Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

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News & Review: The Hanged Man (Tarot Sequence 2) – I Got Blurbed On a Book Cover

So um. A thing happened several months ago.

Well, okay, a bunch of things happened. And they’re all interconnected and relevant to THE thing I want to talk about, so let’s just go through them in chronological order. Imagine the countdown from Hamilton‘s “Ten Duel Commandments.”

 

☀️ Number one! ☀️

I got to read one of my top two most anticipated books of the year–AKA K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (yes, The Hanged Man that I’ve been blathering about on Twitter and doing promo for)–and I wrote a review for it on Goodreads.

 

☀️ Number two! ☀️

My brain tried to coerce me. “Listen. I know have your hands full with a day job and volunteer work and art studies and a blog and, like, social obligations–whatever those are–but don’t you think doing a release promo for this book would be fun? And sexy?”

And friends, I’m a sucker. I fell for it.

 

☀️ Number three! ☀️

I was asked if I wanted to be featured on the book as a blurb, and once I gathered my jaw off the floor, I immediately said yes. Elation was closely followed by “Oh shit, I only spent 20 minutes writing that review.” But my thought was that it was going to be inside the book, within the first few pages, and squashed between a handful of blurbs from other bloggers. So no biggie if it’s not super polished, right?

 

☀️ Number four! ☀️

I got an email with the final proof of the cover.

…….Eh? Cover??

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Scott Reintgen! T. Frohock! And… *squints* this other person?

Ahem. Yes! Hi! Hello!

Imposter Syndrome, meet the pointy end of my sword. (Named “This is so beyond what I was expecting that my brain didn’t even have a chance to freak out”)

The Tarot Sequence series has been a source of incredible opportunities and friendships, and the fact that my first blurb opportunity was for this book says something loud and precious. And I’ll be holding onto it for a while.

Also, did you know publishers allowed swearing on their full-release covers?? Because I didn’t, and this was a VERY cool way of finding out.

 


 

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Author: K.D. Edwards
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy, LitRPG (lite)
Subject(s)/Theme(s): LGBTQ+ (everyone), Found Family
Publisher: Pyr
Release Date: December 17th, 2019
Page Count: 386 (paperback)

Rating: 10/10*

(*There’s a lot of bias with this rating. Like, a LOT. It’s a beautifully muddied water of personal relationships and life events…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

CW: talk and implications of sexual abuse, rape, and pedophilia

 

Hey, K.D? Sequel Syndrome just called. It wants you to send some pillows and blankets to the titanium coffin you just buried it in.

Clearly The Hanged Man is the product of a mortal man making deals with a high demon, because it has no business–none whatsoever–being this damn good. Disgusting, paradoxical levels of good.

I mean, we’ve seen New Atlantis before, we know these characters, so the honeymoon glow should have worn off at least a little, because that’s how sequels tend to go. The world shouldn’t feel just as heartpounding and unexpected as the first time I read The Last Sun–like the jolt of a first kiss experienced over and over again. There is ZERO logic to that.

And yet. And yet.

This book takes everything you loved about The Last Sun and takes it up a level. And another. And another. And then just when you think, “Well, that has to be the peak,” it smiles and takes you up into another building stacked on top of this one. Because the last 1/3 of the book? Fucking brace yourselves. It is an unending, head-spinning series of revelations and backs against the wall and consequent choices–choices that left me yelling and shaking with adrenaline–and Atlantean magic pushed beyond limits to mesmerizing results. It’s characters navigating their vulnerabilities and fears with one another, and I lost track of the number of times I cried.

Brand said, fiercely, in a breaking voice. “You’re my boy. You can do anything. Anything.”


Things get darker (more so than I’d expected). Stakes are much higher. The banter and the jokes are even better. And the worldbuilding is off the charts. We also get to see Rune and Brand interacting with small children, to hilarious and surprisingly good results, and that’s something I can’t get enough of.

Oh, and for those who felt that TLS was a bit of a white sausage fest (and I say that with affection)–rest assured! Several new major characters make their appearance in this book, many of them female and/or POC, and they’re all written with exquisite care.

This beautiful messy family just got a lot bigger and I cannot wait for everyone to experience it.

 

☀️ My Review of The Last Sun (Tarot Sequence 1)


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Review & Paint: Dark and Deepest Red – Beautiful But Flawed

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Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore


Genre(s):
YA Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Magical Realism
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date:
Jan 14th, 2020
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

 

What I Liked

 

🌹  The subject of learning to navigate life with an identity that people might not accept or understand. That you might not fully accept or understand.

🌹  The Strausbourg storyline about the Romani and the dancing plague was something I wasn’t familiar with; it’s interesting and educational and I wanted more of it. And I seriously love the author’s decision to tell the 1518 chapters in present tense and the modern chapters in past tense.

🌹  The description of forests. And nature in general. Just…UGH, my heart. I’m convinced Anna-Marie was a magical woodland creature in a previous life. “They’re one body…Something can be one tree, and a whole wood.”

🌹  McLemore has a way of taking small moments–small, seemingly inconsequential moments–and giving them incredible significance and texture. Nothing is without meaning. Even when there’s not much happening with the plot, you still feel like you’re being pulled into the extraordinary.

I read the book a few weeks ago, and there are parts of it I don’t really remember, but I do have a very vivid memory of red shoes dancing along a reservoir edge; wolves slipping past trees; Alifair stripping off his shirt and daring Lala to deny who he is; and so forth. Flashes of images that burn into your mind. And that, my friends, is pure magic.

 

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“We’re aspen trees, you and I”

 

What I Didn’t Like

 

🌹  I was never super invested in Rosella and Emil’s storyline. Partly because the 1518 setting was more interesting, but mostly because I didn’t think too much of Rosella and Emil as characters. I loved some of their scenes, which are gorgeous and awash with colour and imagery, and I could appreciate and relate to a lot of their struggles (trying to fit in with your community, deliberately ignoring your family history). But as characters they felt kind of bland. And, I don’t know, I just wanted an entire book of Lala and Alifair.

🌹  The connection between the 1518 storyline and the modern day storyline felt clunky, especially at the end. And the last few legs of the story’s journey didn’t feel very satisfying.

🌹  Emil/Rosella’s chapters end up explaining the message of Lala’s story near the end, which veers too close to spoonfeeding and takes away some of the depth of the ending.

Overall, it’s a beautifully flawed story about self-acceptance and coming to terms with your cultural roots, and the special kind of freedom and power that they offer. It’s my first experience with Anna-Marie McLemore, and though I doubt this is the book that people would recommend from their bibliography, I got a good taste of their style and…I’m a big fan.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)


 

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DNF Reviews: Tarnished are the Stars & The Good Luck Girls – Why does YA Hate Me? (I’m Open to Suggestions)

Here’s a fun stat for you: I DNFed 5 books in the past month and a half, and four of them were YA SFF. And I’m pretty sure they’re at least 60% responsible for the reading slump I’m currently in.

Conclusion?

1) Recent YA SFF is just missing a lot of the stuff I crave. Also, I should be more selective about the books that I request, and for god’s sake, read some reviews beforehand.

or

2) I’ve been (VERY UNFAIRLY) cursed by the bookish gods and now I must travel to the heart of the Northern Canadian woods to capture a Wendigo and make an offering–

Yeah, clearly 2 is the way to go.

 

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(Stopping point: ~45%)

You say “steampunk” and “divided loyalties” and “cat and mouse” and “queer”; I say,  “Please–I offer you my first born.”

Well, I hope the bookish gods accept cancellations because Tarnished are the Stars is definitely not worth my first born. Or any of my born for that matter.

I always say that I can forgive poor worldbuildng if I’m able to connect with the characters. But there’s a limit to that. And my limit is this book. I found the writing to be so sparse of detail to the point where it felt like a slice-of-life contemporary than a sci-fi–heavy with dialogue and a vague sense of setting, which isn’t at all helped by how short each POV chapter is.

And a slice-of-life-esque worldbuilding is fine if the story itself is slice-of-life. This book? Nothing close to that. It’s a steampunk space opera with intrigue and a organics-versus-technology plotline, and therefore I want to see something more than Scene A – generic store, Scene B – generic mansion, and Scene C – generic field.

 

 


Now, this next book has the exact OPPOSITE problem. So at least my DNF reads were…varied? Yay?

The Good Luck Girls

(Stopping point: ~38%)

ME: So, it’s kind of weird how there are no characters in The Good Luck Girls…but at least the setting is neat!

*vague whisperings in brain cavity*

ME: Uh, what do you mean I’m looking at the characters?

Ah yes. The good old problem of “interesting worldbuilding, flat/invisible characters.” This is a more familiar territory for me.

Let’s get to the positive first: the worldbuilding and the general premise of the story is super fascinating. There are two groups of people who live in Arketta, dustbloods and fairbloods, and they’re more or less alike in appearance minus one little detail: dustbloods don’t cast shadows. And while fairbloods are offered privileges and opportunities, dustbloods are forced to live in indentured servitude–as prostitutes, for example, which is what the Good Luck Girls are.

The writing itself is really solid and descriptive, and all the little details about the setting are a nice touch. Also, copious descriptions of food equal a very happy Kathy.

All of this was negated by the characters. Holy friggin’ coconuts, the characters. You have this cool western setting–rich and dusty and unforgiving–and it’s somehow populated with characters with less personality and depth than the back of a cereal box. They were just…blank. And eerily so. I couldn’t find myself caring about any of them, or their predicament, and well, that was that.

 

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So. What books should I pack for my Wendigo-hunting trip? And what’s your go-to remedy for bookish curses?

(I’ve been a BIT sleep-deprived this week–I don’t know if you can tell??)

Blog Tour + Giveaway (INTL) : Crier’s War by Nina Varela

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Hey all! So I ended up taking an unexpected hiatus these past two weeks, because life got busy and I got tired and also kind of sick, and I’m hoping to be back later this week and catch up on…uh, well, a hell of lot of things. *stares bleakly at my pile of draft posts*

In the meantime, enjoy this review for Crier’s War, as part of the blog tour hosted by the lovely Karina of Afire Pages. It’s a couple of days late and I feel horrible about it, and even more horrible about the fact that I selected the fan art option but just couldn’t get to it on time. So I’m aiming for later this week with that as well.

Let’s get to it!

 

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Title: Crier’s War
Author: Nina Varela
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: October 1st 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Politics, Revolution
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, usurped their owners’ estates and bent the human race to their will.Now Ayla, a human servant rising in the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging her family’s death…by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.

Crier was Made to be beautiful, flawless, and to carry on her father’s legacy. But that was before her betrothal to the enigmatic Scyre Kinok, before she discovered her father isn’t the benevolent king she once admired, and most importantly, before she met Ayla.

Now, with growing human unrest across the land, pressures from a foreign queen, and an evil new leader on the rise, Crier and Ayla find there may be only one path to love: war.

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Crier’s War was one of my most anticipated reads of this fall, and while I wasn’t blown away by it as I’d hoped I’d be, it’s still a very solid fantasy read. Though a little light on the fantasy and heavier on the politics and interpersonal drama.

Most stories featuring synthetic humans/A.I. have their plot revolve around the oppression of these beings and their eventual uprising. This book takes place decades after such an event, with the automae in power and the humans relegated to second class citizens. I found it to be an interesting change of pace.

The book says a lot about history repeating itself, of ownership and oppression giving rise to a cycle of rebellion and subjugation of the masters, which I really appreciated. It also explores the role of women in political stages. Because even with the fall of humans, misogyny is apparently still a huge thing, and women are seen as either too soft or too unstable to be successful in politics. That’s a road Crier tries to navigate, and seeing her excitement turn into disillusionment is frustrating and heartbreaking.

The dynamic between Ayla and Crier is laid out wonderfully–starting out as suspicion and anger, morphing into reluctant fascination to understanding and then into something keener and more desperate; it’s hands-down one of my favourite examples of slow-burn romance this year. And there’s a scene near the end that’s a perfect culmination of everything that came before it. Just so much pining warring with righteous fury–it’s gorgeously written. With the story getting quite grim in places, the girls’ relationship is a much needed spot of brightness.

The worldbuilding is fine…but nothing to write home about. I like the hints of steampunk mixing with a classic medieval fantasy setting. But aside from a couple of major locales, the city (and the kingdom as a whole) felt kind of bland and lacking in details. There’s nothing solid about the setting that sticks in my mind, no clear picture other than fleeting images, and that’s a bit of a disappointment.

My biggest complaint is with the ending (surprise, surprise). Info dumpy cliffhangers aren’t fun on a good day, and there’s a string of big revelations that are thrown into the last chapter at the last minute. The result is just awkward and baffling.

Still. The book has a lot of good things to offer, and Crier and Ayla alone makes it worth your time.

 

 

Giveaway (INTL)

You have a chance to win one finished copy of Crier’s War! Open Internationally. Ends on October 23rd. ENTER HERE

 

 

About the Author

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Nina Varela is a nationally awarded writer of screenplays and short fiction. She was born in New Orleans and raised on a hippie commune in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent most of her childhood playing in the Eno River, building faerie houses from moss and bark, and running barefoot through the woods. These days, Nina lives in Los Angeles with her writing partner and their tiny, ill-behaved dog. She tends to write stories about hard-won love and young people toppling the monarchy/patriarchy/whatever-archy. On a related note, she’s queer. On a less related note, she has strong feelings about hushpuppies and loves a good jambalaya. CRIER’S WAR is her first novel.

You can find Nina at any given coffee shop in the greater Los Angeles area, or at www.ninavarela.com

 

 

Tour Schedule

WEEK 1

Sept. 23 – Afire Pages | 21 Questions with Nina Varela

Sept. 24 – The Sparrow’s Perch | Fan Art
F A N N A | Reasons for Game of Thrones and Westworld Fans to Read Crier’s War

Sept. 25 – Forever and Everly
Your Tita Kate | Bookstagram Photos

Sept. 26 – Lori’s Bookshelf Reads 
Pages Left Unread | Characters Aesthetics

Sept. 27 – Caitlin Althea 
Pages Below the Vaulted Sky | Fan Art

Sept. 28 – Lauren’s Bookshelf
Reads Rainbow | Playlist

WEEK 2

Sept. 30 – Boricua Reads | Sapphic Rebellious Women in YA
Read With Ngoc 

Oct. 1 – Once Upon A Bookcase
Read at Night | Favorite Quotes

Oct. 2 – Mel to the Any
A Cat, A Book, and A Cup of Tea

Oct. 3 – Novel Nerd Faction | Playlist
Shut Up, Shealea

Oct. 4 – Sage Shelves | F/F Fantasy Recommendation
The Book Bratz

 

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