessions. When the series ended, I had to sit my friend down to blubber about them for an entire afternoon because they were haunting my waking hours and it felt like my heart was imploding. It sometimes scares me how deeply I feel about these characters, because hell, they’re fictional. But then I think, “So what?”

And here’s an unpopular opinion for the RotE fandom: I’m perfectly fine with Fitz and Fool’s relationship being a platonic one, because their relationship is as romantic as you can get without actually being romantic and we need more examples of those in mainstream media (more on that later). Also, I don’t believe your soulmate has to be someone you’re romantically involved with. I just think it’s someone–anyone–who gets you right down to your marrow, and spending two days with them is equivalent to two lifetimes’ worth of connections. We’d all be very fortunate to experience that once in our life, and Fitz has had two of them. One with a wolf, the other with a prophet.

I’ve never come across a group of characters who throws so much of themselves into loving each other as these three, and I don’t think I ever will.

 

Agniezska and Kasia – Uprooted

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I don’t think I realized how desperate I was to see good female friendships in adult fantasy until Uprooted came along. The romance with the Dragon wasn’t the highlight of the book for me (male love interest who’s broody for the sake of being broody  = been there, done that); it was Niezska and Kasia’s relationship that captured my heart. Their friendship is built on a foundation of mutual love and support, but also acknowledgement of some of the more negative feelings (jealousy in particular) that stand between them.

 

Felicity and Johanna – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

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I enjoyed Lady’s Guide far more than I did Gentleman’s Guide and I can thank Felicity and Johanna for that. What I love about their relationship is that it’s not all smiles and matching friendship bracelets. There’s several suitcases worth of resentment and misunderstandings that they need to sort out before they get anywhere, and I love that. I love seeing girls with vastly different personalities learn from each other, admit when they’re wrong, and come out of the whole kerfuffle with a more open mind.

 

Rune and Brand – The Tarot Sequence

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I rambled on about intimacy and the rigid preconceptions of romance versus friendship in my review for this a year ago, and I’m going to ramble about it again now, because this is something I feel very, very strongly about.

It so often feels to me that society draws a line in the sand when it comes to relationships and gives us a list of acceptable behaviours for each respective side–one for friendship, one for a romantic/sexual relationship. So two friends can kiss each other on the cheek, but kissing on the mouth is, like, a sexual territory, so watch out for that! And et cetera.

At best it’s annoying (in my experience, super invasive questions from family and acquaintances). At worst it contributes to toxic behaviours and insecurities about intimacy and affection, along with a horde of other mental health issues.

So I think it’s incredibly important for fictional media to portray the kinds of relationships that blur this line. Relationships that can’t be shoved into boxes and stuck with a big, fat label. This means friendships with the kind of emotional depth and physical intimacy that you find with romantic pairings.

And that’s exactly the kind of relationship that Rune and Brand has. Romantic without the romance. Intimacy without the sex. Snark without the underlying cruelty. Their friendship is by far the best one I’ve found since finishing Realm of the Elderlings, and if you read what I wrote above, you know I don’t say that lightly.

 

Frodo and Sam – The Lord of the Rings

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No explanations needed, really. They’re Frodo and Sam. They’re the OG ride or die male duo. Their love and loyalty to one another kept the world from descending into darkness, and if that’s not friendship goals, I don’t know what is.

 

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EXTRAS (Anime) | Western vs. Eastern?

So, I wanted to talk about these two anime series as a bonus because their friendship storylines are off-the-walls phenomenal and I couldn’t not include them. And then I got a bit sidetracked thinking about friendships in western versus eastern SFF media.

I always enjoy comparing North American and East Asian narrative works (Korean and Japanese, primarily) because I grew up on the latter and then partially migrated to the former, and while I adore both, there are some things that one offers that the other often doesn’t. And while the reasons for some of them are obvious, like the lack of non-fetishized LGBTQ+ and mental health rep in East Asia, others aren’t (for me, anyway). And that includes intense, no holds barred, I’ll-walk-into-the-depths-of-hell-for-you types of friendships–which I always found that Japanese and Korean media does a better job of than NA.

…And I’m not quite sure why.

I have some vague hypotheses but it’s something I need more than a few nights to think about. It’ll be a future post, maybe. And if you have any ideas, leave them in the comments! I love love love discussing these things.

For now, onto the anime!

 

Gon and Killua – Hunter x Hunter

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Killua (left); Gon (right)

These two kids slay me. Watching Killua become best friends with Gon and go from an assassin-in-training with the social skills of a cactus to a kind-hearted, sensitive boy is honestly the best thing about this series.

And there’s this one scene where Killua breaks down into sobs in front of another character (in the middle of a friggin battle) and talks about how helpless he feels because his best friend is suffering and he doesn’t know how to fix that. It’s beautiful, heartwrenching, and startlingly vulnerable, and I would give my left arm to see more scenes like that in western fantasy.

 

Madoka and Homura – Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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Back in 2011, Madoka Magica grabbed the magical girl genre by the throat and shook it into something we’ve never seen before. There have been many copycats since then but none with the same kind of presence as the original, and that largely has to do with these two characters. There’s a reason why I own six figurines of them.

Get yourself a friend who would travel back through a timeline again and again to save you from a terrible fate, only to watch the same tragedy played out in increasingly worse ways, and then swallow that pain and do it all over again because she believes you’re worth sacrificing everything for.

I would, no question, die for Madoka and Homura. And then reset the timeline and do it again.

 

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Soooo this was meant for this to be a short and sweet post because I was on a mini break for the past week and a half and I wanted to write something that was easy.  I don’t know how it devolved into a rant about three different topics. 😂

Well, onto you! Who are you some of your favourite fantasy (or scifi) BFFs?

Review: The Binding – Sweetly Flawed and Somewhat Forgettable

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Title: The Binding
Author: Bridget Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Release Date: January 7th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Memories
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

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“Don’t think of it as a fantasy. Think of it as a romance” was the mantra I repeated to myself when I started this book because I’d heard it was less of a fantasy and more of a relationship-focused story with a tinge of magic, and I was determined to do whatever it took to love it.

Because guys. I adore stories about memories. I mean, I adore memories, period. I love the nitty-gritty cellular study of it, and as a wannabe armchair philosopher, I love musing about it in the wee hours of the morning. And I especially love it when the sciences and humanities decide to join hands and create masterpieces like The Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now, The Binding isn’t science fiction. But it is historical fantasy holding hands with queer romance–which I figured was the next best thing.

So I was ready to overlook a lot of stuff, and I did.

I could overlook the vague details surrounding the process of binding and the history of how it came to be, because a lot romance stories tend to be light on worldbuilding. I could also overlook the very convenient series of events leading up to the ending, because this isn’t trying to be a masterfully plotted story. And I could overlook the ending feeling a little unfinished because, hey, satisfying endings are hard to pull off.

But I could not overlook the main character. More specifically, I couldn’t overlook the main character being bland and shallow and more or less a blank slate from beginning to end.

Emmett’s narration (totaling about 2/3 of the book) is a frustrating example of first person PoV being used like a third person. With his ailments and memory loss he would have been the perfect character to deep dive into–which first person should allow and entourage us to do–but we never end up getting past the surface layer. And his surface layer presents him as farmer’s son who becomes a bookbinder who’s also kind of judgemental of the people he meets. And…that’s about it.

Lucian, his love interest, is a far more interesting character and once his narration takes over last 1/3 of the story, things really kick off for the better. We get a little more insight into binding and how it can abused in the hands of wrong people, and the suffocating atmosphere of Lucian’s household is portrayed very well. I also quite enjoyed seeing the changing developments in their relationship from his perspective.

But at the end of the day, a love story isn’t a one-person show. If I can’t connect with one of the involved parties, I can’t fully connect with the story as a whole.

So while I didn’t dislike the book–it was a pleasant read for the most part, with some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking moments–I’m still fiercely disappointed because it could have been so much more. A deeper love story and a deeper look into the erasure of memories and whether the loss of pain is an acceptable trade-off for the loss of yourself. And I’m having a hard time getting over that.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own. 

Review: Deposing Nathan – Heartwrenching, Raw, and So Very Important

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Title:
Deposing Nathan
Author: Zack Smedley
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Release Date: May 7th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Religion, Abuse
Page Count: 400 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

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For sixteen years, Nate was the perfect son—the product of a no-nonsense upbringing and deep spiritual faith. Then he met Cam, who pushed him to break rules, dream, and accept himself. Conflicted, Nate began to push back. With each push, the boys became more entangled in each others’ worlds…but they also spiraled closer to their breaking points. And now all of it has fallen apart after a fistfight-turned-near-fatal-incident—one that’s left Nate with a stab wound and Cam in jail.

Now Nate is being ordered to give a statement, under oath, that will send his best friend to prison. The problem is, the real story of what happened between them isn’t as simple as anyone thinks. With all eyes on him, Nate must make his confessions about what led up to that night with Cam…and in doing so, risk tearing both of their lives apart.

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Sometimes I read books and love them, and then days or weeks or months later I’d think back and go, “This wasn’t as good as I thought it was.” Well, this book is the opposite of that because I seem to love it more and more with each passing week.

Deposing Nathan is good. Like, award-winning good. Like, why the hell are you reading this when you could be pre-ordering the book RIGHT NOW good.

It’s a propulsive debut that covers a myriad of complex topics from religion and sexuality, to parental abuse, to a friendship gone terribly wrong, and nails all of them with stunning clarity and a rawness that makes your heart weep.

Its two main characters are very flawed and very real, and while Nate’s struggles broke my heart, it was Cam that captured it. Really, I was a goner from the moment he said, “A thousand merry fucks to the MCAT.” He’s one of those people who talk like they’re reading from a movie script–charming and sarcastic and wit dripping down the tail end of every sentence. You’re not sure if they’re arrogant or just too smart for their own good, but either way you’re drawn to them because they’re like walking motes of light and just being with them makes you feel alive.

So there’s Cam on one side, who is able to reconcile Christianity with his sexuality, and then there’s Nathan on the other, who just cannot. And there lies the heart of the story’s conflict.

“If you’re wondering why I’m not designing my sexual identity around a few sentences from a twelve hundred-page book that was last fact-checked two thousand years ago, I don’t have an answer for you. Christianity is about love, and acceptance, and I’m as much a part of it as you are.”

I’m always going on and on about messy characters and how they’re so important–especially teenage ones–and Nathan and Cam are two of the best examples I’ve come across in recent years. The book doesn’t pull punches with these two. They say and do terrible things to each other with nothing spared. Every grievance, frustration, and anger are hashed out in scenes that twisted my stomach into knots.

And what I loved and appreciated most is just how much they communicate together. If they have a problem, they say it outright, regardless of how harsh it is. Sometimes because of how harsh it is, because they want to hurt each other in the worst ways. And that might be a weird compliment to give to a book–that the argument scenes are done incredibly well. But I think verbal fight scenes in books are so hard to pull off, and Smedley pulls it off well enough to make me grimace and forget that this is fiction.

I realize these scenes might be triggering for a lot of people–this being with someone who’s unable to acknowledge a part of their identity, but still refusing to give up on them because you love them and you believe love will pull through in the end. And on the flip side, being stretched out so thin between parental pressure and the feeling of not knowing who you are.

But I think the payoff is absolutely worth it, because the ending is immensely satisfying, painful yet healing. In between bouts of heavy crying, I was filled with so much pride for both characters.

As for criticisms…If I had reviewed this a month ago, immediately after finishing it, I would have said that Aunt Lori crosses over into evil Disney stepmother territory at times. And that some of her actions feel unrealistic next to the organic nature of Nathan and Cam’s relationship. But I’ve sat on it for a month and I’m going to cancel that out. Because the world is wide and there’s a wide variety of shitty people out there, many absolutely falling into the cartoonish category, and some even holding offices of high power. So who am I to state what is and isn’t realistic when it comes to abusive adult figures?

“I just don’t think it’s possible to love someone and be afraid of them at the same time.”

Deposing Nathan is a beautiful and stark love letter to teens (and adults) who have their faith in one hand and sexuality in the other and are wondering if they can walk their lives carrying both.

A hard read but an absolute must-read.

 

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Playlist

Zack has an official playlist up here, which is longer and better, but have a gander at my version HERE! (Or down below)

1. Gravity by Vienna Teng
2. Ashes of Eden by Breaking Benjamin
3. How to Save a Life by The Fray
4. Alibi by Thirty Seconds to Mars
5. Saturn by Sleeping at Last (the main song for the book)

(WordPress lets me add the Spotify playlist in editing mode but it’s completely invisible in preview mode, so I have no idea what’s going on there.)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Zack Smedley was born and raised in southern Maryland, in an endearing county almost no one has heard of. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering from UMBC and currently works within the field. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. He spends his free time building furniture, baking, tinkering with electronics, and managing his obsession with the works of Aaron Sorkin. DEPOSING NATHAN is his first novel.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram

 

GIVEAWAY (US Only)

Win a physical copy of Deposing Nathan! Starts May 1st and ends May 15th. ENTER HERE.

 

TOUR SCHEDULE

May 1st

The Unofficial Addiction Book Fan Club – Welcome Post

May 2nd

Musings of a (Book) Girl – Review + Official Book Playlist
The Bent Bookworm – Review + Favourite Quotes

May 3rd

Book-Keeping – Review
Pages Below the Vaulted Sky – Review + Playlist

May 4th

Reads Like Supernovae – Review + Official Dream Cast
Young Adult Media Consumer – Review

May 5th

Bookish_Kali – Review
The YA Obsessed – Review

May 6th

Cheyenne Reads – Story Behind The Cover
The Layaway Dragon – Review + Favourite Quotes

May 7th

everywhere and nowhere – Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?
Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile – Review

 

In Defence of Romance: What it Can Do in a Fantasy Story (Or ANY Story)

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Today is the start of Wyrd & Wonder (hosted by Lisa, Jorie, and imyril), a month dedicated to the celebration of all things fantastical. Look forward to essay posts, lists, reviews, and more.

Let’s get started!

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“But Kathy, who’s going out of their way to attack romance in fantasy?”

Well, no one in particular. But I’ve always come across people–both on the internet and in real life–who look at romance in fantasy with a kind of…disdain, and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. And with some of the recent complaints about Arya’s character development in GoT, I thought, why not, I’ll write a post on the topic.

So to be clear, I have zero problem with people disliking romance or criticizing the romance they find in stories (I mean, I criticize them all the time). Romance isn’t the end-all-be-all–the holy grail for which we have to plan our lives around–and I ADORE books that focus on passionate friendships often more than the romance-centric ones.

But passionate friendships that are as intimate as romance are few and far between in fiction. Because, I don’t know–a lot of people seem to have the idea that close intimacy between two or more people can only exist within the boundaries of sex and romance. (Which is patently untrue. *points to me and my best friend*) That’s why I usually turn to romance when I want my “intense interpersonal dynamic” fix. (This is a whole separate topic for another day.)

So my problem isn’t with the words “I don’t like romance in fantasy.”

My problem is with people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy” in a tone they also use with phrases like, “I don’t like YA” and, “I only like literary fiction.” Like they expect a medal–or at the very least, an enthusiastic applause—for their abstinence. People who seem to believe that having any kind of romance in a fantasy makes it automatically inferior to ones that don’t, and the mention of romance in a blurb equivalent to a giant biohazard sticker on the cover. And most damningly: people who make others feel bad for liking it in the genre.

That’s how you get my hackles up.

So dear friends, lovers, and people of indiscriminate relations, it’s time to break out the candles and rose petals–we’re going to have a little chat about romance and what it can do in a fantasy story.

(And obviously these points also apply outside of fantasy. But everything’s better with dragons and magic–romance especially. It is known.)

*Presses ‘Play’ on 10-Hour Careless Whisper Sax Loop*

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Romance as a Whole

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Let’s start out big and talk a little about the romance genre as a whole.

I’m of the opinion that every genre has something to offer to other genres–a lesson you can take away as both a reader and a writer–and the romance genre at its best offers character dynamics, the push and pull between two or more individuals. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted and playful “will they or won’t they”. Other times it’s a more intense tug-of-war of differing values a la Pride and Prejudice.

Does it suffer from tropes that are overused and/or harmful? Absolutely. But it’s nothing more than what plagues every genre of literature.

Are the stories realistic? Sometimes no. Sometimes hell no. But growing up in a conservative household had made me go through a mess of reticence and recklessness about sex and shame about kink, and romance books helped me make peace with some of that. So screw realism. Sometimes I just want my Happily Ever After.

 

Romance as Worldbuilding

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This right here is a patch of grass.

And as far as patches of grass go, it’s not a bad one. There’s bits of green mixed in with the yellows and the browns, which is great because variety’s always a plus. So one might even call it nice and pretty.

The problem is that I’m going to forget about this patch of grass as soon as I come across another patch of grass with a tantalizing green/yellow/brown scheme. Because I’m shallow like that. And at the end of the day, it’s a patch of grass, not the floor of Buckingham Palace.

But. Plop onto it two characters who are in love, or in the process of being in love, or  don’t know (or like) each other very much and are doing that weird shuffling dance where they’re trying to figure each other out, and this patch of grass becomes something very special.

Maybe it’s where a knight from one kingdom and a farmer from another laid down to stargaze and share their cultures’ interpretations of the constellations. And amidst that, maybe there were gazes held just a bit too long and shoulders touching, and then not touching, and then touching again.

And the patch of grass becomes the site of something new and delicate.

Or maybe it’s where an asshole elven mage told you how beautiful you were and then dumped you because he has a greater purpose to fulfill and you’re too much of a distraction.

And the patch of grass becomes a field of heartbreak.

The same principle applies to more elaborate worldbuilding. As humans we remember and latch onto information that have strong emotional significance. So if two characters are doing the courtship dance and worldbuilding details gets mixed up in it, that shit’s going to stick in our brains.

It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience.

So worldbuilding isn’t just about how much interesting history and politics you can cram into a single book. It’s about making them seem real to the readers. It’s about making us care–making us see more than ancient stone buildings and paragraphs of dry info scrawled in a hefty tome. And what better way to achieve that than through romance?

Romance can assign meaning to meaningless information. It helps add texture and weight and depth to a world that might otherwise seem like a set of cardboard props. Pretty cardboard props, but still cardboard props.

 

Deeper Exploration & Development of the Protagonist

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Which isn’t to say platonic relationships don’t also do this, but the paths to a person’s heart are many (maybe infinite) and varied, and romance can offer a route of a different flavour than, say, friendship.

And I think it gets particularly interesting with unlikeable protagonists.

Because sometimes romance softens a character, scrubbing away at their hard sarcastic edges. It grabs at vulnerabilities and drags them out onto the surface, allowing us to see layers to them that we wouldn’t see otherwise.

Let’s take a grumpy asshole protagonist with a cocky attitude and a distaste for social interactions. No grumpy asshole protagonist would care if Jim the Barkeeper tells them, “You gotta change your ways.” And we don’t care because, well…it’s Jim the Barkeeper. He’s been given maybe ten pages’ worth of screen time and there’s a 70% chance that he’ll end up dead by the end of the book. So his opinion has about as much weight as the dead flies gathering on his countertops.

But if Love Interest #1 says it? Or implies it? That makes things a teeny bit more complicated. It might even force them to examine aspects of themselves that aren’t all that nice and take the slow, reluctant steps to be better.

Romance can also give strength to a character. A sense of purpose they never had before–a belief that maybe, just maybe, they can do this. They can defeat this monster horde. They can lead this army to victory. They can stand in front of the court and deliver a speech that could prevent a war.

I mean, I can go on for weeks. The possibilities are endless and that’s what makes it so damn fun.

 

Creates & Enhances Interpersonal Conflicts


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This is where we talk about the famous/infamous enemies-to-lovers.

My definition of enemies-to-lovers isn’t “two people who wanted to slit each other’s throats 30 minutes ago are now so deeply in love you can see tiny hearts orbiting them.” That’s just…no. And “I hate you but I love you” isn’t something I find particularly interesting, either. My definition is more along the lines of “two people with clashing values and opinions clash, and then slowly come to find understanding and shared affection.” (Which admittedly doesn’t sound as exciting as “I hate you but I love you”)

When done right this trope can be explosive. Because there are few better ways to create compelling, dramatic conflict between two characters than to have them challenge each other every step of the way. One pushes and the other pushes back. And somewhere amidst all that shoving they’ve mapped the contours of each other’s hearts and explored more of their crevices than anyone else ever has. Somewhere along the way a shove became a bump, which became a touch, became a caress.

So how do you go from two jagged pieces scraping against each other into shapes that curl together? What beliefs have changed? Which values have been discarded? In what ways have they made each other better? And if one of them is the villain of the story, what does that mean for their long-term goals?

I can’t begin to describe how infinitely fascinating I find that process. I could write and star in a one-person musical dedicated to how much I love it–especially in fantasy stories because the stakes are usually so much higher.

Enemies-to-lovers underscores the idea that people can learn to understand one another. That despite all our differences, we have the ability to admit mistakes and empathize and push each other to become more complex beings. And that’s a beautiful thing to see in any genre.

 

Romance as a Beacon of Light in a World of Dark

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The Sacred Band of Thebes was an Ancient Greek military unit comprised of 150 male couples. They were responsible for several crucial victories against the Spartan army–which at the time was like kicking a grizzly in the teeth and getting away with it–and the speculation behind their creation boils down to the idea that people fight with greater courage when they’re at their lovers’ side. That in the darkest hours of the battle, with everything going to hell, their love would give them strength to push forward.

Basically, their whole existence was about staring death in the face with light in their eyes. Which leads to my favourite example of what romance can do in fantasy: bringing light to a spot of dark.

Fantasy stories can get very dark very quick, and both the readers and the characters need reasons as to why they should continue, why any of it matters. With danger and horror looming around every corner, you want to cling to whatever hope and goodness you can find, and romance can offer a hell of a lot of hope. (It’s the same reason why we love seeing romance in World War II stories)

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The Song of Achilles and Girls of Paper and Fire do this brilliantly. Both stories position their romance in the middle of brutal, horrific, soul-draining situations. In both stories the romance becomes a spot of salvation.

And do you know which subgenre I’m convinced benefits the most from romance? Grimdark. And not the “gritty” kind of romance. Not the kind that’s angry and/or borderline abusive. I’m talking about the genuinely good ones–the sweet, passionate ones that make your eyes mist and your hair curl. It’s all about contrast, you see. Our brain is evolved to pick out details that break up monotony, so all that goodness just makes the grim and dark grimmer and darker, and vice versa.

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An example of this would be Ed McDonald’s Blackwing, which surprised and delighted me with a romance that felt fragile in many respects but also honest and heartfelt in a way that stood out beautifully against the rest of the story (which was unsurprisingly grim).

“You say there’s nothing of woman about you? You aren’t some painted vase, delicate and useless. You’re a fucking lioness. The strongest damn thing that ever lived. There’s nothing of you but woman.”

I do feel like I have to defend the honour of painted vases everywhere–they’re far from useless–but you get the point.

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Some closing thoughts: I think we can all agree that bad romance in fantasy can be very bad. Hair-pulling, eye-rolling, I-need-to-throw-this-book-at-the-nearest-wall kind of bad.

But when it’s good?

When it’s good it’s like standing at the edge of dawn and seeing the world exhale. It’s like feeling too big to fit inside your skin and you’re spilling everywhere into everything.

It’s like–

Well, it’s like falling in love.

*Presses ‘Stop’*

 

Monday Chatter: Why You Should Watch Elite (Oh and Uh, Books)

So last week I was searching for reference photos of leather jackets and came across an article that talked about how a Netflix show called Elite was a queer sleeper hit. So I was like, “Sure. Why not” and put the jacket-searching on hold to binge through the entire season. And now I’m utterly obsessed.

So here’s a tiny impromptu review!

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The show is a thriller/highschool soap opera set in a prestigious private school in Spain. Think of it as Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale but with a lot more sex. Now, I’ve watched neither of those shows so I have no idea if the comparisons are valid, but the internet says so and therefore it must be true.

Elite starts out, as these things all do, with a dead body. Or rather, it ends with a dead body and the rest of the show is a very long flashback showing us how that dead body came to be. There’s scheming, lying, blackmailing, clandestine hookups, exploration of kink and the harms of parental expectations, and tropey characters turning into something more real and complex.

It’s also very, very, somewhat sneakily, diverse. There are Muslim characters, gay and bi characters (one with lesbian mothers), and narratives–both romantic and otherwise–that fully explore their diversities. It’s great stuff.

 

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It’s not award-winning TV by any stretch, but it’s fun and sexy and addictive and unexpectedly heartfelt. So go watch it! I need more people to rant about it with.

Now onto books!

 

Last Week – Books

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The Binding by Bridget Collins:
This was a weird one. I liked it, but I’m also frustrated with it because it could have been so much more. I’d call it a historical version of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind minus the punchy narrative.

 

This Week – Books

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Jade War by Fonda Lee & Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg:
It’s take two for both of these!

 

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Westside by W.M. Akers:
A fantasy mystery set in the roaring 20’s starring a young female detective. I’m still not sure what to expect with this one because the synopsis is a handful, but I’m pretty excited.

 

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What adventures have you been on in this past week? And what are your plans for this week?

Review: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World – Like a Warm Blanket of Hope

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Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
Author: C.A. Fletcher
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic
Subjects and Themes: Coming-of-Age, Animals
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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My name’s Griz. My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.

My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.

Then the thief came.

There may be no law left except what you make of it. But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.

Because if we aren’t loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?

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I never thought I’d be using “cozy” and “huggable” to describe a post-apocalyptic book…and yet here we are. I went into A Boy and His Dog thinking it’d be a story about the celebration of dogs against an end-of-the-world backdrop.

I was wrong.

It’s a story about the celebration of life.

This book tackles the end of the world from an angle that I haven’t seen before in the genre, and I think what it achieves for post-apocalyptic fiction is similar to what Life is Beautiful achieves for Holocaust ones–taking what is traditionally a grim subject matter and injecting it with an astonishing amount of hope and goodness. And you can hurl the exact same criticisms for A Boy and His Dog that people do for Life is Beautiful: that it’s not dark enough, that it doesn’t portray all the horrors of the situation, that it’s too positive and hopeful.

But you know what? I don’t think there’s such a thing as too positive and hopeful. Not with stories like these.

Griz’s narration is everything. It’s companionable and warm, like you’ve been friends for your whole lives and this is just a story that he’s telling you over a breakfast table. And it’s laced with empathy and introspection that I think most book lovers can recognize and fall in love with. And he does this thing where he gets a certain feeling from looking at something or experiencing something, but he can’t quite explain it with plain adjectives, so he tries to describe around it using imagery and comparisons to other things, and I just had to pause and stare at my tablet because it reminded me so much of myself and I rarely come across characters who think like this.

But the most brilliant part of the story is how Griz rebuilds this ruined world into something new–something quiet yet wondrous–just through his narration. He comes across empty bridges and crumbling buildings and old dusty records, but he doesn’t see them as the loss of a civilization. He doesn’t think, “Look what’s become of humanity.” He thinks, “Look what humanity has achieved.” It’s one of the most beautiful examples you can get of a character creating the world.

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), there aren’t a ton of speculative book characters that I actually want to pull into this world and be best friends with. But with Griz? Sleepovers, baking sessions, camping trips, movie nights, book discussions–I want to do them all because he is my kind of people.

That being said, I did want more scenes of Griz bonding with his dogs; I kind of thought this would be a dog story first, post-apocalypse second, but the dogs felt more like catalysts for plot development than actual characters. And the ending wasn’t as meaty as I’d hoped it would be. I wouldn’t say “disappointing” but I was expecting something with a bit more impact. I think these complaints are fairly small in the grand of scheme of things, though.

A Boy and His Dog is the feeling of snuggling under your blanket fort, listening to the rain patter outside. A book that shines a light on the small everyday things we take for granted and says, “How magical. How beautiful. How extraordinary.” And if the world ends in a fiery inferno tomorrow, I’ll rest happily knowing that Griz will be narrating the life that comes after.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley