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.

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 Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

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

Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

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

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

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