Keeper of the Dawn – Dianna Gunn

Novella CoverFirst Published: 18th April, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lai has trained all her life to become a priestess, like her mother and grandmother before her. When she fails the test, she runs away and finds her people aren’t the only ones with that religion.

This is a novella of unfortunate implications. That’s going to take some explaining, so I’ll start with the simpler stuff. I’m also not talking about much which isn’t in the book description, but I’d note the official description covers most of the plot.

One thing I did like is the two cultures with the same religion are both shown as being equally religious. Often in these situations, there will be one group who are the true believers and one group with a corrupted version. Here, the goddesses are watching over them both. There isn’t one true version of the religion and they both have holes in their history knowledge.

The writing flowed along well enough. Though the story was predictable, that’s not always a bad thing for a light read. It has some adventure and some romance, which is what it promised. It did tend to jump huge chunks of time, which left gaps in the relationships and worldbuilding. None of that would have been that bad, if it wasn’t for the rest.

There’s a black/white means bad/good thing going on from the start, though it’s more subtle at the beginning. Lai is attacked by someone with black hair, when Lai has white-blond hair (described as silver and as blond at various points). The community is mostly lighter people, so the darker-haired antagonist is noticeable. Given a choice of horses, Lai chooses the white one as superior to the brown and black ones. On their own, these things might not register, but then Lai is off visiting the lands to the north, and the unfortunate implications really get going.

To understand my reservations, there needs to be some understanding of a group of connected stereotypes. They’re connected by superficial similarities in appearance, rather than the groups involved having much else in common. Often tanned, curly dark hair, hooked nose, sometimes with other features like large ears, thick lips, or tiny eyes. Things that set a person apart as different compared to lighter Northern Europeans. They can’t be trusted, they’re greedy, the men will lust after women, the women are temptresses, and they’re probably all doing some dark magic on the side. There are some variations on the theme, but it’s often difficult to separate exactly which group is being targeted, because it’s a combination of all of them. Commonly included are Jewish people, Romani people, and pagans / witches. The last of those makes more sense knowing that the early inhabitants of the British Isles had darker complexions, with pale blonds moving in later. So, with some vague handwaving to justify it, obviously all people with darker complexions are doing evil witchcraft. At a minimum, they’re very bad people.

When Lai crosses the border, she ends up working for a man called Calvin. He is a travelling merchant and is shifty from the start. I was thinking Romani stereotypes at this point. He also makes suggestive comments to Lai, despite him being married and her being a teen. This could be falling into the Romani men lusting after pure white women thing (and it happens again later, with a travelling bard, because you can’t trust travellers). But the lust thing can also be applied to Jewish men. Which brings me to how he’s really rich and hoarding wealth, which is a common Jewish stereotype. This is reinforced by northerners being monotheists. To finish off, the magic in the north has shady stuff like blood oaths going on, which comes back to the paganism and witchcraft connections.

This is all tied up with the physical side. There aren’t any hooked noses here, but there are beady eyes and northerners are overall darker (especially compared to white-blond Lai). Calvin is also fat, and described as a disgusting and gluttonous eater. An anti-fatness stereotype in itself, but one that is frequently associated with the greedy Jewish stereotypes.

I’d also note the trainee in Lai’s new home who is violently against her also happens to be the one with curly black hair. Everyone described as having black hair is antagonistic to Lai in some way.

These things are so common they’re often not noticed. Or when they are, people argue that they’re too general to pin down to one specific group as the target, so they’re not really targeting anyone. I agree the former can be tricky, as it often covers a mashup of different stereotypes. I’m sure people can pick out some I missed. But it doesn’t make the latter true. It just means the targets are widespread.

More obvious as an eyebrow-raiser is she’s a desert nomad from a culture that made amazing Ancient Near East / Rome inspired structures, and her favourite weapon appears to be Chinese butterfly knives under another name, but people from those cultures aren’t in the story. The cultural aspects are there, but not the people.

The reason I picked up the book is Lai is asexual, which is what I thought I’d be talking about. Instead, you got a long ramble about the ways stereotypes interact. But this is partly because being asexual didn’t come into it much until later. I’d have liked more tell than show here, because showing meant creepy sexual situations. Men tried to get Lai to have sex with them. The new community happens to have a fertility festival where people are supposed to have sex. It’s sort of optional, but not really, as Lai has to go to impress people and she’s coerced into dancing. The positive side is she isn’t coerced into sex and her romantic partner is okay with it once explained, though it does come with the statement that normal couples have sex. Not wanting sex was okay, but also abnormal. This was a mixed bag for me as a result. I’d have liked it a whole lot more without the creepy stuff and normality statements.

I didn’t note any disabled characters, but it’d be a bad world to be disabled, as health and fitness are assumed to be because of the gods. Priestesses have to be able to win battles to prove they’re favoured. Disease is assumed to be a divine punishment.

The worldbuilding is very binary, as men do this, and women do that, and it’s innate rather than simply being culturally enforced. In short, I don’t have a place in this world, except perhaps as the beady-eyed villain. But it does have two women in a relationship and one’s asexual, and for some readers, that might be enough.

[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 Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

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

Pantomime – Laura Lam

Pantomime CoverSeries: Micah Grey, #1
First Published: 5th February, 2013
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Gene is the daughter of a noble family who has a secret. Micah is a runaway who joins the circus. They’re both the same person, because Gene/Micah is intersex.

There are two timelines in the book. Gene’s starts in the events leading to her running away. Micah’s starts when he visits the circus, and eventually ends up getting a job as a trainee aerialist. Often in stories like this, it’s apparent which name and pronouns are the preferred ones of the person. It isn’t in this case. Both Gene and Micah are identities put on for necessity, and neither is the whole truth. There’s a strong theme of working out how gender roles and sexuality apply. I liked that Micah’s journey was handled as something that wasn’t clear cut and that varied over time, as things like gender and sexuality are not necessarily things that are obvious and set in stone for all people. It did tend to stray into “both male and female” territory, but Micah’s society doesn’t really have a concept of non-binary anything, so it did fit as the best Micah had to describe himself. It reminded me of the ways I’d try to describe myself when I was younger.

The plot was engaging and I enjoyed reading about the circus community. The pacing was mostly there, though I did drift when the pantomime performance began. It’s difficult to make a stage play work in novel format, and I don’t feel this really did it, but it was a short part of the book.

I also liked the world. It’s relatively low tech, but there are devices left from the civilisation of the past. No one knows how they work, so once they run out of power, they can no longer be used. This also links in to a past of other species and human hybrids of various kinds. I had reservations about exactly how this was applied to Micah, but the general idea was good.

There were some areas where it didn’t work for me. A big one is Micah’s presentation as an intersex person. He runs away to avoid invasive surgery designed to make him conform to a binary sex. Micah’s problems are shown sympathetically and it’s clear that forced surgery is not the right choice. The nature of the story means that Micah manages to escape and decide what he wants, which is a positive message. The broad idea wasn’t a bad one, and does cover issues that intersex people can face. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the rest.

I haven’t found many intersex characters in speculative fiction, but where I have, they’re usually a reimagining of what humans would be like if one person could perform all reproductive processes. Technically, this is a form of ovotestes, but this isn’t how it usually looks in real life. Ovotestes doesn’t dictate a certain appearance and doesn’t mean a person can perform all reproductive processes. On the contrary, this would be extremely rare in a human. Speculative fiction usually gets around this with a handwave of magic or genetic engineering. I’m not saying this type of character should never be written, but it does seem like it’s written so often that it becomes the one true representation.

Micah is very much a fantasy intersex character. He belongs to a magical species where everyone is like Micah. This means he is not human and he is not an intersex member of his species. I’ve kept the label, and discussed Micah as belonging to that label, because it’s how he’s usually categorised in book discussions. I also think the character would be of interest to people wanting to look at intersex characters. But it’s not what I was hoping for when I read the book.

There’s an uncomfortable focus on Micah’s body. People would just happen to feel Micah’s genitals or he’d show them to people rather than explaining (and it certainly wasn’t a culture where nakedness among friends would be viewed as commonplace). It felt rather like Micah was on display to the reader. I’d also note that Micah’s concerns for being rejected due to his body don’t extend to empathy for others. Micah is rather negative about the appearance of the woman with a moustache, for example.

The choice of which circus members would be major supporting characters also didn’t sit well. The freakshow characters are there so Micah could feel bad about showing people as freaks, but they didn’t get character development. Tauro in particular stood out to me, because as well as looking a bit like a minotaur, he appears to have a developmental disability of some sort. The acrobats are non-white and don’t speak the same language as Micah, which means they’re not included in anything. The first time they appear, their movements are likened to wolves, which further removes them from being referred to as human.

The people who get the most development are white, with one of Micah’s potential love interests also being from a wealthy background. So there’s a lot of background diversity, but it only tends to come into the foreground when it’s about being QUILTBAG.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed the book, and thought it had an interesting world and accessible writing style. It’s also still somewhat rare to have a bisexual lead or to look at gender outside of a binary framework. But it didn’t really fit what I was hoping for when it came to having an intersex character, and I wish some of the background characters had been a little less in the background. Note that there are some sexual assault themes, including an implied rape in someone’s backstory, as well as general violence.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]