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.

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

Review: All the Bad Apples – Smoky with Old Magic

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Title: All the Bad Apples
Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books
Release Date: August 1st, 2019 (UK); August 27th (NA)
Genre(s): YA Contemporary, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Family, Women’s Rights, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, queer side characters)
Page Count: 319 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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CW: Rape, homophobia, and a myriad of casual atrocities against women (historical and modern)

When Deena’s wild older sister Mandy goes missing, presumed dead, Deena refuses to believe it’s true. Especially when letters start arriving–letters from Mandy–which proclaim that their family’s blighted history is not just bad luck or bad decisions but a curse, handed down to women from generation to generation. Mandy’s gone to find the root of the curse before it’s too late for Deena. But is the curse even real? And is Mandy still alive? Deena’s desperate, cross-country search for her beloved sister–guided only by the notes that mysteriously appear at each destination, leading her to former Magdalene laundry sites and more–is a love letter to women and a heartbreaking cathartic journey.

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“This novel was, in part, fueled by rage”

It’ll be a cold day in hell when I don’t finish a blog tour book at the last minute, it seems, so this is gonna be shorter and less effusive than I want it to be. But don’t let my procrastination take away the fact that I loved this book.

All the Bad Apples checks all my boxes: a road trip to uncover family secrets, a spotlight on women, ancient magic bleeding into the modern, and the use of past tense in a contemporary(ish) YA. It’s also the closest thing to Kali Wallace’s The Memory Trees I’ve read in the past two years, and I can’t tell you how giddy that makes me.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the prose alone makes me want to read everything Fowley-Doyle has written and will ever write in the future (and I’m kicking myself that she hasn’t been on my radar until now). It’s quiet, addicting, and sensual, and it winds through you like a drug. Add to that the atmosphere of it all–curses and storms and the scent of apples moving through the air–and you have a recipe for pure decadence.

The story is contemporary interspersed with magical realism, and the latter are appropriately magical and chilling, but what amazes me is that even the contemporary bits feel textured and rich. So very old and loaded with everything–magic, history, the lives of their ancestors reaching forward to touch them. The book understands that there are places in this world that share a space with the past. Places where the past is so looming and loud that you almost feel it as a physical presence. You move from one rundown location to the next throughout the story, all of them spilling with history, and the author makes sure that you feel the weight of each one. It’s beautifully done.

At the core of it, though, is a poignant story of a teenage girl’s attempt to break a cycle of bigotry and secrets and abuse that left me touched and seething in each equal measure.

“You tell your story and the story of your family. You speak your truth. You shatter the stigma. You hold your head up to the world and speak so that everyone else who was ever like you can recognize themselves. Can see that they aren’t alone. Can see how the past will only keep repeating itself as long as we’re kept powerless by our silence.”

I do wish the second half of the book had been a bit longer, though, and that the events leading up to the end were more drawn out. The follow through on the side characters (minus Deena’s sisters) was also kind of disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very interesting and had the foundation to be complex characters, and the romance between Deena and Cale (“short-haired punky witch girl,” in Deena’s words) was developing nicely, but their stories get neglected in the last 1/3 of the book, which is a massive shame because I feel like they had so much more to offer.

But those are small complaints.

Ultimately, All the Bad Apples is a book that deserve a place on your shelf. It’s got the atmosphere of a fable and the anger of the best feminist stories that exist in the world, and it’ll leave you with the lingering taste of apples in your mouth.

 

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Website|Goodreads|Twitter|Facebook|Tumblr|Instagram

Moïra Fowley-Doyle is half-French, half-Irish and made of equal parts feminism, whimsy and Doc Martens. She lives in Dublin where she writes magic realism, reads tarot cards and raises witch babies. Moïra’s first novel, The Accident Season, was shortlisted for the 2015 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize & the North East Teen Book Awards, nominated for the Carnegie Medal & won the inaugural School Library Association of Ireland Great Reads Award. It received two starred reviews & sold in ten territories. Her second novel, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, was published in summer 2017, received a starred review from School Library Journal and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards.

 

Giveaway (UK/Ireland)

You can win 1 of 3 copies of All the Bad Apples HERE.

 

Tour Schedule

Check out all the other stops on this tour HERE.

Five Reasons Why You Need to Read Desdemona and the Deep

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Title: Desdemona and the Deep
Author: C.S.E. Cooney
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, trans side character)
Page Count: 224 (ebook)

Rating: 9.5/10

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In Desdemona and the Deep, the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

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My god, what an absolute treasure trove this book is.

I’m a little review-weary at the moment and don’t feel like doing elaborate paragraph transitions, so I’ve made this into a “X Reasons Why” post!

 

1. The Prose

The prose, guys. The prose. If you want to see blushing described as “double roses of reverence and rapacious cupidity,” then you’re in for a treat because that’s the whole book. Rich, charismatic, whimsical, and the very definition of purple, the words melt hot in your brain and on your tongue. It’s been a while since I had this much fun with language.

 

2. A Larger-than-Life Protagonist

Desdemona is one of my favourite characters I’ve encountered this year, and hands-down my favourite female protagonist of 2019.

The thing is, she starts out as a pretty shitty person–rich and spoiled, with a dismissive let-them-eat-cake attitude. My definitive “Oh, I really don’t like you” moment was when she mentioned how she enjoys collecting art and artists, not because she cares for them, but because they make her feel prestigious and wanted.

But she grows over the course of the story, as did my opinion of her. Because despite being a prissy heiress, she’s also fun, and stubborn as heck, and her relationship with her best friend Chaz is endearing from the start (they are a magnificent duo). And she’s not some hapless heroine who inadvertently stumbles into another world. Oh no no, Desdemona will march up to the threshold of worlds and obnoxiously demand that they let her in.

There’s really no box you can shove her into, and I love that so much.

 

3. The Worldbuilding

Three worlds exist in this story. Athe for mortals; Valwode for the gentry (a mishmash of fae-adjacent creatures); and Bana, the kingdom of goblins.

If I were to sit here and write out everything I love about the worldbuilding, I’d be siting here typing out the entire book for you. So trust me when I say that it’s incredible. There are details that left me grinning and wanting to roll around in its richness. Like the notion that the fae are as affected by human art as humans are by fae magic. So things like poetry become a weapon and a shield in Valwode.

But my favourite part? How, despite all the beauty, the story doesn’t let you forget that magic has fangs. That these worlds aren’t just about glitter and gold, and their brutality goes hand in hand with beauty. There’s an almost alien quality to it that you don’t fully understand, but one you’re drawn to regardless. And those are the fae stories I want.

 

4. Themes of Justice and Art Prevailing in Darkness

This is a story about a mortal who ventures into another realm for a rescue mission. And usually, with those types of stories, the object of said rescue is a loved one–a spouse, a sibling, a child. Here, it’s not a rescue mission for the heart, but a mission to right a wrong. Because Desdemona was party to an injustice she initially ignored, and she wants to fix that. That to me is incredibly refreshing.

And from there we see the class struggles of the mortal realm (a kind of an alternate early 19th century Europe) being echoed in the magical realms, the idea that compromises exist, and Desdemona giving life back to the women who had it taken from them.

 

5. Just the Utter Joy of It All

Everything about this story, from the language to the characters to the worldbuilding is gaudy in the best way. It’s ostentatious, it’s heartfelt, it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s entertaining. You turn your head and you find something new and even more wondrous and strange than the last.

This book made me incredibly happy during a time when I desperately needed to feel happy, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

So, please, PLEASE. Give your brain a treat it sorely deserves. Go pick this up.

 

Blog Tour Review: Rotherweird – Plenty of Weird, Not a Lot of Enjoyment

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Title: Rotherweird
Author: Andrew Caldecott
Publisher: Quercus (US)
Release Date: June 9th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Alternate History
Page Count: 456 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ ~50%

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1558: Twelve children, gifted far beyond their years, are banished by their Tudor queen to the town of Rotherweird. Some say they are the golden generation; some say the devil’s spawn. But everyone knows they are something to be revered – and feared. Four and a half centuries on, cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I and still bound by its ancient laws, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history. Then an Outsider arrives, a man of unparallelled wealth and power, enough to buy the whole of Rotherweird – deeply buried secrets and all . . . Welcome to Rotherweird.

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Oh boy. I tried really hard with this because I’d never DNFed a blog tour book before and the idea made me feel incredibly guilty. So I pushed myself to the halfway mark before throwing in the towel. Here’s the way I’m trying to look at it. The book clearly isn’t for me, and an extra 200+ pages probably isn’t going to change that. And if I keep reading, it’ll forever be embedded in my brain as not only “that book I disliked,” but also, “that book I disliked and was forced to finish.” And that’s a badge of resentment I don’t think the book deserves.

Well, enough assuaging my conscience. Let’s get to why Rotherweird didn’t work.

I think you’ll have to enjoy a particular writing style to get into the book–scholarly, with dense descriptions that are far too dry for my tastes. There are definitely sections where the story benefits from the prose, adding to the richness of Rotherweird and its inhabitants, but for the most part they pile up into a thick wall of Too Much, and I found myself glazing over a lot of it.

As for the characters, they’re varied and quirky but in a very distant, sterile kind of way. There are also far too many of them, and none are distinct enough for me to become invested in their story.

The plot has to be my biggest gripe, though. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just an idiot. But when it comes to books that have complex, criss-crossing plotlines, I prefer the ones that are more…accessible. The ones that cordially invite you to partake in their mystery. Because that’s what stories are–a conversation between the reader and the writer. But when a plot becomes too convoluted, too inaccessible, and you lose the readers in the process, the story starts morphing into a monologue, and no one wants that. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens here.

Overall, the premise of the book is fantastic and it’s got individual elements here and there that I liked, but none of that gelled together into a story that I could enjoy.

 

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

Reviews: The Border Keeper & The Phantom Forest – Two Underworld Stories, One Good, One Ehh

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Title: The Border Keeper
Author: Kerstin Hall
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Gods, Demons
Page Count: 240 (ebook)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.

The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic―the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses―and devastatingly personal―a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.

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She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of ya Wenzta, the border keeper.

This isn’t quite the romp through a fantastical underworld I had in mind (as in, not as fast-paced or rich in detail as I’d imagined), but you know when you read or watch or play something that gives you this inexplicable yet pleasant vibe and it just kind of sticks with you for the rest of the day? Yeah, that’s this book.

The worldbuilding is really where the story shines–a mix of weird horror and your typical fantasy fare. You get demon-god politics, crab children, and horrific and imaginative consequences for breaking Mkalis rules (the most important one being “always tell the truth”) and there’s an incredible quietness to it all that I loved and found to be strangely addictive. It’s reminiscent of the Souls games, the way everything feels forlorn without being grisly, and expansive without being crammed to the walls with details and metaphors. And the wistful tone meshes really well with the story’s theme of death and rebirth. It’s one of those worlds that feels subdued but still creative, and I think that’s a quality that’s underappreciated in fantasy.

I wasn’t as enamoured with the characters, unfortunately. While the history of the Eris’s role as the border keeper and her relationship with the gods and demons of Mkalis is fascinating, I wasn’t interested in Eris as a person. Same with Vasethe, who was weirdly bland and non-present throughout the whole story, except for maybe near the end.

Overall, though, this is a lovely debut and I’d love to see more stories set in the same world.

 


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Title: The Phantom Forest
Author: Liz Kerin
Publisher: Inkshares
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Demons
Page Count: 336 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Every tree in the sacred Forest of Laida houses a soul. And each of those souls will return to the mortal world for many future lives. But not all of them deserve to.

Seycia’s father told her this story as a child―a story of the most holy place in the Underworld, the Forest of Laida, where all souls go to rest before embarking on a new life. But Seycia’s father is dead now, and his killer has put a target on her back.

After she is chosen for her village’s human sacrifice ritual, Seycia is transported to the Underworld and must join forces with Haben, the demon to whom she was sacrificed. Together, they journey to the forest in the Underworld where all souls grow in a quest to destroy the tree of the man who killed her.

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This mashup of a post-apocalyptic world with an underworld was really intriguing at first, and I was invested in maybe…the first 1/4 of it, but sadly the main characters ended up falling flat and I couldn’t find myself being invested in any of their journey. Haben, the human-turned-demon boy, was probably the most interesting of the three protagonists and even then it still felt like his personality only went skin-deep.

The worldbuilding is definitely its biggest asset; the various details of the underworld are vivid and often genuinely creepy, and I wished that the entirety of the story was set there (the idea of underworld soul trees is fantastic).

And the two villains–one human, the other a demon–overshadow Sychia, Miko, and Haben as the stars of the story. They’re magnetic in a way that the protagonists aren’t, and while I’ll always love despicable baddies that I can sink my teeth into, if I’m rooting for them over the heroes for no reason other than that they actually feel more three dimensional than the latter, that’s kind of a big problem.

Overall, the story didn’t do much for me, but the good news is that I’m 1000% in the minority and many other readers did love it, so if you’re into underworld stories then it wouldn’t hurt to try this one out.

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead – A Gritty Queer Paranormal Mystery that I’m Side-Eyeing

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Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Emma Berquist
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: ???

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With a touch, Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it’s a gift. But to Lexi it’s a curse—one that keeps her friendless and alone. All that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside a club.

Jane doesn’t go to the afterlife quietly. Her ghost remains behind, determined to hunt down her murderer, and she needs Lexi’s help. In life, Jane was everything Lexi is not—outgoing, happy, popular. But in death, all Jane wants is revenge.

Lexi will do anything to help Jane, to make up for the fact that she didn’t—couldn’t—save Jane’s life, and to keep this beautiful ghost of a girl by her side for as long as possible.

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Here’s a fun dilemma:

What rating do you give a book that contains literally everything you love–a complex bisexual female protagonist, a gritty paranormal mystery, exploration of mental health, ghost girls, f/f romance–and executes most of them very well, but then you come across three or four lines that make you go, “I’m sorry, what??” and put a damper on the whole thing?

Asking for a friend. (Hashtag-I-am-that-friend)

Okay, let’s backtrack for a bit. Missing, Presumed Dead is like the queer YA version of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, starring a girl who can tell the how’s and when’s of someone’s death by touching them skin-to-skin. Except I’m not sure ‘YA’ is even the right label because many of the characters either feel older than their teenage years or are actually older; personally, I think it’d sit more comfortably as a New Adult.

As far as paranormal mysteries go, it’s fairly typical of what you’d find in a lot of adult books: a club that doubles as a sanctuary for people with magical abilities (witches, psychics, etc), a sudden surge of missing and/or dead kids, and a ghost girl with no recollection of how she died. Thing is, though, we don’t really find these kinds of stories in YA–especially ones tinted with shades of horror and noir–so this was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me. The mystery is engaging, the pacing is quick, the worldbuilding just vivid enough to hold your interest, and the protagonist is….well. The protagonist is messy and sharp all over and I was such a huge fan in the beginning.

Lexi is, to be blunt, miserable, and understandably so, considering how her abilities don’t allow her to engage in physical affection and intimacy of any kind. Through Lexi’s lens the story becomes a portrait of loneliness and depression, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore stories that dive deep into the psychological baggage that comes with having supernatural powers.

Really, the only major issue I had was with the love interest Jane, who just isn’t as interesting or well-developed as Lexi.

And then I ran up against The Problem, which starts with this little passage:

“My Jane has never looked this carefree, this innocent. My Jane is angry and wild and a little cruel. I know which one I prefer.”

and this one:

“I’d rather have her furious and bitter, I’d rather have her sad, anything but this scornful, spiteful ghost sneering at me across the seat.”

It’s perfectly normal to desire a connection with someone who understands first-hand the pain you’re going through. I get it. I’ve been there. And that’s what initially drives Lexi and Jane together. But you can’t build a relationship on a foundation of mutual suffering. “I can fix your pain and you can fix mine” may sound sweet and romantic, but what it often ends up becoming is an echo chamber of hurt coupled with codependency.

And wanting someone to remain miserable and fucked-up, because that’s how you feel most of the time, is selfish and unhealthy. I’m all for YA stories exploring unhealthy relationships or unhealthy mindsets regarding relationships, but I need them to address the fact that yes, this is, in fact, unhealthy and here’s how we can move forward from that, which this book never does, and that sits so wrong with me.

And the crazy thing is that the core this issue can be fixed by just taking out those four lines.

So yeah. I’m conflicted. And frustrated. And I spent more time trying to figure out what rating to give the book than writing the actual review.

Which is why I’m giving it a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the end.

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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!

 

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.

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