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.

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

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