Review: Wicked Fox – Let’s Talk About What Cultural Representation Means

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Release Date: June 29th, 2019
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Korean mythology, Family

Rating: 7.0/10

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It’s super fitting that this post is going live during Chuseok weekend (which is totally not planned, by the way, just a happy coincidence).

I’m gonna do something a little different with this review. First, I’m going to review this book as a story, with characters and plot and all that. And then, with that out of the way, I’m going to talk about what the book means to me in terms of representation (and that’s when things might get a wee bit weird).

 

1. A Normal Review

 

I worried–like, full-on existential dread worried–that I wouldn’t like this book, and I was questioning what that would mean for me as a Korean reviewer. Well, thankfully that’s a worry for another reality because I did enjoy the book, despite its rather rocky ending.

The first 2/3 of Wicked Fox was like the honeymoon glow of a new relationship. I was looking at everything with rose-tinted glasses, and sure, the story might have some flaws, but they’re nothing egregious, and in a way, they’re kind of charming. The last 1/3 was where the big issues reared their heads.

So let’s take a look at all the pros and cons! (pink heading=pros; blue=cons)

 

Casual Insertion of Korean Words

Cho uses a LOT of romanization (nouns mostly). I personally loved it because they made the narration and dialogue sound more authentic in my head–like a bilingual story, almost. (For example, she uses “Miyoung’s umma” in favour of of “Miyoung’s mom” or just “Mrs. Gu”)

If you’re unfamiliar with the language, however, you’ll have to consult the glossary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Glossaries are awesome! The annoying part is that, like most other books that come with glossaries, it’s found at the end of the story–something that will never, ever make sense to me.

 

Tropey Goodness

You’re going to see a lot of tropey K-drama sequences in this book, and that’s kind of what makes it charming (or annoying, depending on your tolerance level for tropey K-dramas). A gorgeous new student that all the girls are jealous of and all the guys want to date; said gorgeous student getting bullied by the mean girls and her love interest swooping in to save her; oh, and you can’t forget the slew of rainy-bus-stop-and-heart-to-heart-under-an-umbrella scenes.

It’s pure uncomplicated fun.

The main characters also kind of fall into tropeyness–and, again, that’s not a bad thing. Miyoung and Jihoon balance each other out really well, the latter being stiff and closed off and the former exuding earnest, positive energy, and their relationship is a believable one, each offering something that the other doesn’t have.

 

Family at the Heart of Everything

This is my favourite part. Pretty much every major event in the story places family at its center. Even after Miyoung and Jihoon get together and discover how potent romance can be, motivations still live and die by family. That’s

 

Pacing Crashes and Burns

The pacing takes a swan dive off a cliff in the last 1/3 of the book and the result is spectacularly bad. A lack of communication between the characters froze all action, and it felt like they were just waiting around to see what would happen next. I usually see this in lengthy romance novels, where the first 300 pages is used to build up tension and character relationships, but the last 100 pages ends up fizzling out into silent-and-angsty filler territory, and if don’t have patience for it in romance, I definitely don’t have patience for it in fantasy.

 

The Fate of Certain Characters

There are things that happen in the last stretch of the story that I didn’t react well to. And some of that has to do with events that happened in my own family in the last several months, so there’s definite bias here, but just…the whole situation felt emotionally manipulative (spoiler: because it felt like the author was trying to get the readers to believe that Jihoon’s grandmother will pull through, that Miyoung would be able to save her. But then she pulled the rug out at the last minute)

But that wasn’t the part that really bothered me.

SPOILER (highlight to read)

It was the part where Miyoung gets to meet her long-lost father, only to find out that he’s working against her, and then to have her mother sacrifice her life.

I guess I’m just sick of parents dying in stories. I’m sick of the idea that they have more to offer in their deaths than they would by living and working things out with their kids. Sick of “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” whispered like a final fucking gift so that the mc can understand that, yes, their mother/father did truly love them. It hones in on media’s obsession with orphaned children and absentee parents, and it’s a cheap way to do character development.

From a story so focused on family relationships, this was a disappointment for me. 

 

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2. Let’s Talk About Representation

 

Wicked Fox is the first fantasy book I’ve read that’s set in South Korea. And as a first gen Korean-Canadian, that. means. everything. I mean, I can’t even wrap my head around how much that means.

And what’s funny is that it’s a different feeling to seeing my sexuality or mental health represented. With something like depression, it’s an immediate, almost violent recognition of “Oh. That’s me.” Like being slammed with a sledgehammer that has my name scrawled around the handle. Not always pleasant, no, but satisfying in its intensity.

Cultural representation, I’ve realized, is a bit more insidious in how it presents itself. More like…a second skin settling beneath my own.

It’s a weird feeling and the best way I can process weird feelings is through weird fictional scenarios. I used this metaphor on Twitter, but let’s see if I can clean it up a bit:

 

A Questionable Metaphor

Let’s say you’re hunting for a new apartment.

One day, you attend a open house–your fifth in total (here you go again)–and you smile and nod along with the realtor trailing beside you, indulging his oral documentary on the building’s history. The lobby is indistinguishable from the other half dozen lobbies you’ve seen in the past month. The walls are a drab beige broken up in places by mystery stains. Everything is perfectly, reassuringly unremarkable.

Then you walk into the unit and freeze in your tracks.

This place you’ve never visited before, haven’t even seen photos of, has the exact same furnishings as your current place. Completely different layout, and there are few details that are different and specific to the owner, but everything else is identical. So it becomes this double-vision, twilight-zone moment–because this feels like home but it’s not home–and you’re just standing there feeling winded and invaded and, inexplicably, so right.

All the while, your brain is telling you to snap out it. This isn’t actually your home. It’s not even a good home, for fuck’s sake. The bedrooms are awkwardly shaped and the kitchen is bigger than the living room.

But you don’t care, do you? Because what matters is that there’s this large presence moving through you, a barely contained tremor of “mine, mine, mine,” and it says that this place is yours, always has been, always will be. The force of that is sharp enough to rend mountains, yet all it seems to do is hold you tighter.

 

What this Means

There’s much of Wicked Fox that feels not-home to me. It’s written in English, first of all–that’s a biggie–and I’m really not used to experiencing Korean settings through a Western-ish lens. Also, I didn’t have nine tails the last time I checked.

But overriding all that are details that scream home (imagine me underlining this ten more times). The relationship that Jihoon has with his grandmother, the creature legends that I grew up reading about, the emphasis on filial piety, the prevalence of eastern religion–take your pick.

And it’s not just those big stuff that matters. There are dozens of small moments in this book that seem trivial and irrelevant out of context, but add up to something monumental. Jihoon making kimchi with his grandmother. The smell of jjigae wafting through the house. Drinking banana milk at lunch. Playing StarCraft at a PC bang.

They’re scattered leavings of my upbringing, my blood, my history, and there is no high enough rating I can give that.

And I thank Kat from the bottom of my heart.

 

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At the end of the day, Wicked Fox is imperfect. But it’s also a first, and now there’s a divot in my heart with a shape that only first experiences can create.

And do you know? Those never go away.

Blog Tour + Giveaway: The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams

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I’m thrilled to present a spotlight and a giveaway (US only) for Kate Williams’ upcoming The Babysitters Coven! I’ll be posting a mini review for it after the tour ends.

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Title:
The Babysitters Coven
Author: Kate Williams
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: September 17th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal
Subjects and Themes: Witches, Female Friendships
Page Count: 368 (hardback)

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Adventures in Babysitting meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this funny, action-packed novel about a coven of witchy babysitters who realize their calling to protect the innocent and save the world from an onslaught of evil. 

Seventeen-year-old Esme Pearl has a babysitters club. She knows it’s kinda lame, but what else is she supposed to do? Get a job? Gross. Besides, Esme likes babysitting, and she’s good at it.

And lately Esme needs all the cash she can get, because it seems like destruction follows her wherever she goes. Let’s just say she owes some people a new tree.

Enter Cassandra Heaven. She’s Instagram-model hot, dresses like she found her clothes in a dumpster, and has a rebellious streak as gnarly as the cafeteria food. So why is Cassandra willing to do anything, even take on a potty-training two-year-old, to join Esme’s babysitters club?

The answer lies in a mysterious note Cassandra’s mother left her: “Find the babysitters. Love, Mom.”

Turns out, Esme and Cassandra have more in common than they think, and they’re about to discover what being a babysitter really means: a heroic lineage of superpowers, magic rituals, and saving the innocent from seriously terrifying evil. And all before the parents get home.

 

 

About the Author

kate williams
I’m a YA write or die, originally from Kansas but now living in California. I’ve written for Cosmopolitan, NYLON and Seventeen, amongst other magazines, and worked with brands including Urban Outfitters, Vans and Calvin Klein.
The Babysitters Coven is my first novel, but fingers crossed it won’t be my last.

WebsiteGoodreads | Instagram

 

 

Giveaway (US ONLY)

You have a chance to win 1 finished copy of the book! ENTER HERE

 

 

Tour Schedule 

September 11th

The Unofficial Addiction Book Fan Club – Welcome Post

 

September 12th

Moonlight Rendezvous – Review + Favourite Quotes

Bookmark Lit – Review + Cover Colours

TBR and Beyond – Review + Playlist + Dream Cast

The Reading Chemist  – Review

Musings From An Addicted Reader – Review

 

September 13th

Here’s to happy Endings – Review

Hauntedbybooks – Review + Favourite Quotes

Flipping Through the Pages – Review

Phannie the ginger bookworm  – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Bibliophagist – Review

 

September 14th

Confessions of a YA Reader – Review + Favourite Quotes

Ambivert words – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Art of Living – Review

Pages Below the Vaulted Sky – Review

The Book Dutchesses – Review + Favourite Quotes

 

September 15th

The Book Nut – Review + Playlist

Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile – Review

The Layaway Dragon – Review + Favourite Quotes

Kait Plus Books – Review + Favourite Quotes

A Dream Within A Dream – Review

 

September 16th

Bookish Geek – Review

Artsy Draft – Review + Favourite Quotes

We Live and Breathe Books – Review

Bookish In Bed – Review + Favourite Quotes

The Desert Bibliophile – Review

 

September 17th

Wishful Endings – Review

Novel Nerd Faction – Review

Lili Lost in a Book – Review

The Mind of a Book Dragon – Review + Playlist

Lost in Storyland – Review

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: SFF Music Mania

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Hmm? What’s that noise, you ask?

Well, that’s the sound of a dead meme rising from the ashes. Diversity Spotlight Thursday is back, baby.

So this is a weekly meme that was created by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks (though she’s not hosting it anymore), and the idea is that each week you come up with three books for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and want to recommend; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet. And the topics–if you want to have them–are yours to choose.

This time, though, I’m gonna change the rules a bit and expand the categories to include all fictional media, not just books. And my chosen theme for this week is SFF stories that revolve around music.

Also, I feel like I’ve been kind of absent in terms of posting and replying and blog hopping, so I’m hoping to catch up and kick myself back into gear in the next couple of weeks.

 


What I Recommend

 

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Dane, a spun-out musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio, has two main goals: keeping his job at the Pepper Heights Zoo and trying not to waste all his time on Grindr. What he doesn’t expect is to get swept into a story about dreams, about forevers, about flickering lights, about unexplained deaths, about relentless change, and about the parts of ourselves that we wish other people knew to look for. Oh, and also a murderous zebra.

Reps: gay mc, queer side characters

Dreamboy is a fairly new fiction podcast (just started late last year as part of the Nightvale Presents group) and it is an atmospheric, psychedelic, sensual wonder of an experience unlike anything else I’ve listened to. And Dane Terry, the co-creator of the show, is a goddamn Renaissance man. He composes the score, writes the scripts, voices the main character, and he does it all with such skill that would almost make you angry if it weren’t for the fact that he’s also funny and charming and just an all-around genuine person.

The story itself is super weird (and, in that sense, definitely deserves the Nightvale badge) but it’s also one with a lot of heart and poetry. And the music, guys. The music is fucking everything–just as much of a character in the story as the actual characters.

It’s also very NSFW, so I don’t recommend blasting it on speakers at full volume during your next family gathering.

 


 

Released But Have Yet to Try

 

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In the Before, when the government didn’t prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce’s connection to the world–her music, her purpose–is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.

Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery–no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she’ll have to do something she’s never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.

Release date: September 10th, 2019
Reps: a full queer cast

I’ve been slowly reading through Sarah Pinsker’s short story collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the See, and I’ve been loving it, so I’m hoping her first novel will be just as good, if not more. I was planning on getting to it last month but life had different ideas, so fingers crossed for September!

 


 

Not Yet Released

 

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After a surprising upheaval, the nation of Tamryllin has a new ruler: Elissan Diar, who proclaims himself the first Poet King. Not all in court is happy with this regime change, as Rianna secretly schemes against him while she investigates a mysterious weapon he hides in the bowels of the palace.

Meanwhile, a civil war rages in a distant land, and former Court Poet Lin Amaristoth gathers allies old and new to return to Tamryllin in time to stop the coronation. For the Poet King’s ascension is connected with a darker, more sinister prophecy which threatens to unleash a battle out of legend unless Lin and her friends can stop it.

Release Date: March 24th, 2020
Reps: queer side characters

I have the motherlode of TBRs this month and I’m deliriously excited for so many on the list, but The Poet King in particular is special (“excited” doesn’t even begin to cover it). It’s one of my most anticipated releases of 2020, and it’s the conclusion to a fantasy trilogy that has skyrocketed to being one of my all-time favourites, and Ilana to an autobuy author. These books are steeped in music and artistry and the power of them, and they mean so much to me. Pre-reading offerings are probably in order.

 

 

DNF Review: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep – Wrong Character as the Narrator

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Title: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
Author: H.G. Parry
Publisher: Redhook
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Contemporary Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Stories about Stories, Siblings
Page Count: 465 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ ~40%

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For his entire life, Charley Sutherland has concealed a magical ability he can’t quite control: he can bring characters from books into the real world. His older brother, Rob — a young lawyer with a normal house, a normal fiancee, and an utterly normal life — hopes that this strange family secret will disappear with disuse, and he will be discharged from his life’s duty of protecting Charley and the real world from each other. But then, literary characters start causing trouble in their city, making threats about destroying the world… and for once, it isn’t Charley’s doing.

There’s someone else who shares his powers. It’s up to Charley and a reluctant Rob to stop them, and hopefully before anyone gets to The End.

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This is another case of me DNFing a book not because it’s bad, but because I was bored (yes, there’s a difference). And I mostly blame it on Rob, the main character. He’s the less extraordinary of the two brothers–no magical abilities and a very “straight man” vibe–and I found his narration dry and ill-fitting. I mean, this is a story about literary characters coming to life and mingling with modern society. A story about the complexity of stories. And I figure such a story should be told from the POV of a character who exudes a bit more passion, and less blandness, than Rob Sutherland.

Like his brother, Charley.

See, there’s this one little section that utterly blew me away. It’s an excerpt from Charley’s notebook, so it’s written entirely from his POV and it lasts a only handful of pages, and reading it was like stepping up to the gates of heaven and watching it open. I mean that with zero hyperbole.

There are three things that this section accomplishes:

1) It puts us in the head of Charley–this beautiful, sensitive person–and we get a glimpse of the way he views the world. The things he value and how he approaches his power. It’s the most concise snapshot of a character I’ve come across this year.

2) It neatly explains the ins-and-outs of Charley’s power.

3) It describes, with aching clarity and lyricism, the act of reading. How we process a story, and how that processing affects every part of us, and how fucking magical that is. It’s beautifully introspective and so, so on-point. I mean, look at this:

“So I”ll be drifting in words, absorbing, and the words I absorb will be racing through my bloodstream. Every nerve, every neuron will be sparking and catching fire, and my heart will be quickening to carry it through faster, and my eyes will be tearing ahead to take in more and more.

This isn’t magic yet, or whatever the word is…This is just reading a book.”

I realize I’m using most of the review to gush about six pages worth of words, but that’s how good it is. It’s also relevant because that was the moment I realized that I’m stuck with the wrong brother as the narrator. Charley’s words are emotional and raw and relatable in a way that Rob’s aren’t, and I’ll bet my right arm that I would have loved the book if it’d been told from Charley’s POV. It just feels like a lost opportunity.

But I know the book is, and will be, a hit with a lot of people. It’s got all the right ingredients: a very solid, very flowy style of writing; a plot that’s unique and attention-grabbing; fairly interesting side characters; and a sibling relationship at the heart of the story, which is always welcome.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Took Me Out of My Comfort Zone (And Helped Me Find New Ones)

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Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now being hosted by The Artsy Reader. This week’s topic is Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone, but I’ve modified it slightly to “books that took me out of my comfort zone but I didn’t necessarily enjoy.”

Comfort zones are funny. Sometimes I feel like I know exactly what I’m comfortable with and not. Other times I don’t even know where the boundary is until I’m suddenly standing outside of it, saying, “Uh, hello? I’d like to go back inside.”

Anywho, the titles = subjects/themes/character types that were (or still are) beyond my comfort zone.

 

Second Person POV

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The Fifth Season was the first book with an extended second-person POV (beyond choose-your-own-adventure books) that I liked, and it actually made me see it in a new light. I love that it goes beyond a gimmick, that it actually serves a purpose in the story, narrative-wise. And I love even more that we don’t find out what that purpose is until book 3.

 


Space Opera

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I was never a big space opera fan as a kid, and I only got into Star Wars and Firefly and all those other big scifi franchises as an undergrad. But then I played Mass Effect and it was like, oh hey, this spacefaring business is actually kind of cool and exciting and I think I want more.

So technically, Mass Effect is what took me out of my comfort zone. But in terms of books, it’s Karin Lowachee’s Warchild that did it. I talk about it quite a bit on the blog, and I cannot overstate just how brilliant the series is. Beyond the space opera aspect, it talks about war and identity, and it features the most disquieting exploration of abuse and its lasting effects that I’ve ever read.

Coincidentally, it also makes use of second-person POV (albeit a lot more sparingly than  Broken Earth and also in a different way), and the effect is very, very powerful.

 


BDSM, Sex, and Queerness

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I read this series when I was 18, and it was my first experience seeing BDSM, queerness, and sex mixed together, and so forwardly, in one place. And boy, did that mean a lot to me.

I’m not saying that the Beauty books are quality BDSM literature, because they’re not (I’m 90% sure I’ll end up hating them if I ever do a reread), and it’s absolutely not the series I’d recommend to anyone who wants to dip their toes in BDSM (I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard Kushiel’s Dart is a better alternative). But I grew up in a conservative Asian family where sex wasn’t a thing I should even be contemplating, let alone having. Add to that a strong penchant for a kink, and you have the prime recipe for guilt, self-hatred, and repression–a full-course meal. And these books did a lot to make me feel more comfortable in my own skin. “Thankful” is maybe not the right word–it feels weird and a little wrong to be thankful for something that’s kind of problematic–but my feelings are a close cousin to it.

Ironically, by pushing me out of my comfort zone, Beauty helped me find it.

 


Small Pawns in a Wide World

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I have a hard time dealing with stories that reek of helplessness. Where the characters are given the smallest margin of agency, and everything beyond that is too vast, too complex, too deeply seeded for them to change. That’s the main reason why I dislike Never Let Me Go (I struggle with enough feelings of smallness on my own, thank you), yet it’s also the reason why I can’t get it out of my head.

 


A Heartpuncher of an Ending

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Adam, what crime did I commit in a previous life for you to make me go through the ending of More Happy than Not? I’m 100% comfortable reading books that talk about depression and suicide as long as they give me a few rays of hope at the end. This…wasn’t that.

But now, with the initial shock of emotions faded, I can say that it’s a fantastic and crucial piece of fiction–one that talks about queerness and mental health with stark honesty–and I’m glad to have experienced it.

 


A Heartpuncher of an Ending 2 (Feat. Irish Stream of Consciousness)

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Here’s the thing: heartwrenching endings aren’t within my comfort zone and I don’t think they will ever be. I don’t think I can ever be comfortable with something that shreds me from the inside out and leaves me tattered on the ground. That is the definition of uncomfortable.

But here’s another thing: I can be uncomfortable with something and still love it and crave it.

The final thing: I love being broken by someone’s art.

At Swim, Two Boys left me insensate with tears by the end. I was hobbling around for days with my eyes puffy and glazed over. And I would gladly experience it hundred times more. Because this book is one of the most profoundly human things I’ve ever read, and that ending, and my reaction to it, is proof of just how deeply I connected with the characters.

 


Queer Pain (aka Why Do I Do This to Myself)

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I sorely underestimated how uncompromising and triggering Orpheus Girl would be and I paid the price for it. Which sounds kind of dramatic, but god, reading this was like trying to swallow nails: painful, and not in the way I described above.

I didn’t dislike the book and I’m glad that it exists, as it talks about atrocities that are still very present for queer teens today (in the form of gay conversion camps), but it’s also something I almost wish I could unread, and I stand by what I said in my GR review: you don’t have to read these heavy topical books if you don’t want to. You’re not obligated to hold pain–any pain, queer or otherwise–by the blade and bleed yourself to prove that you’re aware of its existence.

 


You’re Not the Character I Thought You Were

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You know what I love? Awful and seemingly irredeemable characters who, against all odds, win me over by the end of the story.

You know what I don’t love? The opposite of that. When there’s a character that I like and want to wrap in a blanket because “oh, he seems so troubled and sweet and he just needs someone to hold him.” And then it turns out he’s actually none of that. He’s actually an asshole with psychopathic tendencies and deserves a fireball to the face more than a hug. That’s a “I WAS ROOTING FOR YOU” moment and not something I’m terribly fond of.

So I should have hated The Court of Broken Knives (and its sequel, which I’m currently reading). The fact that I don’t–the fact that I love it, and it’s become one of my favourite fantasy series–is a testament to how good Anna Smith Spark is.

Mini Rants: His Cocky Valet & Idol Thoughts – How NOT to Write BDSM and Romance

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Title: His Cocky Valet (Undue Arrogance 1)
Author: Cole McCade
Publisher: Self-Published
Release Date: May 14th, 2018
Genre(s): Romance (M/M), Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: BDSM, Age Gap
Page Count: 347 (ebook)

Rating: 2.0/10

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Ash Harrington’s life is out of control.

At twenty-three years old, he’s suddenly the head of a multibillion dollar global corporation he is in no way equipped to run. His father is dying. His mother’s run away. He’s spent his entire adult life playing fast and loose with his life and his loves, but when he’s dragged into a position of responsibility with the fate of the company on his shoulders, he goes spinning into freefall.

And Brand Forsythe is the only man to catch him.

Icy, detached, nearly twice Ash’s age, the massive monolith of a British valet is impossible to deal with and like no servant Ash has ever met. Domineering and controlling, Brand quickly puts Ash’s life in order.

And quickly takes Ash in hand.

Even if by day Ash has to project authority, leadership, and calm…by night he’s discovering the breathless pleasure of giving up control. The shivering thrill of surrendering to Brand. The sweet taboo of being submissive to the man in even the smallest things. Ash can’t quite understand why it feels so good to put himself in Brand Forsythe’s capable, commanding hands.

He only knows, as he faces the hardest decisions of his life…the only thing that can save him is the love of his cocky valet.

 

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(Content Warning: If you don’t want to read me going on about BDSM, feel free to skip to the next review which is kink-free and also a lot shorter)

This is the first book in a while that’s made me properly angry. And of course it’s a romance book.

For those who don’t know, here’s a little backstory on His Cocky Valet. Cole McCade wrote this as a response to the #cockygate incident that happened last year, where a romance author tried to trademark the word “cocky” (“I’ll take ‘Shitty and Nonsensical Things People Do on a Whim’ for 500, Alex”), and he wrote and published the whole thing in a span of a couple of weeks. Which is, I admit, pretty remarkable. Even more so when you consider how solid the writing and pacing is. However, I don’t think that should excuse the awful BDSM rep.

With Ash, you have a character who’s kind of in a vulnerable state of mind–someone who’s been hit with tragic family news and thrust into a position of leadership he’s in no way ready for. Then you introduce D/s into the mix, which is like stacking vulnerability on top of vulnerability, especially because he’s new to it and aren’t really sure what he wants (only that he wants something). And there’s nothing wrong with that. Power play can be a source of a great deal of emotional support as long as there’s clear and constant communication throughout it all.

Well, in enters Brand. He’s a valet who hails from a family of valets, comes highly recommended by his previous employer, and he’s described as being meticulous and attentive and caring in all aspects of life. So surely he’d make a half-decent dom, right?

Yeah, no.

What should have happened is Brand, who’s older and more experienced and should fucking know better, explaining everything to Ash with zero ambiguity and easing him in. Which takes time and effort and exploration. NONE of which is exhibited here. Oh no no, the careful valet disappears and he turns into some vague and moody love interest who says one thing while meaning something else. There’s so little communication with regards to their relationship (not beyond the handful of pages where Brand talks about his wants and how this isn’t really a “Dom thing” because chains and collars aren’t involved, which is blatant misinformation). Like, at no point do they discuss whether or not Ash enjoys pain, and to what degree and in what context. Brand just assumes that he does and hurts him, and as it turns out, Ash does like pain and wow, Brand is a mind reader.

Fuck that shit.

Also, I’m heartily sick of romance writers portraying BDSM as this dark and almost dangerous activity that could break a person (and not in a fun way) if they’re not careful. It’s a poor attempt to make these stories “edgy” and all it does is hurt the community in the long run.

The most frustrating part of this is that I actually like McCade’s writing. His previous books have a lot going for them–from careful character development to engaging, lyrical prose–and I feel like if he’d just given himself more time with this one, a lot of the issues could have been avoided.

 

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Title:
Idol Thoughts (H3RO 1)
Author: J.S. Lee
Publisher: Axellia Publishing
Release Date: November 24th, 2018
Genre(s): Romance, Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: Reverse Harem, K-Pop
Page Count: 233 (ebook)

Rating: 3.0/10

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I had one job: get K-Pop group, H3RO, a number one single. Then I had to open my mouth and promise two. It’s only because of a technicality that the Vice Chairman of Atlantis Entertainment, (AKA my demon-spawn-half-brother, Sejin), didn’t terminate their contracts.

Now, more than ever, H3RO need to keep their focus. Tae, Dante, Minhyuk, Nate, Kyun and Jun are idols, working hard to maintain their rising fame. Caught in the public eye with fan meetings, promotions and performances, somehow, no one has noticed their attention is on me.

Even if I wasn’t their manager, I know I need to back away. A dating scandal will end their careers quicker than Sejin. The guilt is eating me up, but I can’t stay away.

And neither can they.

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Idol Thoughts, on the other hand, doesn’t even have the excuse of a self-imposed two week deadline. It’s just bad, period. Badly writing, bad romance, bad execution of an interesting concept.

The only thing going for it is that it’s probably the only reverse harem K-Pop romance written by a Korean author that exists in the western world. That and the fact that Lee put her glossary at the start of the book–something I found sexier than any of the sex scenes in the story. So if those are itches you need scratched, then voila, Idol Thoughts has you covered.

What in the Worldbuilding: Sports in Sci-Fi and Fantasy (Where are they?)

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I’m so, so excited to unveil What in the Worldbuilding, a new blog post series where I’m going to be discussing all things worldbuilding in stories. Because I love stories and I love worldbuilding and I love rambling about them even more.

For the first couple of posts, I’ll be talking about some elements of worldbuilding that, in my opinion, don’t get enough screen/pagetime in SFF media (and see where my brain takes things from there).

And we’re starting with sports. Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?

 

Okay, First of all: Sports? Who Cares?

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*Slowly raises hand*

A quick “you didn’t ask for my life story but here it is anyway.” My parents are massive tennis fans and they introduced me into the sport very early, with my dad coaching in the early stages. Same thing with swimming (well, minus the coaching. My dad didn’t fare well in water and I actually ended up teaching him once I got my lifeguard license, which was a nice little pay-it-forward moment). There’s a meditative, cerebral quality to both that’s belied by their physical intensity and that lends to a deep attraction for me.

So I grew up tangled in this hopeless relationship with the two–fueled in part by the fact that I was good at them, but mostly by the fact that I just loved the hell out of them–and they’re as much a part of my identity as books. And crazy enough, I like seeing my real-life passions and experiences represented in media.

But passion isn’t required for one to understand the worldwide significance of sports. And to talk about what sports can bring to a SFF world, I think we need to look at their significance in our world.

 

Sports and Cultural History

Sports can tell us a lot about a culture and its history. Asian martial arts, for example, are rooted in eastern religion and philosophy. I won’t be talking about dancing in this WITW post (that’s for a later one), but it is widely considered to be a sport, and many of the modern forms we see today have their foundations in historical, traditional dances.

Everyone and their grandmother knows Canada bleeds hockey. But curling is just as strong of a national symbol here. Brought into the country by Scottish immigrants, it spread westward as the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its reach and more and more small towns began appearing on the map. So, for us, curling represents long winter months and fledgling communities coming together in solidarity and friendly competition.

The nuances are endless and the inclusion of them in a SFF world can make it so much richer.

 

Sports and Nationalism

Sports is one of the major drivers of national identity and what often unites entire countries together. The Olympics, for example, have become homegrounds for national pride and displays of physical prowess that somehow translates to the overall excellence of a nation. And if we look at the measures that some countries would take, and have taken, in order to stamp and seal their supremacy in these events, it becomes impossible to think of sports as mere forms of entertainment. Authoritarian regimes make use of sports to propagate their ideology in a more palatable way. And even with a democratic country like South Korea there’s an intense nationalistic fervor when it comes to sports, which I often found ugly (because it’s led to mass harassment of athletes) and at odds with the general image of the country .

So many politically-driven stories out there where juggernaut nations vie for power, and so few of them utilize sports as a form of diplomacy and a show of nationalistic strength. That seems strange to me. Whether we like it or not, sports will always be intertwined with politics–its reflection and extension–and I desperately want to see writers use that more.

 


Putting the political implications aside, here’s an undeniable truth:

 

Made-up Sports are Cool

And they become especially cool when they involve magic and future technologies and pieces of a fictional culture. I love brainstorming all the different sports that could exist in a world with a specific magic system (how, for example, Allomancy from Mistborn might translate to a competitive setting), and how they would evolve as the magic evolves.

Also, I’m attracted to the idea that punchy, flashy, dangerous forms of power can be used for more than mass weapons of war. That they can be transformed into something equally physical, but in a more positive and fun setting.

So let’s take a look at some examples of SFF sports in media. Starting with the most famous of them all…

 

Quidditch

My thoughts on J.K. Rowling most days is an intersection of “Oh god, what now” and “Please just stop,” but there’s no denying Harry Potter has become an indelible foundation for modern pop culture and a well of inspiration for many, many writers. Since its inception, magical schools have become a staple of fantasy.

So what surprises me is that the series hasn’t also ushered in a wave of magical sports in fantasy. I mean, Quidditch is such an important part of the HP world. As a bastardization of soccer–sorry, “football”–and other real world sports, it offers familiarity alongside high octane speed and the thrill of microviolence, with an unexpected sweetness to the idea of players protecting teammates from homicidal balls (aka bludgers). It’s brilliantly constructed.

And fans love it so much they turned it into an actual international sport.

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Credit: Scott Audette/Reuters

(Fun fact: I joined my university’s Quidditch club during undergrad and played for a couple of sessions before deciding that running around and inadvertently crashing into people with a stick between my legs was bound to send me to the hospital at some point.)

So why don’t we see more Quidditches in fictional worlds? If there’s room for intricate magic systems and made-up history that goes back thousands of years, surely there’s room for more inventive forms of sports that go beyond gladiatorial combat and racing.

Speaking of which….

 

Racing — Lots and Lots of Racing

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Left to right: Death Rally (Tales from the Borderlands); Chocobo racing (Final Fantasy); Podracing (Star Wars)

Racing is probably the most common one you’ll find in these stories. And with a simple format that allows for such a wide breadth of customization, it’s not hard to see why. Swap a horse with a giant yellow bird, or a car with a small flying vehicle, and you have yourself a made-up sport that’s unique enough to engage and entertain but doesn’t require a lot of meticulous ground-up writing.

Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a somewhat recent sci-fi book that features racing. Via race cars, specifically, which might seem pretty mundane if you don’t count the fact that they require magic to operate.

 

The Gentleman Bastards

I’m going to be talking more about The Gentleman Bastards in future WITW posts because Lynch does a lot of small yet effective things with his worldbuilding that add an incredible amount of depth to the series.

And The Lies of Lock Lamora is the one example I can think of that features sports with regional and class distinction.

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Let’s take the Teeth Show, a gladiatorial sport unique to Camorr in which female fighters, and only female fighters, go head-to-head with leaping sharks. It’s a grisly, gaudy show of acrobatics and power, and while it’s enjoyed by the poor and rich and everyone in between, there’s a distinct middle to upper class flavour to it–aristocrats and merchants watching from their boats, sipping wine and conducting business while the fight plays out in the background. The luxury of partaking in violence without actually partaking in violence.

Then there’s Handball, which is a team sport played by the lower classes of southern Therin. There’s nothing showy or magical about handball (it’s pretty similar to our world’s version), and we never actually see any of the characters playing it, but what I love about it is that it comes with its own little history of origin and an allegory that may or may not be true but still serves as a valuable lesson for the audience (i.e. when it comes to revenge, either have a long memory or don’t procrastinate). That’s what makes it unique to this world.

The teeth show and handball serve three purposes: they add layers to the worldbuilding, they entertain the readers, and, perhaps most importantly, they tie in with the story that is being told, making it richer and more dynamic.

 


So why do sports get overlooked?

Let’s put on our speculation hats, shall we?

Possibility 1: SFF writers aren’t sports fans.

I’ll scribble in a big fat “REJECTED” for this one. The idea that geeks and sports don’t mesh is an outdated one, and I know for a fact that there are writers who are also sports fans. That being said, I’ve yet to meet another SFF nerd who also plays and watches tennis. But statistically speaking they have to be out there somewhere (and I will find you).

 

Possibility 2: SFF writers enjoy sports, but not enough to be comfortable and interested in writing about them.

…Maybe? At least, I’m sure it applies to some writers.

 

Possibility 3: Sports isn’t something people consciously associate with SFF stories

When we see “sci-fi and fantasy,” we immediately think space battles and gods and dragons and political intrigue and quests to save the world. Maybe sports just don’t cross people’s minds. And maybe people feel, especially with linear stories, there just isn’t room to showcase an activity that’s meant to be for recreation and competition. Not when there are life-or-death events brewing around every corner.

 

Possibility 4: Lack of a solid foundation for sports in SFF stories

I don’t know, maybe if Tolkien and Lewis and all those other classic SFF authors had included made-up sports in their stories, we’d see more of them today.

 

Possibility 5: A combination of multiple factors (including the ones above)

Probably a lazy answer but also probably the best of the bunch.

The thing is, I’m really not sure what deters writers from including sports in their worlds. It’s not like I can snap my fingers and pin the problem on societal hangups or prejudices. Sports is…sports. Innocuous (for the most part), exciting, and popular in the real world but not so much in fictional ones, evidently.

And I don’t know about you, but I would really like to see that changed.

 

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What are your thoughts on all this? Also, sneak me your sport-centric SFF recommendations!