Chameleon Moon – RoAnna Sylver

Series: Chameleon Moon, #1
First Published: 1st October, 2014
Genre: Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

People with superpowers are kept in quarantine in the city of Parole. When an assassination goes wrong, Regan is left with amnesia, and it might have something to do with the larger issues of the city.

It’s debatable in an ensemble cast whether anyone is a main character. I’m loosely saying they’re Regan and Evelyn, as a lot of the plot and scenes revolve around their stories, even if they’re from someone else’s perspective. But other characters also have large roles, so it’s open to interpretation. This is the second edition of the book.

Regan ends up with amnesia early in the story. It’s a good handling of amnesia in general, such as Regan processing how he feels about not remembering anything, and the way the memories trickle back. If he did have his memories, the plot wouldn’t be solved in five seconds, so it’s not used in that way. The personal impact of not remembering things like his family is the primary focus.

What I wasn’t fond of was the reason for the amnesia, because it’s caused by Hans. I disliked the scenes he was in and hoped they’d be over quickly, which unfortunately, they never were. One issue is that Hans has mind powers which mean he can give people amnesia, control their minds, and is generally unstoppable. Which makes it hard for other characters to stand up to him. Hence when he’s in a scene, it’s all about him, and it’s not going to end quickly.

Part of Regan’s struggle to remember his past reveals he may be asexual, as he realises he doesn’t find others sexually attractive. He’s also a lizard person with PTSD and anxiety.

Evelyn is a superhero with singing powers. She’s a trans woman and is in a poly relationship with two other women. I’m assuming she’s non-white as her skin is described as brown. One of the things she has to face is her past. She left her birth family behind, but ends up having to return. Evelyn is misgendered by one of her family, though these scenes are brief.

There’s a lot of diversity in the cast, including a non-binary person with they pronouns, someone with a double leg amputation, and multiple non-white people (though I was uncertain of exact races). PTSD is common, along with anxiety and depression. There are some references to suicide as part of this. It’s not clear whether the characters in relationships view themselves as gay, lesbian, bi, pan and so forth. Regan’s sexuality is the only one explicitly discussed. However, the relationships tend towards same gender or binary gender with non-binary.

Some of the books I’ve had recommended to me as lighter queer reads have turned out to have a constant threat of sexual violence. This one was noted to be somewhat darker, but it managed to avoid that particular issue. It has general violence, but that violence doesn’t focus around sexual violence.

On the issue of darkness, the characters may be living in a disaster zone, but the end tends towards the hopeful rather than the tragic. Named characters have a very good chance of survival. Unnamed characters may not be so lucky.

I enjoyed a lot of things about the book. Parole is an interesting setting and it was good to find out more about the mysteries surrounding it. There’s a lot of character time, as the characters talk and figure things out. I did feel it got confusing towards the end, in terms of exactly what was happening, and everyone’s locations. I also really didn’t like Hans, particularly because his powers made it hard for anyone to resist him. But my criticisms are minor, and for the most part, I’d be interested in seeing where it goes next.

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children, #1
First Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Nancy has spent the last few years in the Halls of the Dead, an underworld where stillness is valued. When she returns, she ends up at a boarding school for other teenagers like her, who are longing to return to their worlds.

Contrary to the book’s official description, it’s not about children who are spat out by their portal worlds when their potential is used up. Some can return to their worlds if they find another door. Some will go back and forth many times. Which is a pity, because I liked the idea of draining children of their miracle powers like some sort of portal world vampire, but there you go.

There’s obviously a deeper system going on here, with the worlds mapped out in directions like Nonsense and Logic, but this never really gets developed. Most of the interesting setup is dropped once the murder mystery begins. Speculative murder mysteries are my thing, but this one really didn’t work for me. I figured they’d go around finding out about everyone’s worlds, in the hopes of finding clues to the killer. What actually happens is they don’t do a lot of investigating, ignore the very obvious clues, then have the answer fall into their laps at the end. Note that this is a darker mystery, so the deaths are gory and the bodies are described in detail.

Nancy is a romantic asexual person. The book attempts to explain asexuality in basic terms, but in a way that is impersonal to Nancy. It’s like a definition for someone who hasn’t heard of asexuality. Which makes it a problem when asexuality is being defined as not having a desire for sex, rather than not feeling sexual attraction. This is true for Nancy, but not for all asexual people, so it would have been better if she’d made the description personal.

The discussion of romance is rather more confused. She makes it clear she did enjoy dating when she was young enough that there wasn’t pressure for sex. She directly states she’s not aromantic. Then she goes on to describe people as being like paintings, so she doesn’t want to date because she wouldn’t date a painting. In other words, she doesn’t get into romantic relationships with people she’s not sexually attracted to, which is no one, so therefore she doesn’t date. I’m not really sure what all that was about. Maybe Nancy was confused. Maybe the author was confused. I couldn’t tell which.

However, my biggest issue with her asexuality is that it’s portrayed as a bigger problem than having returned from the Halls of the Dead. Her parents push her to date and she thinks it’s inevitable in relationships that she’ll be pressured into sex. Nancy was put into sexually awkward situations just to show her being uncomfortable, like her roommate wanting to know if Nancy wanted sex with someone, and if she could masturbate whilst Nancy was in the room. The overall feel is that it would be impossible for Nancy to exist in society as an asexual person, and so she turns her back on society.

There’s an attempt to distance Nancy’s death and stillness from asexuality, by saying a lot of people in the Halls of the Dead were sexual. Which would work better if being asexual wasn’t a reason for her to want to return there and retreat from society forever.

Nancy states she doesn’t have an eating disorder, but that’s not how it looks. She’s attempting to survive on the food that sustained her in the Halls of the Dead. That means mostly fruit juice. It’s a fantastical eating disorder for an unusual reason, but she’s still restricting her portion sizes, and this is still going to kill her. However, as it isn’t addressed as an eating disorder, there aren’t any downsides. It’s shown as rather ethereal and mysterious, which was getting a little too close to glamourising eating disorders for my liking.

One of Nancy’s new friends is Kade, who is a trans boy. He was kicked out of his world when they realised he wasn’t a girl, his parents rejected him for it, and he also faces bigoted comments at the school. The anti-trans themes weren’t unrealistic, but were rather a downer, especially considering he’s the only one who couldn’t have the happily-ever-after of going back to his perfect world.

Jack and Jill are identical twins. It avoids some tropes (they’re not telepathic linked or treated as being identical people), but does fall into others (when one twin is good the other must be bad).

There are a few non-white characters. Sumi is Japanese. Christopher is Latino. The former doesn’t get much development time, it grated that she constantly called people stupid, and I didn’t like how her story ended. The latter has some development, though I noted his world was rather Day of the Dead, linking the world to his roots in a way that doesn’t happen for the white characters. These characters exist, but it’s the white characters who are centred.

There’s an attempt to make the school mostly being girls sound less binary by blaming it on imposed gender roles, but this didn’t work for me. Nothing about “boys will be boys” would stop them disappearing through a door in an instant. It’s possible this was intended to sound ridiculous, and Kade’s experiences would suggest the portal worlds prefer girls because they’re bigots rather than there being a real gender difference. But no character challenges this at all.

Also, I never did like the trope that adults are so vastly different from children, except for old people who are just like children. This is used to justify why adults (except for old adults) can’t cope with nonsense.

I liked the concept for this a lot more than the actual story. It’s a great idea. There’s some lovely writing in places and some of the worlds were very imaginative. But it doesn’t really come together as a whole. The inclusion reads too much like it’s there to explain terms for people who don’t know them, and has some implications I don’t like very much. This is tied up in a murder mystery that isn’t very mysterious.

Super Sikh #1 – Eileen Kaur Alden, Supreet Singh Manchanda, Amit Tayal

Super Sikh CoverFull Title: Super Sikh #1 Takeoff and Landing
First Published: 26th April, 2017
Genre: Spy / Comic
Contributors: Eileen Kaur Alden (creator, adaptation); Supreet Singh Manchanda (creator); Amit Tayal (artist), Pradeep Sherawat (colourist), Adrian Reynolds (adaptation)
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Deep Singh is a U.N. Special Agent, but all the work is tiring him out, so he tries to take a holiday.

The first issue is an introduction to the character and central plot, where Deep goes on holiday to the USA and it doesn’t entirely work out. I saw this discussed as a superhero title, but it has more of an action spy vibe. Deep doesn’t have superhuman abilities and I didn’t get a feel that anyone else did either. He does have exceptional combat skills and some of the gadgets are more speculative.

My favourite thing about it was the family relationships. His family arrange for him to go away, and their concerns for him are clear. He has a cousin, Preeti, who works for the U.N. in research. When it comes to showing Sikhs, there’s a clear understanding of people approaching things in different ways. Deep’s older relatives wear traditional clothing. Deep’s clothing is more modern, but he has a turban and kara. Preeti has uncovered hair and no kara, outside of wearing one for a demonstration. I liked the attention to detail in how different characters expressed themselves and their faith.

Deep rarely has thoughts written out and he mainly speaks to tell jokes. This makes it difficult to really know who he is and what he thinks about what’s going on. There’s a lot of James Bond inspiration in the story, and it’d be fair to say that doesn’t focus on character much either, but that was something I didn’t like much in James Bond. I do like to get to know characters, and I don’t feel I knew much more about Deep than I did when I started reading.

The art is generally solid. It’s a realistic comic style and Deep’s facial expressions are good. I did feel some of the background characters weren’t as well rendered, particularly the black ones. I guess the artist has less experience of drawing people of some races, which may explain why there are so few background black characters. There are also some disability issues, as the art fell into using facial scarring and an eyepatch to denote someone as being evil.

There are issues when it comes to characters who aren’t Sikhs. Muslims are either terrorists or victims to be saved (when they’re women or girls). Mexicans are terrorists. Fat people are jokes. People who do bad things are crazy. There’s an attempt to subvert stereotypes when it comes to the Sikh characters, but stereotypes of anyone else are treated as the truth.

I can understand how it might have ended up here, as anyone who covers their hair or is non-white can be mistaken for being a Muslim. This means getting targeted by anti-Islamic discrimination. I get stopped by customs for a lot of random searches because they assume I’m Middle Eastern (and therefore, that I must be a Muslim). But it’s important to realise the primary issue isn’t that I’m being mistaken for a Muslim. It’s that there is prejudice against Muslims, and by extension, anyone assumed to be one. Stating that I can’t be a terrorist because I’m not a Muslim is suggesting the prejudice is grounded in fact, and that it would have been fair if they hadn’t been wrong about my identity. Like I say, I can understand why people have this reaction, but that doesn’t make it a good response. It shifts around who gets hurt rather than acknowledging the core problem. The comic very much has this type of reaction. It doesn’t tackle the assumptions that certain groups of people are terrorists and criminals. It simply distances Deep from being part of those groups.

Some of my comments could be worked out as the series continues, such as getting to know Deep a bit more. I’m rather more hesitant on the other stuff. It looks like crazy Islamic terrorist is going to be the flavour of main villain and I don’t think that’s going to be handled in a subversive way.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse – Jason Hazeley, Joel Morris

Zombie Apocalypse CoverSeries: Ladybirds for Grown-Ups
First Published: 20th October, 2016
Genre: Humour / Fictional Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon UK

The old Ladybird books covered a wide range of subjects for children. They were small books with hard covers, with the general layout of a page of text opposite a full page picture. People grew up with these books, which led to the adult realisation that there were some unintentionally funny things about them. Ladybird decided to get in on the action, by producing their own satirical versions for adults. This one tells grown-ups all about the zombie apocalypse.

My reference book for this review was Life of the Honey-bee, one of the genuine old Ladybird books for children. Funnily enough, one of the bee pictures is included in The Zombie Apocalypse. The pictures all look like they’re from the original books, but with new text to put them into an apocalyptic context.

The text is in the classic cheerful tone of the books. Some pages are more general, but many focus on a character and what they say or do. The language is simple, with a few short paragraphs on each page. Ladybird books did vary in how they were written (my bee book is a little more wordy and doesn’t focus on characters), but this is a reasonable reproduction of how the books were put together.

I liked the book’s opening statement that there are still interesting things to do after the zombie apocalypse. Also, that the police may be very busy. There’s a polite optimism about the end of times, as well as educational discussions about the nature of zombies. My favourite potential zombie cause was: “It could even be a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, but one that explodes mushrooms through your face and makes you eat everybody.”

There are some other nice touches when it comes to making this look like one of the old books. There were little series within the series, which were given a number. The bee book is part of Series 651, which had four books. This information was listed on the back. The zombie book has copied this, putting itself in Series 999 with five other pretend titles. Though if they really published The Martian Invasion or Giant Underground Worms, I’d be there.

Inclusion in the art is the same as the old Ladybird books. That means it’s mostly nice middle class white families. Everyone is dressed very neatly and they’re usually smiling (or looking horrified in an over-the-top way, which was not originally because the images were intended to be people thinking about zombies). There’s usually a father, mother, one son and one daughter. Boys often have dark hair and the girls are blonde. There is one black family and also some construction workers on one page, because that was as far as diversity went in the Ladybird era. Everyone else fits into a stereotype of the perfect British family, in the sort of way where you might wonder when someone was about to get murdered in the village. Ladybird books and cozy mysteries are really the only place this family exists.

It’s also notable that the few pictures rebranded as zombies, where there are people who are either shot or attackers, have darker skin. One shows tipi frames in the background and another looks like the zombies are wearing buckskin clothing. I’d assume they were originally intended as scenes of Native Americans, which is pretty messed up considering their skin is darkened in a way that looks distinctly unnatural. They’re not brown, but more of a greyish-black. They really do look more like zombies.

As someone who grew up reading these books, I appreciated the humour. I also think there’s something here to appeal to those who’ve never read a Ladybird book, as the satire works as a general poke at the way children’s books (and the apocalypse) are presented. However, it does make me reflect on how Ladybird books were very much products of their time in a bad way. The perfect stereotype family contrasted with everyone else was a common theme of the books. The racism in the imagery went largely without comment when I was younger. This is something that works as satire for adults, but it’s something I hope we leave behind for children.