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.

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

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

Rating: 2.0/10

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Ash Harrington’s life is out of control.

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

And Brand Forsythe is the only man to catch him.

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

And quickly takes Ash in hand.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, no.

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

Fuck that shit.

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

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

 

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

Rating: 3.0/10

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

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

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

And neither can they.

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.5/10

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

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

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

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This is it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The second type of time travel is done through letters.

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

…And that was a lie. I will tell you.

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

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

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

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

So please, please, please give this a try.

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

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

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!

Double Reviews: The Guildmaster and All the World Between Us – Water-themed Romances

One book has pirates. The other has swimming. Both involve water. (And I’m a sucker for themes)

Let’s get to it.

 

The Guildmaster (Vanguards of Viridor 3) by T.S. Cleveland

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Having helped foil the attempt to kill Viridor’s queen, Merric’s return to the Guardians’ Guild should have been celebrated. Instead, his support of elementals has earned him nothing but scorn. With the man he loves presumed dead, and fearing his injuries may prevent him from ever becoming a full guardian, Merric believes his life may as well be over. But when a series of mysterious attacks puts the fate of all Viridor in jeopardy, Quinn, a handsome and dangerous pirate, may be just the man to help save the kingdom – and Merric.

Genre(s): Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance
Publisher: Self-published

Rating: 7.0/10

 

Do you like charming pirates?

Do you like charming pirates who are openly kind, respect boundaries, and engage in hurt/comfort?

Well, do I have a book for you.

The Guildmaster is the third book in the Vanguards of Viridor series set in a loosely constructed fantasy world where magic users called “elementals” are feared and discriminated by the general public (it’s always the mages, isn’t it?) Reading the previous books would probably add to your enjoyment of the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

I thought it was a fun, romantic read with a good balance of action and intimate character moments. Merric’s struggles to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow are compelling, as is Quinn’s efforts to help him heal, both physically and emotionally.

I did have issues with the second half of the story. At one point, there’s a lot of deliberate vagueness and lack of communication from the love interest (which didn’t really make sense considering how open he is about everything) and that contributed to a lot of unnecessary angst on the MC’s part. I also wish the worldbuilding was more robust than “*shrugs* It’s high fantasy. Half its characters run around waving swords. The other half runs around shooting fire from their fingers.”

Overall, I really enjoyed it. Also, bonus points for a completely unexpected reference to Dragon Age: Origins–“And swooping was bad.” Actually the first time I’ve seen that line in a book. Delightful.

 

 

All the World Between Us by Morgan Lee Miller

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Seventeen-year-old Quinn Hughes needs to be in top shape if she wants to medal at the swimming World Championships in ten months. This means no easy distractions, no matter how pretty they are.

She’s still piecing her confidence back together after not qualifying for the Olympics, her relationship with her twin brother is getting worse the more he hangs out with the popular kids, and then Kennedy Reed suddenly squeezes herself back into Quinn’s life. The girl who was her best friend. The girl who gave Quinn her first kiss. The girl who hasn’t spoken to her since.

Soon, Quinn finds herself juggling her new girlfriend, training for the biggest competition of her life, and discovering she’s not the only Hughes twin with a crush on Kennedy Reed. All these distractions are getting to her, and if she wants that medal she needs to find a way to stop drowning on dry land.

Genre(s): YA Contemporary, LGBTQIA+ Romance, Sports
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books

Rating: 6.0/10

I’m a girl of simple tastes. I see “swimming” and “gay” in the same sentence and I glomp onto it like an overattached koala. All the Worlds Between Us is an ownvoices second-chance story about two friends navigating the rocky paths of first love. It was quick and light and fine but didn’t really scratch my swimmer romance itch. Most of the story revolves around highschool drama and less of Quinn’s experiences as an aspiring Olympic swimmer, which was kind of disappointing. When a romance story is set against the backdrop of a sports world, I want the sports side to be as well-developed as the relationship aspect. That’s not always the case, though.

The narration also felt more juvenile than Quinn’s age warranted, and combined with a few explicit scenes, it got a bit jarring. I did find Kennedy’s experiences of being a closeted teen portrayed pretty well, however, and I enjoyed the mix of sweet and heartbreaking moments.

Overall, it’s not a bad sports f/f (especially if you’re new to the subgenre) but definitely not the best I’ve read either.

 

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Review copies provided by the author and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Binding – Sweetly Flawed and Somewhat Forgettable

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Title: The Binding
Author: Bridget Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins UK
Release Date: January 7th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Memories
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

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“Don’t think of it as a fantasy. Think of it as a romance” was the mantra I repeated to myself when I started this book because I’d heard it was less of a fantasy and more of a relationship-focused story with a tinge of magic, and I was determined to do whatever it took to love it.

Because guys. I adore stories about memories. I mean, I adore memories, period. I love the nitty-gritty cellular study of it, and as a wannabe armchair philosopher, I love musing about it in the wee hours of the morning. And I especially love it when the sciences and humanities decide to join hands and create masterpieces like The Endless Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now, The Binding isn’t science fiction. But it is historical fantasy holding hands with queer romance–which I figured was the next best thing.

So I was ready to overlook a lot of stuff, and I did.

I could overlook the vague details surrounding the process of binding and the history of how it came to be, because a lot romance stories tend to be light on worldbuilding. I could also overlook the very convenient series of events leading up to the ending, because this isn’t trying to be a masterfully plotted story. And I could overlook the ending feeling a little unfinished because, hey, satisfying endings are hard to pull off.

But I could not overlook the main character. More specifically, I couldn’t overlook the main character being bland and shallow and more or less a blank slate from beginning to end.

Emmett’s narration (totaling about 2/3 of the book) is a frustrating example of first person PoV being used like a third person. With his ailments and memory loss he would have been the perfect character to deep dive into–which first person should allow and entourage us to do–but we never end up getting past the surface layer. And his surface layer presents him as farmer’s son who becomes a bookbinder who’s also kind of judgemental of the people he meets. And…that’s about it.

Lucian, his love interest, is a far more interesting character and once his narration takes over last 1/3 of the story, things really kick off for the better. We get a little more insight into binding and how it can abused in the hands of wrong people, and the suffocating atmosphere of Lucian’s household is portrayed very well. I also quite enjoyed seeing the changing developments in their relationship from his perspective.

But at the end of the day, a love story isn’t a one-person show. If I can’t connect with one of the involved parties, I can’t fully connect with the story as a whole.

So while I didn’t dislike the book–it was a pleasant read for the most part, with some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking moments–I’m still fiercely disappointed because it could have been so much more. A deeper love story and a deeper look into the erasure of memories and whether the loss of pain is an acceptable trade-off for the loss of yourself. And I’m having a hard time getting over that.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own. 

In Defence of Romance: What it Can Do in a Fantasy Story (Or ANY Story)

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Today is the start of Wyrd & Wonder (hosted by Lisa, Jorie, and imyril), a month dedicated to the celebration of all things fantastical. Look forward to essay posts, lists, reviews, and more.

Let’s get started!

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“But Kathy, who’s going out of their way to attack romance in fantasy?”

Well, no one in particular. But I’ve always come across people–both on the internet and in real life–who look at romance in fantasy with a kind of…disdain, and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. And with some of the recent complaints about Arya’s character development in GoT, I thought, why not, I’ll write a post on the topic.

So to be clear, I have zero problem with people disliking romance or criticizing the romance they find in stories (I mean, I criticize them all the time). Romance isn’t the end-all-be-all–the holy grail for which we have to plan our lives around–and I ADORE books that focus on passionate friendships often more than the romance-centric ones.

But passionate friendships that are as intimate as romance are few and far between in fiction. Because, I don’t know–a lot of people seem to have the idea that close intimacy between two or more people can only exist within the boundaries of sex and romance. (Which is patently untrue. *points to me and my best friend*) That’s why I usually turn to romance when I want my “intense interpersonal dynamic” fix. (This is a whole separate topic for another day.)

So my problem isn’t with the words “I don’t like romance in fantasy.”

My problem is with people who say “I don’t like romance in fantasy” in a tone they also use with phrases like, “I don’t like YA” and, “I only like literary fiction.” Like they expect a medal–or at the very least, an enthusiastic applause—for their abstinence. People who seem to believe that having any kind of romance in a fantasy makes it automatically inferior to ones that don’t, and the mention of romance in a blurb equivalent to a giant biohazard sticker on the cover. And most damningly: people who make others feel bad for liking it in the genre.

That’s how you get my hackles up.

So dear friends, lovers, and people of indiscriminate relations, it’s time to break out the candles and rose petals–we’re going to have a little chat about romance and what it can do in a fantasy story.

(And obviously these points also apply outside of fantasy. But everything’s better with dragons and magic–romance especially. It is known.)

*Presses ‘Play’ on 10-Hour Careless Whisper Sax Loop*

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Romance as a Whole

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Let’s start out big and talk a little about the romance genre as a whole.

I’m of the opinion that every genre has something to offer to other genres–a lesson you can take away as both a reader and a writer–and the romance genre at its best offers character dynamics, the push and pull between two or more individuals. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted and playful “will they or won’t they”. Other times it’s a more intense tug-of-war of differing values a la Pride and Prejudice.

Does it suffer from tropes that are overused and/or harmful? Absolutely. But it’s nothing more than what plagues every genre of literature.

Are the stories realistic? Sometimes no. Sometimes hell no. But growing up in a conservative household had made me go through a mess of reticence and recklessness about sex and shame about kink, and romance books helped me make peace with some of that. So screw realism. Sometimes I just want my Happily Ever After.

 

Romance as Worldbuilding

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This right here is a patch of grass.

And as far as patches of grass go, it’s not a bad one. There’s bits of green mixed in with the yellows and the browns, which is great because variety’s always a plus. So one might even call it nice and pretty.

The problem is that I’m going to forget about this patch of grass as soon as I come across another patch of grass with a tantalizing green/yellow/brown scheme. Because I’m shallow like that. And at the end of the day, it’s a patch of grass, not the floor of Buckingham Palace.

But. Plop onto it two characters who are in love, or in the process of being in love, or  don’t know (or like) each other very much and are doing that weird shuffling dance where they’re trying to figure each other out, and this patch of grass becomes something very special.

Maybe it’s where a knight from one kingdom and a farmer from another laid down to stargaze and share their cultures’ interpretations of the constellations. And amidst that, maybe there were gazes held just a bit too long and shoulders touching, and then not touching, and then touching again.

And the patch of grass becomes the site of something new and delicate.

Or maybe it’s where an asshole elven mage told you how beautiful you were and then dumped you because he has a greater purpose to fulfill and you’re too much of a distraction.

And the patch of grass becomes a field of heartbreak.

The same principle applies to more elaborate worldbuilding. As humans we remember and latch onto information that have strong emotional significance. So if two characters are doing the courtship dance and worldbuilding details gets mixed up in it, that shit’s going to stick in our brains.

It’s not rocket science. It’s neuroscience.

So worldbuilding isn’t just about how much interesting history and politics you can cram into a single book. It’s about making them seem real to the readers. It’s about making us care–making us see more than ancient stone buildings and paragraphs of dry info scrawled in a hefty tome. And what better way to achieve that than through romance?

Romance can assign meaning to meaningless information. It helps add texture and weight and depth to a world that might otherwise seem like a set of cardboard props. Pretty cardboard props, but still cardboard props.

 

Deeper Exploration & Development of the Protagonist

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Which isn’t to say platonic relationships don’t also do this, but the paths to a person’s heart are many (maybe infinite) and varied, and romance can offer a route of a different flavour than, say, friendship.

And I think it gets particularly interesting with unlikeable protagonists.

Because sometimes romance softens a character, scrubbing away at their hard sarcastic edges. It grabs at vulnerabilities and drags them out onto the surface, allowing us to see layers to them that we wouldn’t see otherwise.

Let’s take a grumpy asshole protagonist with a cocky attitude and a distaste for social interactions. No grumpy asshole protagonist would care if Jim the Barkeeper tells them, “You gotta change your ways.” And we don’t care because, well…it’s Jim the Barkeeper. He’s been given maybe ten pages’ worth of screen time and there’s a 70% chance that he’ll end up dead by the end of the book. So his opinion has about as much weight as the dead flies gathering on his countertops.

But if Love Interest #1 says it? Or implies it? That makes things a teeny bit more complicated. It might even force them to examine aspects of themselves that aren’t all that nice and take the slow, reluctant steps to be better.

Romance can also give strength to a character. A sense of purpose they never had before–a belief that maybe, just maybe, they can do this. They can defeat this monster horde. They can lead this army to victory. They can stand in front of the court and deliver a speech that could prevent a war.

I mean, I can go on for weeks. The possibilities are endless and that’s what makes it so damn fun.

 

Creates & Enhances Interpersonal Conflicts


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This is where we talk about the famous/infamous enemies-to-lovers.

My definition of enemies-to-lovers isn’t “two people who wanted to slit each other’s throats 30 minutes ago are now so deeply in love you can see tiny hearts orbiting them.” That’s just…no. And “I hate you but I love you” isn’t something I find particularly interesting, either. My definition is more along the lines of “two people with clashing values and opinions clash, and then slowly come to find understanding and shared affection.” (Which admittedly doesn’t sound as exciting as “I hate you but I love you”)

When done right this trope can be explosive. Because there are few better ways to create compelling, dramatic conflict between two characters than to have them challenge each other every step of the way. One pushes and the other pushes back. And somewhere amidst all that shoving they’ve mapped the contours of each other’s hearts and explored more of their crevices than anyone else ever has. Somewhere along the way a shove became a bump, which became a touch, became a caress.

So how do you go from two jagged pieces scraping against each other into shapes that curl together? What beliefs have changed? Which values have been discarded? In what ways have they made each other better? And if one of them is the villain of the story, what does that mean for their long-term goals?

I can’t begin to describe how infinitely fascinating I find that process. I could write and star in a one-person musical dedicated to how much I love it–especially in fantasy stories because the stakes are usually so much higher.

Enemies-to-lovers underscores the idea that people can learn to understand one another. That despite all our differences, we have the ability to admit mistakes and empathize and push each other to become more complex beings. And that’s a beautiful thing to see in any genre.

 

Romance as a Beacon of Light in a World of Dark

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The Sacred Band of Thebes was an Ancient Greek military unit comprised of 150 male couples. They were responsible for several crucial victories against the Spartan army–which at the time was like kicking a grizzly in the teeth and getting away with it–and the speculation behind their creation boils down to the idea that people fight with greater courage when they’re at their lovers’ side. That in the darkest hours of the battle, with everything going to hell, their love would give them strength to push forward.

Basically, their whole existence was about staring death in the face with light in their eyes. Which leads to my favourite example of what romance can do in fantasy: bringing light to a spot of dark.

Fantasy stories can get very dark very quick, and both the readers and the characters need reasons as to why they should continue, why any of it matters. With danger and horror looming around every corner, you want to cling to whatever hope and goodness you can find, and romance can offer a hell of a lot of hope. (It’s the same reason why we love seeing romance in World War II stories)

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The Song of Achilles and Girls of Paper and Fire do this brilliantly. Both stories position their romance in the middle of brutal, horrific, soul-draining situations. In both stories the romance becomes a spot of salvation.

And do you know which subgenre I’m convinced benefits the most from romance? Grimdark. And not the “gritty” kind of romance. Not the kind that’s angry and/or borderline abusive. I’m talking about the genuinely good ones–the sweet, passionate ones that make your eyes mist and your hair curl. It’s all about contrast, you see. Our brain is evolved to pick out details that break up monotony, so all that goodness just makes the grim and dark grimmer and darker, and vice versa.

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An example of this would be Ed McDonald’s Blackwing, which surprised and delighted me with a romance that felt fragile in many respects but also honest and heartfelt in a way that stood out beautifully against the rest of the story (which was unsurprisingly grim).

“You say there’s nothing of woman about you? You aren’t some painted vase, delicate and useless. You’re a fucking lioness. The strongest damn thing that ever lived. There’s nothing of you but woman.”

I do feel like I have to defend the honour of painted vases everywhere–they’re far from useless–but you get the point.

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Some closing thoughts: I think we can all agree that bad romance in fantasy can be very bad. Hair-pulling, eye-rolling, I-need-to-throw-this-book-at-the-nearest-wall kind of bad.

But when it’s good?

When it’s good it’s like standing at the edge of dawn and seeing the world exhale. It’s like feeling too big to fit inside your skin and you’re spilling everywhere into everything.

It’s like–

Well, it’s like falling in love.

*Presses ‘Stop’*