Review: This is How You Lose the Time War – This is How You Write a Time Travel Story

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Title: This is How You Lose the Time War
Author: Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Romance, Epistolary
Subjects and Themes: War, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 208 (hardback)

Rating: 9.5/10

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Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

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This is it.

After years of searching, this is the time travel book I’ve been waiting for.

This is How You Lose the Time War is a stunning achievement of prose and storytelling. It’s a love story dressed as a chess game played out on the shoulders of poetry. It’s got moments, especially near the end, that gave me full-body shivers and touched me to my core. It had me muttering “This makes me want to make out with someone” over and over to myself and to my roommate (who’s gotten used to my weird out-of-context comments about books). And I just can’t stop thinking about it.

Before I get into it, just a small note regarding the worldbuilding: this book doesn’t explain much to you–not about the nature of the war or its factions (though you do get some sense of the differences between Red and Blue’s homeland by the end, and let me tell you, they are fascinating)–and you either have to accept that ambiguity or have a very frustrating time with it.

Okay, so here’s the part that I absolutely love and something I think is genius: there are two different kinds of time travel that exist in this book.

The first is your typical “temporal and spatial movement from Point A to B.”

My issue with a lot of time travel books is that I don’t often get a good sense of the time period and setting that the characters travel to. And aside from the superficial descriptions, Point B doesn’t feel all that different from Point A. It’s like when you’re watching a school play and the castle scenery changes to a forest one, but some of the props are reused and you can still see all the scuff marks on the stage, so the illusion is kind of lost.

But here? Things feel very organic. You can see the texture of the places that Red and Blue visit–ancient pilgrims moving through a labyrinth, a Mongolian forest camp, Atlantis burning and sinking. Descriptions that snag on the most important aspects of a culture and time period and drag them forward. It’s economical and at the same time not, because of how purple the prose is, and just all around beautiful and atmospheric. El-Mohtar and Gladstone manage to convey a sense of time and space in the span of five pages better than some books do in a hundred, and I bow down to their collective talent.

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The second type of time travel is done through letters.

This is the part that gets me jittery and giggling with joy–that in this future of advanced technology, Red and Blue are sending physical letters to each other, using anything they can get their hands on and being creative with it (paper, tea leaves, seeds, and lava, just to name a few). And they have such fun with it. I can’t even begin to tell you how romantic I find all that.

…And that was a lie. I will tell you.

I love exchanging letters. I love saving letters. I love letters, period. My closet contains boxes of all the letters and postcards and notes I saved from since I was a kid. I’ve made amazing, long-lasting connections through years of penpal exchanges. If you’re friends with me I’ll probably send you a letter at some point whether you like it or not. And occasionally, on rainy days, I take some of those letters out and read them, re-living memories and re-reading passages I want to commit to memory because I found them particularly beautiful or vulnerable or funny. They’re like books, in that sense. Except they’re stories about you, and me, and the path that our relationship ended up taking.

“There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there?” Red writes at one point, and there’s such truth to those words. Letters are snapshots of a person at a particular time, and when you send a letter, you’re essentially carving off slices of yourself, preserving them, and gifting them to the recipient (that sounds dramatic, but hell, this whole book is dramatic). And there is romance to that act which defies explanation. This book gets that. My god, does it get it.

“I want to chase you, find you, I want to be eluded and teased and adored; I want to be defeated and victorious–I want you to cut me, sharpen me. I want to drink tea beside you in ten years or a thousand.”

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I also adore the way the authors portray the characters’ love as a kind of a mutual surrender to one another: blades to each other’s throat, exchanging vulnerabilities with vulnerabilities, and feeling content in the knowledge that one can destroy the other at any moment. Not all love is that intense and all-consuming, but for two people who have dedicated their lives to being the best and always winning and holding themselves to stratospheric standards, it fits perfectly. They need this. Surrender is freedom. And that’s so fucking sexy, I can’t even.

So please, please, please give this a try.

It’ll make you believe in love all over again.

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

Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

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I’m not sure what the umbrella term for these types of characters should be. Atypical heroes? Messy heroes?

Well, whatever the term, I adore them. And my love grows stronger every time I come across a protagonist who’s graduated from the academy of perfect heroes. You know–the shiny put-together ones. The ones whose mistakes are just tiny blips in their character designed to further the plot.

My first issue with those characters is that I’m kind of bored of them. Selfish, I know. But I think I’ve seen and read enough of them to last me a lifetime.

My second issue (and probably the more pertinent of the two because it goes beyond “Well, I think it’s boring, so YOU should think it’s boring too!”) is that they spearhead the idea that the only way to be a hero in your story–to win the battles, collect the friendships, score the romance, change the world for the better–is to be confident, bold, determined, to always know what to say at the right times, and have an emergency stash of witty quips in your pockets.

And if you occasionally say the wrong things or step out in the wrong direction? Well, hey, no worries! They’re nothing permanent! Your weaknesses only exist as temporary obstacles to overcome so you can scratch another notch on your Badass Post.

But what about the rest of us?

Because there are many faces to heroism and not all of them involve being extroverted or confident or even necessarily good. Maybe they’re a hero who has crippling shyness and social anxiety. Maybe they’re just not super into the idea of quests and adventures. Maybe they’re trying so hard to be perfect and unflappable that it’s breaking them from the inside out.

So some quick bullet points on why I love these characters and why I want to see more of them:

  • They’re relatable. I mean, that’s kind of the biggest reason, right? As humans we’re all messy and imperfect, and we like seeing that reflected in media.
  • They can force you to look at a well-worn genre from a new angle.Take The Adventure Zone podcast, for example. Thanks to a cast of lovable idiots who could have been pulled out of a sitcom, your typical D&D fantasy story turns into a feel-good, slice-of-life, goofball comedy of hilarious mistakes and equally hilarious successes.And Bright Sessions, which is another (incredible) fiction podcast and one that runs with the idea of superpowered people going to therapy. It’s most definitely scifi, but the characters aren’t your usual X-Men variety, in that they’re messy in every sense of the word and everyone’s dealing with something. It’s almost like a self-help guide disguised as a scifi story and I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

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  • They show us that no matter who you are–how successful and powerful and magical–being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Having powers doesn’t preclude you from having doubts. Being strong doesn’t shield you from being broken. And there’s comfort to be found there. We can look at that and feel less alone in our struggles.

 

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Now let’s look at some of the specific character types and examples of them in media!

The Incompetent Hero

A story starring an incompetent hero doesn’t have to be a comedy of errors. Nor does it mean they should stay incompetent from beginning to end.

For me, it means being thrust into a position the character is wholly unprepared for and every step from there on is a hard, awkward learning process riddled with stumbling blocks and many steps backwards. And maybe it takes them a little longer to pick up on certain skills–things like politicking and swordplay don’t come overnight (or overweek or overmonth). Side characters may even have to help prop them up until they can stand on their own. And just as in real life, there’s nothing shameful about that.

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Sansa Stark from ASoIAF/GoT is the biggest example that comes to mind: a sheltered girl who likes pretty boys and the lure of the city and is very good at embroidery. A girl who’s thrown into a pit of vipers and tries her best to learn and survive.

Sansa has also unwittingly become the biggest example of the issue surrounding people’s response to these fish-out-of-water characters, usually the female ones–that they’re annoying and useless and whiny and “Why doesn’t she do x and y and z?” and “Arya is SO much better.” (On the flip side, if they’re “too competent” they’re called Mary Sues. Female characters just can’t catch a fucking break, can they?)

A character who’s bad at something doesn’t make them a bad character. It makes them normal. Relatable. Human. And while a quiet story about learning and survival may not be as a exciting for people as one with swordfights, it’s nonetheless a journey of courage and strength.

I find it interesting (read: frustrating) that WW2 fiction nowadays are often filled with fish-out-of-water heroes and readers gobble them up, and yet when it comes to speculative fiction–fantasy and scifi, especially–people have so little patience for them. Which kind of makes sense–different readership, different expectations–but also not at all, because shouldn’t we expect more incompetent characters in a world that demands that they win wars, fight/befriend dragons, and juggle fire balls all at the same time?

 

“I’m Fine (But Really, I’m Breaking Inside)” Hero

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I see the “I’m FINE” trait more often with side characters than main ones which is kind of a shame. The fun thing about these characters is that from the outside they resemble your typical heroes: proactive, capable, and confident. But peel back some layers and you start to see cracks, which then resolve into chasms.

These are characters who try so damn hard to project an aura of okayness, both to themselves and to others, that they can’t tell where the pretense ends and where their real feelings begin.

Karin Lowachee does this beautifully with Jos Musey in Warchild, as does Seth Dickinson with the indelible Baru Fisher in Baru Cormorant. And if you want non-speculative stories (because heroes can exist outside of SFF settings), Neil Josten in All for the Games series is another great example.

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“Baby, I’m a Fuck-Up” Hero

This part got LONG so I cut some of it out and will probably make a separate post on it at some point. But here’s the gist: we need more fictional characters who fuck up. It’s especially important nowadays when social media has us privy to every morsel of success your friends and family and random strangers have achieved. The amount of pressure that’s placed on young people to get the perfect grades, get accepted into this and that college, get ‘x’ number of degrees by the age ‘y’ is ridiculous and makes you feel like there’s zero room for mistakes. Either you walk that tightrope from end to end or you crash and burn. There’s no in-between. And seeing more of these kinds of heroes in media might have saved me an ambulance bill.

And people can say that’s giving fiction too much credit, but here’s the thing: art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of our world and it, in turn, feeds back into the world as a reflection of the things we want to see more of. And if we see more characters in books and movies and games who genuinely mess up and are made stronger for it, then that’s kind of an invitation to ourselves to be less fearful and more forgiving of our failures.

And I honestly believe that can save lives.

Some wonderful examples of these characters include Millie Roper from The Arcadia Project series, who I would give my left arm for, and Mae Borowski from the game  Night in the Woods. She’s a pansexual college-dropout with depression, and I would happily give my other arm for her.

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Awkward, Antisocial, and Shy Hero

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Eliot of In Other Lands is unlike any other protagonist I’ve come across in YA fantasy. To be blunt, he starts out as a kind of a little shithead: he’s prickly and awkward, says the wrong things at the wrong times, makes the worst first impressions and consistently gets on people’s nerves. But it works because it doesn’t come from a place of “I’m doing this because I’m an asshole and want to fuck with people,” but rather, “I’m terrible with social interactions and I feel out of place in this world.”

And how beautiful and necessary is it to see a teenage hero who’s not all that nice?

These characters tell you that it’s okay that you don’t know what to say or how to act in certain situations. You’ll step on the wrong feet and piss people off and that’s fine because that’s life and you’ll learn from it (hopefully).

And seeing that kind of sentiment in media is such a weight off your back, you know? Especially when you’re young and still trying to figure yourself out.

 

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Murderbot from The Murderbot Diaries

People adore this series and for good reason. Personally it doesn’t do much new in terms of plot and worldbuilding (from what I’ve read so far anyway. I still have two books to go), but character-wise it’s everything. Because the story is all about murderbot, and murderbot would much rather spend its time alone watching dramas than interacting with a group of people. I mean, come on–an awkward, introverted protagonist in scifi? And an A.I. at that??

Why isn’t that more of a thing in fiction?

 

 

 

“Save the World? Sorry, I Can’t. I Have to Wash My Hair” Hero

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AKA reluctant heroes.

So, I have this weird attraction to the scenario of characters being offered the role of a  hero or Chosen One or whatever, and them responding with, “Thanks but no thanks” because they feel that there are more important things to worry about. Like, take some penniless college student trying to juggle six classes per semester along with a part-time job, and then one day a Chosen One Messenger bursts through their door yelling, “Guess what, Harry? Yer a–”

“Chosen One. Yeah, I know. And what’s the monthly salary on that?”

“Er, well. You’ll earn satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions will herald the salvation of– “

“Wow, tempting! But I think I’ll pass.”

“This isn’t an optional–“

“Plus, I’m not really Chosen One material, you know? I mean, the other day I dropped my Starbucks cup on the way to chem class and didn’t even bother to pick it up. I don’t think you want a litterer as the poster child for your quest, do you?”

“Well, it’s not–“

“Try the guy next door. He volunteers at the animal shelter or something so he’s, like, literally saving puppies and kittens in his spare time. There’s your Chosen One.”

“But–“

“Also, my name’s not Harry.”

…Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

But yes, reluctant heroes! Heroes who, for whatever reason–maybe because they’re afraid of fighting, maybe they’re super busy and this whole quest business is incredibly disruptive to their livelihood, maybe they just really like sleeping in during the weekends–aren’t all that enthused about their new role.

It’s not that they have a disdain for the continued survival of humanity. It’s just that, in their world, “continued survival of humanity” ranks a few entries below things like “Pass the ochem exam” and “Don’t mess up that date on Friday” and “Do something about the gnomes that are eating all the vegetables in the garden.”

I love them because they’re relatable and cathartic and exude Tired Millennial energy. And sometimes I feel like there’s an unspoken rule that SFF heroes need to be eager adrenaline junkies and glory hounds. And those are great! They’re fun! But not everyone wants to risk their lives to save the world. Not everyone wants to be kings and queens and politicians and insert themselves into every major event that shakes up a nation. Some people just want to live their lives peacefully in relative comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Jalan from the
Red Queen’s War series is a great example of how such a character can be done well. At the start of the story, his life basically boils down to gorgeous women, good food, comfortable bed, and …that’s…about it. That’s the height of his aspiration. Well, until he gets dragged into a war against his will. Then he adds “Don’t die” to the list.

While Jalan grows as a person over the course of the series, he still remains true to who he is, in that he’s not going to be leading nations and giving inspirational speeches anytime soon. Yet he’s still, against all odds, a hero.

And I find that super endearing.

 

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And there you go! What are your thoughts on these characters? Send me all your juicy, juicy thoughts!

 

Reviews: Contagion & Immunity by Erin Bowman – Biological Space Horror and Maple Walnut Ice Cream

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Title: Contagion (Contagion 1)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 432 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

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This is one of those “I liked it! The end!” books, so the review is going to be obscenely short.

Contagion offers something I desperately want to see more of in sci-fi: biological space horror. Bowman combines the fear of outer space with that of alien biological entities–all the more scary because they’re microscopic–and creates a entertaining, claustrophobic tale with breakneck pacing and moments that are genuinely creepy.

It also boasts a fairly large cast and multiple PoVs, with an intern named Thea being the central character. I loved the fact that Thea’s not a leader–not your typical confident SFF hero with a smart tongue. She’s introverted yet resourceful and, being the youngest of the crew, feels she has something to prove. Some of the other characters aren’t as developed as she is, but Bowman gives you just enough information to keep you interested in their well-being (or demise).

I do wish the effect of the contagion was less…mundane than what it turned out to be. Something a little more visceral and insidious. Because after the reveal of the “monsters” (space zombies, essentially) a lot of the initial horror was lost. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and tension leading up to that moment so much that I’m mostly willing to forgive it.

And…that’s all you need to know, really. Go read it. You’ll have fun.

And, hey, Netflix? Get on it. I needed a movie adaptation yesterday.

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Title:
Immunity (Contagion 2)
Author: Erin Bowman
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: Microbiology, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Thea, Coen, and Nova have escaped from Achlys, only to find themselves imprisoned on a ship they thought was their ticket to safety. Now the nightmare they thought they’d left behind is about to be unleashed as an act of political warfare, putting the entire galaxy at risk.

To prevent an interstellar catastrophe, they’ll have to harness the evil of the deadly Achlys contagion and deploy the only weapons they have left: themselves.

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Immunity is a completely different beast to Contagion in terms of genre and plot focus. So much that I got mental whiplash reading them back-to-back.

Here, the biological horror slips away into space politics and human-on-human horror. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping we’d get to explore more of the contagion, and instead it’s relegated to the role of a side charactera chess piece in the conflict between the Radicals and the Union–and in the process some of what made Contagion interesting.

I don’t want to rag on an author for choosing to take a story in a completely different direction from what I was expecting because it’s ultimately their creative vision, but I can’t say I’m not nursing a spot of disappointment. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and asking for Strawberry Cheesecake but getting Maple Walnut instead. I have nothing against Maple Walnut; it’s still a great flavour and life is too short to be prejudiced against any flavour of ice cream (except Bubblegum which is a devil’s concoction and not in a sinfully good way). But it’s no Strawberry Cheesecake, is it?

That being said, I still had fun with it. The characters are bigger focus in this sequel and we get to learn more about the three characters and see their relationship develop into something more solid. A new member also joins the cast: a medic-in-training named Amber who surprised me in the best way. Give me all the soft characters who seem meek at first glance but reveal themselves to have nerves of steel. And there’s no denying Bowman is a great storyteller. She knows how to balance action with intrigue and quiet character moments, and the ending wraps everything up neatly.

Overall, this is a fun, addictive duology that I recommend to anyone with an interest in microbiology and space thriller/horror, and doesn’t mind a bit of genre-swapping.

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Thank you to Wunderkind PR for providing the review copies. All opinions are my own.

Review: Destroy all Monsters – Messy with a Chance of Dinosaurs

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Title: Destroy all Monsters
Author: Sam J. Miller
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Contemporary
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 400 (hardback)

Rating: 4.0/10

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Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.

Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.

As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth—together.

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CW: Child abuse

So. I really, really like Sam Miller. The first reason being that he’s one of those writers who takes outlandish ideas and doesn’t hesitate–just dives headfirst into them. I mean, his novels so far include a cyberpunk rebellion story starring a woman who’s an orcamancer, a villain origin story about a boy whose eating disorder gives him superpowers, and now a dual perspective story about a girl with magical camera powers and her best friend who lives in his imaginary world filled with monsters and dinosaurs. Even though they don’t always work (ahem, foreshadowing), they’re still memorable and push the boundaries of what speculative fiction can achieve. And I’ll always love creators who take chances.

The second reason is that there’s always a heavy thread of compassion running through his stories. You can tell he’s writing them because he truly cares about people–the marginalized, the lost, the broken–and wants to shine a spotlight on their struggles.

Or maybe reading The Art of Starving flipped a switch in my brain and now every book of his I read feels like a heart-to-heart conversation. Either way, genuine goodness and imagination makes for a lethal combination.

Well, Destroy all Monsters has both of those, which is fantastic, but for me it severely falters in the storytelling department, ultimately making this a disappointment.

The main culprit behind the issues? Alternating PoVs.

We switch back and forth between Ash’s chapter, which shows the MCs’ lives as normal highschool students, with Solomon dealing with severe trauma, and Solomon’s chapter, which takes place in an alternate fantasy world where Ash is a princess-in-hiding. The problem is that the blurb and the early part of the story has you thinking that Solomon’s chapters are all occurring in his head. So I spent half of the book trying to figure out where the two PoVs line up, because surely some aspects of Ash’s PoV should be seeping into Solomon’s.

But they don’t line up–at least, not until the end, and even then the connection is tenuous.

The characters in Solomon’s PoV are the same people as the ones in Ash’s PoV, but their personalities, actions, and motivations differ (well, only slightly with the personalities). So basically you’re getting two different plots–starring two sets of characters–crammed into one 400-page book, and neither of them is developed enough to be engaging.

Also, friendship is a huge theme in the story but because of the alternating format, we don’t spend enough time with either sets of Ash and Solomon to get a good feel of what their relationship is like.

But the reveal at the end regarding Solomon’s world has to be the biggest letdown because it turns the narrative from a “Exploration of Mental Health via Fantasy” story to a “I’m Suffering from an Identity Crisis” story. It strips away the emotional impact that the previous chapters were building up to and I found the result messy and unsatisfying.

So yeah…Sorry, Sam.

I really dig Solomon’s dinosaur mount, though.

 

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

Interview with Sam J. Miller – Destroy all Monsters

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A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.

Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.

Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.

As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth—together.

Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

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I’m super excited to be joined here today by Sam Miller, author of Blackfish City, The Art of Starving, and his most recent YA release, Destroy all Monsters.

It’s got friendships and dinosaurs and photography magic and–

You know what? I’ll just let him tell it.

 

Destroy all Monsters

Hi, Sam! Thank you so much for being here today! I haven’t read DESTROY ALL MONSTERS yet but if it’s anything like THE ART OF STARVING, I’m sure I’ll be crying in a fetal position while hugging it to my chest. To start off, can you share a bit about Solomon and Ash and some of the things they’re going through in the story?

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is the story of Solomon, a gay teenage photographer in a city full of monsters and magic, who is trying to save his best friend Ash – the Refugee Princess – from a conspiracy trying to destroy all magic. But it’s also the story of Ash, a regular teenager in the real world, who is trying to save her best friend Solomon from a mental health crisis. As their quests progress, these two worlds begin to collide.

 

What was the main inspiration behind the story? I know this is a cliche, but it’s a question I never get tired of asking because the answers can be so unexpected.

I’ve always wanted to write a story that was set in two separate worlds, half gritty contemporary and half fantasy novel, because I love both those genres and the different kinds of fun you can have with each! DESTROY ALL MONSTERS was born the way lots of my stuff is born – the characters walked up to me and introduced themselves and then slapped me around until I did what they wanted me to do. In this case it was a pair of troubled teens, best friends, from different worlds, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally a story set in two very different genres – and have those worlds collide in wild and crazy ways.

 

I love, LOVE how you combine SFF elements with the topic of mental health in your books–your first YA story was about an eating disorder that manifests as fantastical powers, and now your second one revolves around trauma and monsters. What draws you to write these kinds of stories?

Well, being queer was considered a mental illness until the 1960s! And being queer is totally a superpower. So I’m definitely drawn to aspects of our experience that we are trained to perceive as negative or bad, or illnesses is to be cured, they’re really just different aspects of our self. Life is full of wonder and magic, and the things that we may be infuriated or depressed or miserable about are also things we can make peace with and find power in.

 

This is your third published novel (which is incredible!!) and I’m sure you’ve gotten hundreds of feedback from readers (including myself), but what are some of the favourite things you’ve heard over the years, from both teens and adults?

I’ve gotten a ton of great responses from people, especially young folks, who have let me know that my work is help them process painful or traumatic or confusing aspects of their own experience, and that of course is always my highest goal as an artist. Life is hard, and full of suffering we don’t want and don’t deserve, and great art is here to help us make peace with the world as it is. So just like great books and movies and music have helped me stay alive, I am always gratified to hear that my own work has had similar impact on others.

 

Pride month will be over when this interview goes up, but since there’s never a bad month for queer books, what are some recent LGBTQ+ reads that you want to recommend?

I can’t wait for the next book by Mark Oshiro! And ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING BY KACEN CALLENDER. And I’m super excited for How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters, The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, and Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All The Best, and We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

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author
Sam J. Miller is the Nebula-Award-winning author of The Art of Starving (HarperTeen), one of NPR’s Best Books of 2017. His second novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press/USA; Orbit/UK) was a “Must Read” according to Entertainment Weekly and O: The Oprah Magazine, and one of the best books of 2018 according to the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and more. Joan Rivers once asked him if he was gay (HE IS!). He got married in a guerrilla wedding in the shadow of a tyrannosaurus skeleton. He lives in New York City.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr | Facebook

Best Reads of 2018 (“Let’s Time Travel Back 6 Months, Shall We?” Edition) – Awards Feat. Art, Balloons, and Some Very Special Guests

[Note: This is a LONG intro, so feel free to scroll down to the actual list portion! But if you’ve snuck a peek and are wondering why there are photos of janky art underneath the gorgeous book covers, then read on]

Yup, I see you squinting at the title! And I’m here to tell you that you read it right.

So you might be thinking, “But Kathy, we’re over halfway through 2019. People are posting lists of their favourite 2019 books already! There’s late and there’s fashionably late and then there’s THIS. Why didn’t you post it back in January like all the normal people did? What the heck have you been doing?

Well, I’d love to give a really cool answer to that. Like, “I’m a secret agent for a society that seeks out artifacts that cause temporal rifts and I spent 6 months in Peru doing reconnaissance.”

Or “I was kayaking out in the ocean and a freak storm blew me off course, but I was rescued by pod of killer whales who then whisked me away to their cavern lair. I spent the last 6 months trying to convince them that I am not, in fact, their great whale goddess reincarnated into human form.”

But my actual, not-so-cool answer? Anxiety.

So for those who don’t know or remember, I started getting into art–specifically watercolour–11ish months ago (you can read about my art angst here). And in January, while I was compiling my Best of 2018 list, I got this brilliant idea: I should paint the characters from the books posing with the awards, but instead of giving them fancy trophies, I can pretend that I only had a $20 budget, so I had to raid the dollar store for cheap badges, balloons, and flowers instead. That’ll be fun, right?!

 

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Mm. Yeah.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about watercolour, it’s that it’s a lot like what I imagine babysitting monkeys would be. The idea is super attractive–they’re spontaneous and independent and kind of unpredictable, which is what makes them so charming and fun. This will be EASY.

And then a week later the monkeys have completely taken over your house. There’s one swinging from the ceiling lights, another one’s chucking produce out of the refrigerator, and you’ve locked yourself in the car, as they swarm around you, wondering how your life took such a turn.

 

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Which is to say…it’s not easy.

And it didn’t take me long to convince myself that this award idea was the worst ever. I was getting tired of drawing balloons, I wasn’t happy with some of the paintings but I also didn’t want to redo them, and the thought of showing these to authors whose works I admire made me want to stick a chopstick in my eye. So I ended up burying the post deep in my draft folder.

And today I’m digging it out of the ashes.

Because here’s the second thing I learned about watercolour: it demands that you be brave. It pushes you to try things without not really knowing what will happen, and knowing it could very well mess up the entire piece. It forces you to look at your mistakes and just shrug.

So this is me shrugging.

And I’m going to start by taking you all on a little trip!

Where, you ask?

Through space and time, my friends. WE’RE TRAVELING BACK TO JANUARY.

Pick your poison!

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Hop in! Strap up! Brace against the railings or walls or whatever safety mechanisms are inside the TARDIS (I’ve watched a grand total of 3/4 episode of Doctor Who in my life. I have no idea what the inside of a TARDIS looks like). And if you chose the time turner, tuck your elbows in and take ten deep breaths.

Okay. You ready?

Here we go!!!!!!!

*Runs around waving my arms and making swooshing noises for 15 minutes*

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[15 minutes later]

Oh hey there! I’m so glad you could join me on this glorious January day to go through my Best Reads of 2018 list.

So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books of 2018 and paintings of characters from said books posing with the balloons and flowers I’ve “awarded” them (you can click on the titles to see the full reviews).

(Two of the books are missing art, which I feel super bad about, but I’d messed up those pieces badly the first time and I just didn’t have the energy to redo them.)

 

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

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Fire Dance, the continuation to Last Song Before Night, is proof of what I already know: 1) Ilana Myer writes like her soul is on fire, and 2) I can’t talk about this series without reverting to vague pieces of imagery and too many comparisons to Damien Rice.

And those are my favourite kinds of stories–the ones that make me feel like I’m doing a disservice by breaking them down to plot, characters, and worldbuilding (but FYI, Fire Dance nails all three to perfection).

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s not afraid to be sad and that’s not something I often find in epic fantasy. And I’m not talking about the unbearable, soul-crushing kind.

It’s like when you’re watching March of the Penguins and you see the penguins huddled together to stave off the cold and some of them inevitability freeze to death and it’s terrible and sad to watch, but you also know that’s just the way of nature. And there’s raw beauty in that. There’s beauty in the resilience of these animals and characters, and there’s sadness in the penguins’ deaths, as there’s sadness in the way these characters long for things that lie just beyond their reach, because that’s what people do.

It’s the kind of sad that, after all the tears are shed, makes the world seem a notch brighter.

Ilana writes some of the most complex and real characters in modern fantasy, and Fire Dance weaves together music, magic, and the foibles of humans into a symphony that leaves the edges of my heart tattered. I sometimes do a double take when I remember she’s only published two books because it feels like I’ve been reading her stories forever.

 

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This is a six-coloured cloak and I swear the six colours are all in there somewhere!

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

I’ve never read a book that so perfectly describes the feeling of drifting. Of feeling so removed from your life that you’re floating above it and the weight of nothing becomes heavy enough to suffocate. And that contradiction–of being free but still so trapped–threatens to break you.

While that might seem like a strange praise–“This takes me back to some of the worst moments of my life and that’s why I love it”–this is one of those books that made me feel seen, and I will forever be grateful for that.

The Light Between Worlds is portal fantasy stripped bare–a story about sisterhood and strength and belonging. And it’s a ray of light for all of us who are lost and trying to find a way home.

 

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…I should definitely redo this one at some point using better paper because this was a nightmare to work with.

 

Mr. Big Empty (Hollow Folk Series) by Gregory Ashe

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Yes, I’m cheating and lumping the series into one. Think X-Men: Queer Rural Town edition with addictive plotting, stunning–absolutely stunning–mental health rep and character work that makes you shake your head and go, “This can’t be real. I’m having a fever dream. No one writes this well.” I swear, Gregory Ashe takes character writing to a level I rarely see. It might be on par with, dare I say–

Brain: “Oh, no. Nonononononono. I know what you’re going to say and you can’t just say that.”

“I’m gonna say it.”

“No, Kathy–”

“Robin Hobb.”

Collective gasps sound from my mini-me’s manning control center. One drops a stack of papers. One shuffles to a corner and starts crying softly. Another swoons with a plaintive “Catch me!” (No one does).

…So you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.

There are books that are hard-hitting and emotionally resonant.

And then there are books that opens veins.

Guess where this falls into?

 

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This piece is a LOT darker than the other ones because I didn’t actually paint it with this post in mind; it was just meant to be fanart. But it features a flower (an orchid), so I thought why not include it. Definitely doesn’t look like he’s here to collect an award, though. 😅

 

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards

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“Kathy, is this list just going to be a sad tear-fest?”

Okay. Fine. You want a happy book? Here’s a fucking happy book.

The Last Sun is exquisite. If I put on my Very Serious and Professional Content Creator voice, I can say that it’s got textbook-perfect pacing that never relents but doesn’t sacrifice worldbuilding or character work in the process. Its world is at once familiar and new, merging modern day societies with mythos from various cultures, all wrapped up in a dynamic tarot-based system of governance and magic. The story drags you up through adrenaline-pumping action and brings you down to quiet, vulnerable moments. It explores the fluidity of human connections and the idea that love between two or more people doesn’t start and end at “Wanna bang?”

My Professional? Who Am I Kidding voice:

ARRRRRRGHHHHHAAHHHHHHHHHGOREADIT

I think I’ve done almost all I can to promote this book, so really there’s only one thing left for me to do….

Ahem. Pyr, here’s my proposition to you. I am willing to do video promotions for this series in the form of interpretive dance and poetry. My credentials? Four months of ballroom lessons I took with a friend when I was 17 because he was convinced there would be waltzing at the prom and wanted to be ready (spoiler: as we weren’t in the 19th century or Hogwarts, there was no waltzing) and on-and-off years of spoken poetry.

Please. Call me.

In all seriousness, though, this is one of those stories that quietly creeps into your heart and decide they’re going to stay indefinitely. And you wake up one morning to find them pattering in the kitchen, setting out coffee (and just how the hell did they know exactly how you take it?) and then sitting across from you and chattering away like you’re old friends until you do become old friends.

And if you say, “You know, I haven’t had the best relationship with urban fantasies in the past. I just don’t think we’re compatible,” this book gives you a molten smile, reaches out a hand and says, “Let me show you something.”

And you nod and smile back like an idiot because it’s had you seduced from the first word.

 

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(Rune on the left, Brand on the right. Rune is supposed to have black hair but he somehow ended up with weird bleached highlights)

 

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

The Book of M

As someone who studies memories it’s so incredibly gratifying to come across a book that highlights their beauty in a way that’s as off-the-walls fantastical as this.

Peng Shepherd draws on the horror of memory loss and juxtaposes it with the beauty of human connections, and the result is unlike anything I’ve read before. “Genre-bending” doesn’t even begin to cover what this book does.

The Book of M has raised the bar for post-apocalypse stories and now I expect them all to include magical shadows and shifting realities.

 

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Smoke City by Keith Rosson

Smoke City

I’m a girl of simple tastes. You say, “A story about the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner who goes on a road trip to seek redemption from a possibly reincarnated Joan of Arc,” and I say, “Well, I was born to read this.”

Smoke City was the first ARC I ever read and reviewed which might suggest a wee bit of bias, but really, this is one of those “very me” books that I’m unerringly drawn to. Reincarnated historical figures (and Joan of Arc, at that, who I happen to adore)? Check. Road trips? Buckle up. Fantasy bleeding into reality? Affirmative.

Keith Rosson takes a premise that has no business of working and creates a beautiful, imaginative, soulful piece of narrative that ruminates on pasts and mistakes and the forgiveness that we deserve but can never offer to ourselves.

 

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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So this is an interesting one because I can’t exactly say I had a good time reading it and there were issues I had with some parts.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And eventually I called up a friend (who’s Japanese-Chinese and hasn’t even read the book but is blessed with a brain that actively craves–and I mean really cravesspoilers) and bullied her into a three-hour discussion on our countries’ histories and the slippery slope between loyalty and nationalism, and whether the pursuit of justice is worth it if in the process you lose all sense of who you are.

For me, that’s the mark of a book that deserves a spot on this list. It may not have been the most perfect book I read in 2018, but it was one of the most unforgettable.

 

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A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller

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So, by the end of November I was pretty confident in my best of 2018 choices. I didn’t think it likely that I’d come across another incredible book within the next month.

And then this book came along.

And one day I found it leaning on my doorway with its 70’s sweater and smiling eyes and the words of angels falling from its lips and, to take a page from Angelica Schuyler, I forgot my dang name.

A Lite Too Bright is the one non-speculative sheep of the group which should make it easy to describe but I actually find it harder because it’s, well…it’s a little bit of everything. Legacy, mental illness, 60’s/70’s protest culture, the relationship we have with our grandparents, life and the winding route it takes, and love and its ability to burrow so deep inside us that it’s what remains when everything else fades.

And poetry. Heartstopping poetry.

Miller writes with the insight of someone far older than his years and so, in turn, does Arthur Louis Pullman, the fictional author who’s at the focus of this story. Pullman is one of those people who seem to possess an inherent understanding of the world, but with that understanding comes neither cynicism or apathy but a desire to feel more keenly. His writing brims with aching amounts of passion and love–of life and the people that inhabit it–and it kills me that he’s not an actual person.

There’s a universe nestled in just a handful of his words. And I would need a universe’s worth of words to explain what this book makes me feel.

 

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City

I can talk about how incredibly rich the world of Jade City is. I can talk about its vibrant characters and a plot that seamlessly mixes politics with action. But my most favourite thing about it is that it nails the Asian family dynamic to the core. And it made me miss my own extended family badly–my roudy tight-knit family of eight cousins, four aunts and uncles, and grandparents who, despite their years, still try to look after us all.

Now, the Kaul family had to take a raincheck on this ceremony–they kind of have their hands full, what with a war and all–but they were gracious enough to send an underling to receive the awards on their behalf (Translation: I couldn’t remember what the Kauls looked like and I was too lazy to draw multiple people)

And he looks truly ecstatic to be here. I mean, look at him!

 

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(Be a Finger, they said. Prestige and honour, they said.)

The shades are there to save you from getting blinded by the sheer joy that’s emanating from his eyes.

And the flowers on his head are gladioli–derived from gladius, which is a sword–and they represent strength and integrity. I thought that was pretty fitting for the Kauls.

 

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Whew! Applause to you and me both for surviving that!

Same time next year? 😀

(Also, Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians!)

Review: Last Bus to Everland – Life Sucks But We’re in it Together

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Title: Last Bus to Everland
Author: Sophie Cameron
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: June 18th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary, Portal Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Brody Fair feels like nobody gets him: not his overworked parents, not his genius older brother, and definitely not the girls in the projects set on making his life miserable. Then he meets Nico, an art student who takes Brody to Everland, a “knock-off Narnia” that opens its door at 11:21pm each Thursday for Nico and his band of present-day misfits and miscreants.

Here Brody finds his tribe and a weekly respite from a world where he feels out of place. But when the doors to Everland begin to disappear, Brody is forced to make a decision: He can say goodbye to Everland and to Nico, or stay there and risk never seeing his family again. Will Nico take the last bus to Everland?

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“You’re magic, Fairy. Remember that.”

Surprises can be a hit or a miss for me. Sometimes it’s like sticking my hand in a mystery box and hoping nothing cuts my fingers off.

I came into Everland thinking it’d be a light and quirky story about a boy who goes to a magical world and discovers himself while befriending a band of misfits. Instead, I got something more quiet and poignant: a story about mental health and identity and what happens when life becomes too heavy to bear on your own.

So I think things worked out pretty well with this one. All fingers intact.

If you’re looking for a portal fantasy story with an emphasis on “fantasy,” this probably isn’t for you because Everland is one of the least developed portal fantasy worlds I’ve come across. That’s not entirely a criticism, though, because detailed worldbuilding wouldn’t have fit the vibe of the story. It’s supposed to be a world that’s magical in a vague and scattered kind of way, more like a virtual reality club than an actual fantasy setting–cool things to see (massive libraries, festivals, beaches) and interesting people to meet, but not a whole lot of depth to it all. A place that’s different enough from the the real world for it to be an escape.

There were definitely moments where I wished I had something more to chew on, but overall I didn’t mind it.

So what makes the book good? First of all, it’s a YA contemporay-ish novel that’s set in Scotland which already sets it apart from most of its peers. Secondly, Brody’s narration is easy and charming (I loved his Scottish brogue) and his empathy pulls your right in. Thirdly, the cast is super diverse–Everland allows people from all over the world to mingle–and they’re all interesting characters with their own little backstories.

Fourthly, and most importantly (for me, anyway): the mental health representation. Pretty much every character is struggling with something in their lives. Like Cameron’s father, for example, which was a complete surprise for me because we don’t often see father figures in media going through mental health issues. Either they’re strong and well put-together, or their illness manifests in violent and abusive tendencies. Empathetic portrayals are few and far between.

Well, serious kudos to Cameron because Brody’s father has agoraphobia and her portrayal of it is stunningly real and painful.

What I love most about the story, though, is that it explores the invisible hardships that people deal with on a daily basis–depression, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders–and the idea that just because you think someone’s life is perfect and untroubled, doesn’t mean it actually is.

When I was in undergrad, a friend opened up about how she was going through anxieties and depressive episodes and how uncertain she was about her future. Then she punctuated it by saying that I couldn’t possibly understand her feelings because I was happy; I had a loving boyfriend and knew exactly what I wanted to do once I graduated.

And well. Talk about words that make you feel small.

I get why she said it. Often times we can be so wrapped up in our own heads that we don’t see past our own darkness. And we can’t help but weigh our suffering on a scale and see how it compares to someone else’s. See whose life comes out the shittiest. But I think that’s a train of thought that only does harm in the long run, breeding resentment in a world that already has its fair share.

Life is hard and people hurt in different ways. Ways that aren’t often visible to others. Your rich and successful neighbour might be dealing with panic attacks on a regular basis. Your friend who wears a smile 24/7 might be wrestling with suicidal thoughts. You just don’t know sometimes. Your demons don’t negate the existence of other people’s demons and, conversely, other people’s demons don’t make yours worth any less. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

And the book addresses all of that in a beautifully candid way. Characters get open and honest about their feelings by the end of the story, and it’s touching to see friends and families air their problems and come together in moments of mutual understanding. A lot of “You feel that way? I’m sorry, I didn’t know that” and “I know what you mean–I’ve felt that way too.” Some people might call it cheesy; I found it cathartic.

Everland isn’t a book that had me bouncing off the walls and wanting to scream from the rooftops, but it is a book that made me feel warm and satisfied and a little wistful. Like waking up smiling from a dream and trying to chase the tail ends of it.

And sometimes that’s enough.

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