Book Review: Once and Future

I’ll keep this review short. 

Once and Future is my favorite book I’ve read in 2019. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t  put it down. I read the whole thing in one day and really wish the sequel was already out.

Concerning the plot and concept, it reminded me of two of my favorite no longer running TV shows: BBC’s Merlin and Firefly. The world had a bit of a dystopian flare, reminiscent of Hunger Games and Feed.

There were spaceships, unchecked capitalism, sketch government cover ups, and hereos resisting cooperate villains.

Once and Future had just the right balance of goofy, darkness, action, and romance.

And all the characters were queer. One POV character was pan. Another was gay. There was a gender fluid side character with they/them pronouns. Another side character was ace.  This book had all the LGBTQIA rep.

The crew was full of personality!

I have zero complaints about the characters, plot, or ending. Even though this was a retelling, I was never quite sure what was going to happen next!

The only flaw I noticed was one I didn’t think of until a few days after I finished reading . The world building, on the science fiction side, lacked detail and explanation. So if you are someone who wants to know how the space travel and the terraforming and whatnot works, then you might have a problem with this aspect of it.

I had no problem ignoring those holes and just taking everything at face value. This was more science fantasy than science fiction anyway. After all, there was magic.

And really, I was in it for the characters and the adventure, not the technical side of the world building, so I’m still giving it five stars.  

Go read Once and Future now!

Book Review: Empire of Light

I received a free copy of Empire of Light from the author, Alex Harrow, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Empire of Light was an action packed read that was challenging to review without giving away, but I think I’ve manage to come up with something spoiler free.

There was no shortage of action in this book. There were gun fights, fist fights, explosions, and even some of the steamy scenes were a little violent (because the mc and his love interests were into that). Sometimes in books, big action sequences can get confusing, but I didn’t have any trouble with these. The blocking was clear and well executed. I never lost track of who was who and where everyone was.

The downside to all the action was that it distracted me from the characters. Despite all the excitement, I was at least third of the way into book before I really became invested in the characters. They were so busy fighting, never coming up for air, that it was hard to see past their snark, outer shells, and shooting skills to see what growth they needed and were experiencing.

Once I was half way through the book, I couldn’t put it down. When Damian had lost so much and had his back against the ropes and was forced to rest a little because of the injuries that kept battering his body, then I finally got to know and like him a little more. Despite the ease with which killed people and a high tolerance for gore, he was a complex character who grew and matured throughout the book.

The rest of the cast was fascinating, but because of all the action, I felt like I didn’t get to spend quite enough time with them. A lot of these fascinating side characters die, so I guess not getting too invested in them was a blessing, otherwise I would’ve gotten grumpy at the book right around when I ended up getting more invested in it.

I was a little concerned with how violent some of them were towards people they cared about. It seemed standard for the Shadows to beat each other up when they got mad at each other and snippets of flashback and backstory showed their leader/mother figure beating them up when they made mistakes. However, their almost pirate-like status seems to give permission to this and make it acceptable to readers. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it as sometimes I write characters like this too. It just makes me think about what kind of violence and abuse readers tolerate in certain kinds of settings.

The plot and setting were not quite what I expected, but they were still good. Harrow had described this as a gay Firefly with magic, but I found Empire of Light  had little in common with Firefly. Empire of Light  was more dystopian than space western. Still, the plots, assassination attempts, rescue missions, and the romance were well executed and  nicely built to the end and I could never quite predict what was going to happen next. I just knew that no one was going to give up, and that there would be plenty more explosions.

The city Empire of Light  was set in was fascinating and very much a character in the story, though until a few  hints near the end of the book, I was wondering what was in the world beyond this two sided city, where the food came from, and where things were manufactured because the wealthier people in this story did seem to have new things. Because this world was so interesting, I wanted a few clearer hints about the bigger picture of it.

There was a love triangle in this book. I’m not generally a fan of these because they never end well, but I really didn’t mind this one and it was wrapped in a far less painful way than most other love triangles. I actually kind of liked this one.

This may sound like a lot of criticism for a four star review, but in spite the problems I pointed it out, I really did enjoy Empire of Light  and suspect the sequel (assuming there is one) will be even better.

If you are looking for a dark future with plenty of action, a side of romance, and a glimmer of hope, buy your self a copy of buy your self a copy of Empire of Light  .

Book Review: The Seeds of Dissolution.


In The Seeds of Dissolution William C. Tracy does a fantastic job weaving the Dissolution universe together. Every little detail of the world the story took place in was so real and flushed out that it felt like it could be coexisting with reality right now.

The diversity of species and their genders was my favorite aspect of world building. Not all creatures in the universe were limited to binary genders like humans. Some had third genders. Some were genderfluid, switching back and forth between not two but four pronouns.

The whole concept of seeing symphonies and using them to manipulate things like sound, wood, bodies, and even space was also fascinating. I haven’t read a book with a magic (?) system quite like it. I added the question mark because the people who use the symphonies think of themselves as scientist, though to Sam, who is new to the world, and a reader like me, it seems like magic.

As far as characters go, I could relate to Sam and his anxiety. I think we are triggered by the same things. Even though my sometimes anxiety manifests in different ways, Sam’s really seem authentic.

However, I thought the message the book sent about medication bordered on dangerous. Sam’s brief mentions of it were about how it made him feel were negative. It sounded like he was given some kind of sedative — one type of medication used to treat anxiety, and that had tarnished his opinion of all medication.

It’s okay to have one character with that opinion, but then the one who was a psychologist looked down on the idea of medicating anxiety, though in her case, she used the symphonies, not pills, to treat Sam. She called it a bandaid, and its effects reminded me of self-medicating with alcohol so I didn’t have panic attacks at a wedding.

Numbing anxiety with alcohol is a bandaid. Most doctors and psychologist I’ve met see medication is a tool. It should take the edge off of anxiety so a person can get to the root of its cause and learn how to properly cope with it. This perspective was not offered, and I don’t think there was any acknowledgement of the fact that not every anxiety treatment makes everybody feel the way Sam described.

If I had read this book back when I was in my teens or early twenties, it would’ve added fuel to my resistance to medication — something I needed to get my anxiety under control — something I wish I had tried sooner.  

The saving grace with this book’s portrayal of treating anxiety is that it painted talk therapy in a positive light.

This above issue was really the only problem I had with The Seeds of Dissolution, and is the only reason I gave it four stars, not five. Everything else was fantastic!

I loved the dynamic between Rilan and Origon! There personalities were different but compatible, and the tension between them has me hoping something happens between them at some point in the series.

And the twins. They are adorable, and so is their relationship with Sam.

The plot had a slow build at times, but in a good way.  I never lost interest. I had time to linger with the characters while they struggled, triumphed, and failed. Not every story needs to hurtle ahead at breakneck speed, and with The Seeds of Dissolution, the pacing and the story were a perfect match.

If you are looking for a book with secondary world setting and a wide range of LGBTQ+ rep, then check out the The Seeds of Dissolution.

Book Review: The Year of the Knife

A few months ago, Meerkat Press had giveaway running: sign up for their newsletter and get a free ebook. I signed up and got a copy of The Year of the Knife  It sat on my kindle for a while, on my growing list of things to read. After a big stretch of reading YA, I finally wanted to read something “adult” again, so I picked up this. I started it just before dinner and finished a little after midnight. I loved the explosive magic, a hard boiled lesbian witch main character, and the fast paced plot with a mostly well set up twist.

The magic system in the book was my favorite kind.It had well established rules, limits and costs, and an almost mathematical set up, but the way the author showed it on paged in a way that didn’t bore me with the technical details of actually showing all the calculations. There would be a sentence or two more focused on what was going through Sully’s head while she did calculations, but the reader didn’t actually see the numbers or symbols.  

Speaking of the main character, Sully, is quite the badass. If you ever read the Dresden Files, picture if Harry Dresden and Karin Murphy were actually one character only more Irish and queer.

Throughout the book, Sully is following a string of murders where victims don’t stay dead. The middle of the book, when Sully is knee deep in zombies and demons, was my favorite part. Sully was strongest when her back was against the ropes and she was grasping for leads. 

The opening wasn’t fantastic, but it did its job. It showed Sully’s strength and battle madness with one serial killer hunt, set something up for the end, and then introduced the case shortly after. 

I was a little disappointed that the one non-binary character, the only character with a they/them pronoun, was in the book for a few pages then died.

There were frequent mentions of the sexism the Sully faced, but it never seemed to affect her much, and just seemed there for the sake of being there.

Most pieces of the twist and the end were well set up for, but a couple things seemed a little too convenient, and one thing I was expecting never happened, even though a few things early on almost promised me it would. Still, there are two more books in the series, so perhaps some of the breadcrumbs left uneaten are just setting up for things yet to come. I’m willing to wait and see.

I really am looking forward to the next installment in this series, which comes out later this year. 

So if you read Year of the Knife now, you won’t have too long to wait!

Book Review: The Disasters

The Disasters  is a treasure. After the last future-set, sci-fi book I read, The Disasters was like a breath of fresh air.  The Disasters had  a narrative kept me glued to kindle, only taking a breaks to do necessary things like eat, use the bathroom, and walk the dog until the book was done.

Thankfully, I’m a fast reader, and this was a fast book (in a good way).  

So, what is the story?

A group of teens who just failed out of an elite space academy survive a attack that takes out their classmates, flee the system, and fight to stop the terrorists from killing more people.

Said group of teens is pretty awesome.

The narrator, Nax,  is a bi pilot coping with anxiety from a wreck he was in a few years ago. I loved seeing how he decided to say things that made him seem like a classic, cocky, hotshot pilot while being very scared and insecure.  I was rooting for him from the start, and loved his interactions with a crew that was diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race, and nationality.

Terrorist attack aside, this future was super optimistic.

For the most part, humans weren’t fighting each other. There was peace on Earth and in the “the colonies.” Most people were getting along…except for this one group that wanted to kill everyone…but that group was a small portion of the population. Most groups got a long way better than they do today.

The word “colonies” made me cringe a little the first time I saw it on the page, however, it’s un-inhabited planets, not cultures and people, that are being colonized. This universe is similar to the one Firefly was set in, where humans have found habitable worlds and terraformed others to make them habitable, but have not yet discovered other sentient life in the galaxy.

I also loved how the book handled diversity. It wasn’t about diversity. It wasn’t about being bi, muslim, trans, black, gay, white, or straight. It was about teens trying to save the galaxy. Their identities were part of them, added richness to their personalities, made them unique, and made them feel real. The book gave me hope that one day, things like racism, transphobia, islamophobia, and  homophobia will be things of the past. This future is the kind I seek out in science fiction.

I’ve read books like this before, that do all the amazing this one does, but most of them have been from small presses. I’m happy to see that larger publishing houses are finally catching on.

Next time you are in the mood for some great science fiction,  read The Disasters! 

Novella Review: Darkling


Darkling by Brooklyn Ray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Today I wanted to read something a little longer than a short story, but I didn’t want to commit to a novel because I needed to get some writing done. I had an ARC courtesy of the author, so I could read and review the sequel, Undertow.

I enjoyed the writing in this book, how beautifully emotion was conveyed, and how Ray handled having a trans main character.

I loved that Ray didn’t make the book about the mc’s gender — it was a magic, witchy romance where the lead happened to be trans. The character’s identity was present enough for the reader know he was trans, to see how it shaped his view of the world and relationships, but it didn’t take over the plot. As a non-binary person, this is the kind of representation I seek out, even if it isn’t exactly my identity on the page.

I almost didn’t read this book because it was labeled as having explicit sex and as erotic romance, and lately, I just haven’t felt like reading books with a lot of sex. I’m glad I picked this one up anyway. There were three, maybe four scenes of explicit sex, but they weren’t gratuitous. They were so tied into the characters’ growth and development that they felt necessary and this particular story wouldn’t have been the same without them.

I do have to say, while the elemental magic was pretty awesome, my favorite piece of the magic system was the trees.

I’m looking forward to reading Undertow!

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Book Review: Ruin of Stars

Ruin of Stars (Mask of Shadows, #2)Ruin of Stars by Linsey Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free electronic copy of Ruin of Stars, the sequel to Mask of Shadows, in exchange for an honest review.

Mask of Shadows was good, but Ruin of Stars is still ten times better.

The plot in Ruin of Stars was complex and nuanced. It didn’t follow a trope like it’s predecessor; it was more completely driven by the characters wants and what got in their way.

Sal’s drive for revenge has aligned with the needs of the queen, so Sal is sent out to kill the rest of the people on their list. In the process, Sal encounters betrayals, loses someone they care about, and discovers something that changes their world. Being any more specific than this will give too much away and ruin the book. Reading through it was like untangling a tight not — difficult at times, but so satisfying when it was done.

As I read, my understanding of my favorite characters grew deeper and more complex. They had me rooting for them, hating them, and crying for them, sometimes all at once.

The prose were well crafted and lyrical, making the feelings and emotions of these characters so clear I could almost feel themself. I always appreciate writers who can do this because it is one of the things I struggle with most when it comes to my own writing.

More detail was giving to the politics of the world in this book than in Mask of Shadows. That helped me understand some of the hatred and the motives for it that motivated several characters, including Sal. Erland culture was definitely explored in more detail, including not so subtle descriptions about appearance and ideology that made me think of the Erland lords as Nazi-inspired.

All the descriptions of being gender fluid and of how it felt when society doesn’t acknowledge that rang true to me. Like Sal, I’m “fluid” and “in-between.” At times, I felt the explanations of Sal’s gender identity and of other characters’ gender identities and sexualities to be a little too heavy handed. At some points, the description of it seemed to overpower other aspects of the story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I may have been reading thinking “obviously, that is a valid identity,” but I forget that there are probably ten times as many readers who know very little about not really being a man or a woman, but something in between. In my own work, critique partners and beta readers have said I don’t explain it enough, so what seems like too much for me may not be for the readers who need to read and learn from this book.

For once, I was actually surprised by the ending. Just when I thought I knew exactly how it would turn out, something changed, and I think the epilogue was best part. But I won’t spoil it — so pre-order the book, and read it as soon as you can.

Haven’t read Mask of Shadows yet? Check out my review of it here.

 

A few words about “Butter is Not a Dress”

I don’t write a lot of poetry, and I only share a fraction of what I do write. Every once and a while, I come up with a piece I am very proud of. One of those pieces is featured in this anthology.

When speaking with people, I struggle to express my gender identity and how I’ve always felt like I inhabited some space between man and woman. This poem explores that in the context of how it affects the way I dress, and the internal struggle I go through every time I change my clothing.

You can buy the paper back and kindle version on Amazon if you are interested in reading it along with other poems and stories.

 

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Book Review: Curved Horizon

Curved Horizon (The Camellia Clock Cycle, #2)Curved Horizon by Taylor Brooke

Since I got an ARC of Curved Horizon on NetGalley, it has kept me warm on some bitter New England nights. As wind gusts across a frozen lake just outside my window, my mind is still in the warmth of Laguna beach and the characters Taylor Brooke brought to life on it’s shores.

I read Curved Horizon slowly, savoring the gorgeous sentences packed with emotions I seldom feel in real life. I drank in the passion and pain the words evoked, the bruised kisses of new love, and imagery that made me crave summer.

Curved Horizon is a book about friends, soulmates and the kind of family you choose for yourself. It may not be the fastest paced, most suspenseful book, but I like it just the way it is. I enjoyed lingering in little moments, watching the characters grow and bloom from both good moments and challenging ones.

There was one big plot event described in the cover copy that came much later in the book than I was expecting, so while I was not forever wondering what was going to happen, I was wondering when it was going to happen, holding my breath, waiting for the weight to drop. And when it finally came, it was flawlessly executed.

I could go on and on about how good this book was, but I’m not going to. Want to know more about Curved Horizon? Pre-order.

Support the author by pre-ordering it, reading it, and leaving a review of your own.

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Pronoun Problems

Reclaimed story esthetic
Aesthetic of Earth Reclaimed

I’m in the midst of revising a novel (Earth Reclaimed) with a non-binary protagonist. Since this work blends high fantasy with solarpunk and has alternates points of view, I choose to write it in third person. However, several of my beta readers and critique partners have been having a hard time adjusting to me using “they/them” as a singular, gender neutral pronoun.

Readers have suggested I switch to first person, or use something like Xe or Ze. Not realizing it was own voices, one reader even questioned if it was necessary to write the character as non-binary. She meant well, but just because there is a non-binary character doesn’t mean the story has to be about being non-binary.

I knew I didn’t want to write this story in first person, and I couldn’t picture this character CIS, but I did briefly consider a different pronoun.

Before making any decisions, I wanted to see how other writers used neutral pronouns, so I read the first two books of the Ardulum series which used two variations of gender neutral pronouns for aliens who had a third gender. It worked great for those alien characters, but would not suit my protagonist or my writing style for two big reasons.

One:

Xe and Ze are not as neutral as they seem at first glance because they lose some of their neutrality when they become possessive. The writer has to make a choice: does Xe become Xer or Xis? In Ardulum, the author choose Zir as the possessive form of Xe, but when read out loud, it still sounds a lot like Xer or Her.

Some non-binary folks, including me, use gendered pronouns. I use she/her because it’s what I grew up using, and I get overwhelmed when I think about telling friends and family I prefer they/them. I don’t think I’ve ever even bothered announcing to most people that I’m non-binary or gender fluid because it’s a conversation that could turn awkward too quickly. Plus, I don’t like labels and boxes. No matter which one you stick on me, what matters is that I know who I am.

Even though Earth Reclaimed is an own voices story, the main character isn’t me. Serena lives in a future and region where gender is fluid and people are not boxed into identifying as men or women. They are also braver and bolder than I am. I wrote my first draft using she/her, and it just didn’t feel right. Serena needed a gender neutral pronoun, and at least to me, they is more neutral than the others.

Two:

Neutrality is not the only reason to choose they. Xe and Ze do not come to me as natural as they does. Growing up, if I didn’t know whether a person was male or female, I would automatically use they/them until I knew whether they were a she or a he.

Back then, I hadn’t heard of words like non-binary or gender fluid. Those terms may have existed, but they weren’t part of my vocabulary.  I was in my later twenties when I discovered those words and thought “that sounds just like me.”

Identifying with the label didn’t lead me to change the pronouns I use, but that doesn’t mean all the non-binary characters I write have to use the same pronouns, especially of the conditions that keep me using she/her don’t exist for them.

When I write a third person, own voices narrative with a non-binary character, I am going to use they/them as a pronoun. Will there confusion in the early drafts? Yes. However, with careful editing, I hope I will be able to write third person, gender neutral they/them without confusing my readers.