Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


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Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mm. Yeah.

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

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

 

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Which is to say…it’s not easy.

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

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

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

So this is me shrugging.

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

Where, you ask?

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

Pick your poison!

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

Okay. You ready?

Here we go!!!!!!!

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

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[15 minutes later]

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

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

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

 

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

“I’m gonna say it.”

“No, Kathy–”

“Robin Hobb.”

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

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

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

And then there are books that opens veins.

Guess where this falls into?

 

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

 

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards

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

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

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

My Professional? Who Am I Kidding voice:

ARRRRRRGHHHHHAAHHHHHHHHHGOREADIT

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

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

Please. Call me.

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

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

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

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

 

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Smoke City by Keith Rosson

Smoke City

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

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

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

 

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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

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

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

 

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A Lite Too Bright by Samuel Miller

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

And then this book came along.

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

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

And poetry. Heartstopping poetry.

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

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

 

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Same time next year? 😀

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

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

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

Rating: 8.0/10

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

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

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“You’re magic, Fairy. Remember that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes that’s enough.

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

Fantasy Books & Games for Mental Health Awareness Month (Why I Need More Mental Health Rep in Adult Fantasy)

 

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May is Wyrd & Wonder and mental health awareness month, so it only makes sense to celebrate the 31st by smooshing them together into one post.

I meant to write this on Wednesday for Top 5 Wednesday, but I’ve been zonked out on allergy meds all week (one day the pharmaceuticals will develop a formula that doesn’t hit me like a freight train) and going to sleep at 6 and waking up at 3 AM.

So apologies in advance if I sound scattered and tired (however tired sounds like in a blog post).

But before we get started, I want to address something.

Hey, mainstream adult fantasy–epic fantasy, if we’re being particular–can we sit down and have a quick chat? It’ll only take a sec.

This is a topic that’s been a growing source of frustration for me in the last handful of years, and I’m going to bring it up again in another post soonish (hopefully) so I’ll keep it short and blunt today: why don’t more of your characters deal with mental health issues? 

Why aren’t your Chosen Ones having panic attacks and breakdowns? Why isn’t your merry band of misfits dealing with the mental fallout from battles and murders and facing monstrosities and just the general “holy fuck” factor that comes with trying to save the world? It seems to be an unspoken rule that therapists can’t exist in fantasy worlds, so how are these people getting out of bed every morning holding determination in one hand and eagerness in the other?

Why is trauma a temporary roadblock that you can gently remove and set aside so that the heroes can go on with doing hero things?

I’m sorry if I seem frustrated and/or bitter but I’m tired and mental health is a topic that means everything to me, and when paired with fantasy, the resulting story can be powerful and validating. And while that isn’t to say I don’t love seeing mental health reps in contemporary and horror and thriller and scifi–because I do, I love it a lot–fantasy can explore mental health from angles that other genres can’t.

And I just–I don’t understand why that isn’t taken advantage of more often.

Writing multi-volume fantasy epics has never really been an aspiration for me when I was younger. I adore reading them, sure, but my projects always leaned more towards…Guillermo del Toro crossed with Markus Zusak.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the one thing that’ll push me into drafting an epic fantasy would be the lack of depressed protagonists in these stories.

Because at the end of the day, you try to create the things you want to see more of in the world and hope that by doing so you’ll help foster an ecosystem where more such creations can take root and grow and maybe become the norm.

So yeah…good chat, adult fantasy! Same time next week? 😀

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

Rep: PTSD, Depression

The Light Between Worlds is the portal fantasy I always wanted and finally got–a spiritual continuation of Narnia and every portal fantasy that has ever ended with the protagonists returning to the real world. The author doesn’t hold back on showing the ugliness of depression and the mental toll it takes on the people who have to watch you go through it.

One of the hardest and most rewarding books I’ve ever read.

 

 

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

The Art of Starving

Rep: Eating disorder

This book is important for several reasons:

1) It talks about eating disorders and body image from the perspective of a teenage boy, which is super rare in fiction.

2) It made me acknowledge things about myself that I never really wanted to acknowledge. You can read about the details in the review here, if you want. It’s a post I’m glad I’d written because the process was…cathartic, in a clobbered-with-a-sledgehammer sort of way. But occasionally I think back on it and get the urge to trash it because, holy hell, it’s so awfully personal. (Some good news, though: I’m 6 pounds up from last year. That doesn’t sound like much but considering where I started from, I’ll take it).

Also, I’ve seen complaints that Miller’s narrative romanticizes the act of starving. But I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder to read this and be like, “Yeah, this is the handbook for getting skinny.” I think readers can recognize the mental gymnastics we go through to convince ourselves into self-harming (which starving ultimately is) and Miller makes it crystal clear that Matt’s actions aren’t ideal.

 

Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb

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Rep: Depression, PTSD, and more

If you want a prime example of how mental health can and should be addressed in high/epic fantasy, look no further. Depression, PTSD, self-esteem issues, suicide ideation–Hobb tackles all with absolute mastery (and I’m shocked and disappointed that the series didn’t spawn more high/epic fantasy books with similar themes). The series also has the best depiction of chronic loneliness I’ve come across in fiction. The kind that has no rhyme or reason and shadows you for years and years and years, waiting for moments when you’re most vulnerable. That’s a very hard thing get across in any story, and the fact that she does it in a fantasy one (across nine volumes) is remarkable.

 

The Hollow Folk series by Gregory Ashe

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Rep: Depression

I er, think I’ve actually run out of words to describe these books.

If you’ve read any of my dissertations reviews, you know how much the series means to me. Gregory Ashe draws on his own experiences with depression and slips them into his main character and the result is painful but so, so spot-on.

 

Arcadia Project Trilogy by Mishell Baker

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Rep: Bipolar Disorder and more

Ninety percent of the characters in this series is a mess and that’s what makes them so great.

Arcadia Project is an ownvoices urban fantasy, and the author does a wonderful job of explaining BPD through her MC while also crafting a unique and entertaining story about faes and Hollywood and the messiness of relationships.

 

The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

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Rep: Depression (I think)

I just realized I’ve never talked about this book before on the blog which is crazy because it’s one of my favourite YA books released in the last two years. Memory Trees is all about female relationships–mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, girlfriends–and the story puts a spotlight the MC’s mother and her mental illness and the events surrounding her hospitalization, which I thought was explored really well.

And okay, calling it a fantasy book is kind of an eyebrow-raising move because for most of it the only fantasy is in the way that Wallace approaches the story–as a dreamy inter-generational fable. The rest of it is a mix of contemporary, mystery, and historical fiction. But I swear, the magical stuff does rear its head at the end; you just have to squint to catch it.

 

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

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Rep: The entirety of DSM-5

I’m uh, actually not too sure if this belongs here?

On one hand, I’m not kidding with the DSM-5 thing. Fletcher’s series has the most comprehensive exploration of mental illnesses–from kleptomania to schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder–I’ve ever seen in speculative fiction.

But I don’t know if I would call them representations, per se. In the Manifest Delusions world, your delusions give you power–so the more ill you are, the greater your control over reality. It’s similar to The Art of Starving in that sense, except this doesn’t address those issues from a positive, “This is how you can heal” perspective.

 

Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire

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Rep: PTSD and more

I’m two books behind on the series, but Wayward Children is another portal fantasy story that deals with the trauma of being sent back to the real world, and just the general hardships that come with…well, living, and being different.

 

Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

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Rep: Agoraphobia, Anxiety, and more

Oh look, another portal fantasy! Says something about the subgenre, doesn’t it?

What I really loved about this story is that it features a father who is dealing with severe mental health issues (agoraphobia) and that’s not something I often find in fiction; it’s usually the mother figures who are depressed and ill and on medication. And Sophie Cameron talks about his illness in a really empathetic light, which is even rarer, so massive kudos to her for that.

 

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Now for the video games!

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Rep: Psychosis, Depression

Hellblade is many things.

It’s the most candid look at psychosis (with auditory and visual hallucinations) I’ve seen in any fictional media.

It’s an example of how to go about representing mental disorders you don’t have personal experience with–doing thorough research and consulting mental health professionals and people who do have experiences with them.

It’s the story of a woman who makes her descent into Hel (literally and figuratively) at a time in her life when darkness is all that is seemingly left.

It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and it’s the one game that made me cry from beginning to end. (I cried so, so much)

I can’t begin tell you how grateful I am that Hellblade exists and that I had the opportunity to experience it. Senua’s story is one I’ll carry around for the rest of my life and I 100% would have gotten this quote tattooed if it’d been a bit shorter:

Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story. We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves. It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.

 

Night in the Woods

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Rep: Depression, disassociation

(Or as like to call it, Millenials: The Game)

I think there are three different lenses with which you can look at Night in the Woods:

1) A mystery/horror/fantasy story with cute (and queer) anthropomorphic animal characters getting caught up in strange happenings around town, all the while trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship, family, and romance.

2) A very pointed commentary on the state of capitalism suffocating small towns and older generations who would sacrifice their youth to maintain status quo and save their town from a broken economy that they helped dismantle in the first place.

3) A stark yet empathetic exploration of depression and existential crises from the PoV of young adults in their early 20’s.

…Or all three at the same time. That works too!

 

The Missing: J. J Macfield and the Field of Dreams

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Here’s a crazy rundown of the first 15-ish minutes of this game:

You’re a college girl named J.J. and you and your best friend/maybe-girlfriend Emily are camping out on an island having a great time. But things black out and the next thing you know Emily has disappeared and you’re running through the island desperately searching for her. Then you get struck by lightning and die, but a moose doctor comes and resurrects you, so all’s good. Then you start getting text messages from the stuffed toy you’ve been carrying around (the stuffed toy that got destroyed in the lightning–so presumably it’s sending you messages from whatever afterlife toys get sent to). Meanwhile, Emily is still nowhere to be found.

…I’ll give you a second to soak that in.

Would it then surprise you to know that it offers one of most beautiful explorations of identity and self-acceptance I’ve come across in gaming?

The Missing is made by SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro), and his games tend to be on the…trippy side. Bizarre and peppered with pop-culture references and off-beat humour, you love them or hate them.

I’m firmly in the former category. They’re not technical marvels, the controls can be wonky, the story dives into the nonsensical, but they’re never boring and there’s something incredibly endearing about them. (It helps that he’s an absolute sweetheart on social media)

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Yes, that is SWERY. Yes, he is amazing.

Well, this jumps over “endearing” into “empowering” and “validating.”

The problem I have with media that explores mental health and LGBTQ+ issues is that they sometimes explore the pain side and kind of leave it at that. No closure. What stories like The Missing offer is that end piece–the sorely-needed ray of hope that yes, you can find peace and healing and come out on the other side stronger.

While I can’t personally speak for one of the representations that SWERY dives into (spoiler: transgender rep), other players can vouch that yes, he gets it right.

Please. Go play it. Or watch a playthrough/walkthrough of it.

 

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

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

 

Last Week – Books

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

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

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

 

This Week – Books

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

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

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

 

Last Week – Games

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Holler at me about your plans for the week!

Review: The Light Between Worlds – Stunning, Stunning, Stunning…

The Light Between Worlds

Title: The Light Between Worlds
Author: Laura E. Weymouth
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: October 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Sisterhood
Page Count: 368 (hardback)

Rating: 9.5/10

Add to goodreads

 

 

 

Six years ago, sisters Evelyn and Philippa Hapwell were swept away to a strange and beautiful kingdom called the Woodlands, where they lived for years. But ever since they returned to their lives in post-WWII England, they have struggled to adjust.

Ev desperately wants to return to the Woodlands, and Philippa just wants to move on. When Ev goes missing, Philippa must confront the depth of her sister’s despair and the painful truths they’ve been running from. As the weeks unfold, Philippa wonders if Ev truly did find a way home, or if the weight of their worlds pulled her under.

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Right. Where do I even start with this?

How about here: there’s only one other book (or series, rather) I’ve read this year that’s made me cry as much as this one, and even now, days later, it’s got me aching and drenched with its characters and their pains.

I wondered if should take a month to sort out my feelings and write something that can be at least 10% of what this story is worth. Then I realized I could take the entire year and still have no “perfect” review to show at the end of it.

Because this is one of those stories that feels too large to fit inside me. One of those stories that crawls through my skin to rip open old wounds and heal them anew, leaving me raw and open. And how do you deconstruct such a thing?

Well, I know I can’t do it justice. But I’ll try anyway.

The Light Between Worlds is a portal fantasy unlike any I’ve ever read. A re-imagining of Narnia and the continuation of it. The continuation of all portal fantasies, as it explores what happens to these children, who are no longer children, when they get dropped back into a world they’ve been absent from for so long. It’s a bit like the Wayward Children series and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in that respect

But Light Between Worlds takes things deeper. Darker. It approaches portal fantasy with a brutal lens that refuses to sugarcoat the reality of war, depression, PTSD, and the kind, wise mythical creatures who would take oaths of service from the mouths of children. But most of all, it’s about the love between sisters and finding a place–a world–that you can rightly call “home.”

One of the most brilliant things about this book is that it show how portal fantasies are, in many ways, tragedies. And it does that by being very light-handed with the fantasy. We only see limited bits of the Woodlands from Evelyn’s flashbacks, and I don’t think additional details are necessary (though it would have been welcome) seeing as how it’s a world we’ve all seen before–if not in Chronicles of Narnia, then in some other fantasy tale. The real focus of the story is in present-day England, where we see all the ways that the Woodlands haunts these characters.

It’s been five years since the siblings came back from the other world and Evelyn hungers deeply for it. Every part of her bleeds Woodlands and she walks through each day like a ghost, keening for a home that’s lost to her.

You don’t need to be a character in a portal fantasy to relate to Evelyn’s struggles. If you’ve ever longed for a time you wished you could return to; if you’ve ever longed to be somewhere else–or if not somewhere else, then to at least find some kind of footing in the present because most days it feels like you’re drifting above it; if you’ve seen your loved ones break themselves to keep you here, keep you whole; if it ever felt like you’re watching your life through the mirror of a mirror, all distorted and foreign–and the suffocating loneliness that comes with it, and the sense of unbelonging, and the feeling that one day you’re just going to float up and up away into nothing–and all that is enough to make you want to stop being…you will see yourself in Evelyn.

I saw far, far too much of myself and when I wasn’t tearing up or outrightly sobbing, I was turning pages with my heart lodged in my throat. And still I couldn’t stop reading. Because while Weymouth doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of mental illness, her portrayal is so honest and in its honesty there’s validation.

And the prose, at once simple and beautifully melancholic, compliments the subject matter so well and helps blunt the harshness. There’s a thrum of sorrow that runs through the writing, but above it you can also find wonder and love–so much love–and the combination is breathtaking.

And then we have Phillippa who’s waging a different war of her own but finds herself just as lost as Evelyn. While I saw most of myself in Evelyn, it was the elder Hapwell sister who captured my heart.

Phillippa is the pillar of the family. The one who tries to remain steadfast and strong even when she’s crumbling inside. The one who has to hold Evelyn back from her darkness time and time again. And unlike Evelyn she’s determined to carve a new life in this world and forget the magic of the woods and its great Guardian stag. Determined to wear a confident smile because she refuses to become what Evelyn’s become, she cannot. I don’t want to make a lot of Narnia comparisons, but with Phillippa the book does right by Susan Pevensie, taking Lewis’ “lipsticks, nylons and invitations” line and turning it from a condemnation into a shield and a weapon. It’s brilliantly done.

The love shared between Evelyn and Phillippa is undeniable. But love can exist with razor-sharp edges; it can hurt as much as it nourishes. And sometimes love isn’t enough to keep you from breaking when things get hard, and things can get so, so damn hard. The sacrifices these two make for each another despite the hurt and the hardship is the very definition of courage and what makes this story such a masterful one.

All in all, The Light Between Worlds is a stunningly beautiful character-focused story about finding light amidst the grey. And I know, down to my bones, that it’s one I’ll treasure for a long, long time.

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

Note: the author has a paragraph of trigger warnings for the book on her website–including self-harm and suicide ideation–which I didn’t take seriously. Turns out I should have. And you should too. They’re there for a reason. I had to binge-watch The Haunting of Hill House to recover from it, because being too scared to go to the bathroom is better than being too sad to get out of bed. Take care. ❤

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Portal Fantasy

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks. Each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

This week’s topic is: Portal Fantasy

Confession: portal fantasy isn’t one of my favourite subgenres. Eighty-percent of the time, I find myself disappointed by it. With many of them, I find the worldbuilding cliched and nowhere near as interesting as high fantasy. But I keep them reading them anyway. It’s probably a leftover desire from childhood to be whisked away from the mundane into somewhere new and magical. So reading these stories is like furiously scratching at an itch that just won’t go away.

These three books, however, put a bit of a spin on portal fantasy. They subvert tropes commonly associated with the subgenre and tackle important personal and social issues that you don’t find in typical Narnia-variants.

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In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

With In Other Lands, Brennan takes your stereotypical portal fantasy story, sticks it into a blender alongside themes of feminism, gender roles, sexuality, child soldiers, war, and growing up (just to name a few). The end product is a smart, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartwarming tale about a boy who finds himself in land of beautiful elves and mermaids. Elliot is one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve ever come across–irreverent, anti-social, and sarcastic. Moreover, he’s bisexual and the book actually says the word “bisexual” to describe him, which made me punch the air. It’s a small detail but it’s also a massive one. It’s angering and frustrating to see so much of media just gloss over the word–and all that it entails–like it doesn’t exist. So things like this are not-insignificant victories.

On both sides of the wall were stranger and weirder sights, terrible until you loved them. Our lands were always otherlands, to someone else.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

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Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children 3) by Seanan McGuire

McGuire’s Wayward Children series not only takes a darker approach to portal fantasy, it’s chock full of diversity of all kinds. Since we have to wait until 2019 for the fourth book, I can safely take my time getting to this one.

Goodreads |Amazon (US) | Book Depository

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The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Six years ago, sisters Evelyn and Philippa Hapwell were swept away to a strange and beautiful kingdom called the Woodlands, where they lived for years. But ever since they returned to their lives in post-WWII England, they have struggled to adjust.

Ev desperately wants to return to the Woodlands, and Philippa just wants to move on. When Ev goes missing, Philippa must confront the depth of her sister’s despair and the painful truths they’ve been running from. As the weeks unfold, Philippa wonders if Ev truly did find a way home, or if the weight of their worlds pulled her under.

This book isn’t exactly releasing soon, but it’s one of my top five anticipated releases of this fall so I’m going to grab every chance I get to talk about it. Diversity in media is most commonly thought of as LGBTQIAP+, cultural, and gender representation. But I believe mental health issues also belong under the umbrella, and The Light Between Worlds evidently has spades of them. According to the author’s website, the book explores depression, self-harm, PTSD, eating disorders, alongside grief and themes of war. It’s sounds haunting and mixing WW2 and fantasy is just asking me to smash the preorder button.

Releases October 23rd
Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository