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]

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.

The Demon Girl’s Song – Susan Jane Bigelow

Demon Girl's Song CoverFirst Published: 20th September, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Andín’s dreams of the future come to an end when she gets an ancient demon stuck in her head. But it might be there are bigger problems in the world than one demon.

The setting is a secondary fantasy world at the start of its industrial revolution. There are factories and trains, alongside magic. Motorcars are just starting to appear in places, though not to the point of replacing horses. Socially, it’s a time of change. Women have few rights, which is first seen when Andín is unable to go to university. Her father thinks it would be a waste to send a girl, and instead wants to send her brother. It’s expected that Andín will marry and her brother will hold down a job. Yet these attitudes are being challenged, not only by Andín herself. At a larger scale, there’s a push away from emperors and monarchs towards democracy in some of the countries.

Things are a bit rocky at the start of the book. Neither Andín nor the demon come across as pleasant, with a lot of random angry outbursts. Some of these didn’t make sense, and still don’t even after thinking about them. I’d have expected the demon to be a little more cunning given his age, rather than giving away his presence through tantrums. A few extra lines in places might have clarified these reactions.

Once the initial mystery of how Andín ended up with the demon is resolved, it starts to really get going. I’m glad the book didn’t consist solely of the demon mystery, as it would have stretched a bit thin. It also gives them something else to be doing as they get used to each other.

The characters do get more interesting as they settle. One thing that’s particularly interesting is how the demon changes to having a new host. After years of inhabiting men, he initially thinks of himself as a man trapped in a girl. This starts to shift as the two merge together.

The cast is diverse, with non-white, lesbian and bisexual characters. There are some references to insanity as a shorthand for bad things, though it’s not as bad as most books in that regard.

This is a standalone book. It wouldn’t require a sequel to make sense. The choice of an industrial revolution setting is less common in the genre, which I appreciated. However, the slow start and initial difficulty getting to know the characters does make it harder to get into the story. Once I did, it was an entertaining read.

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

Tales from Perach – Shira Glassman

Tales from Perach CoverSeries: Mangoverse, #5
First Published: 19th July, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a collection of short stories linked to the main novel series. The original edition contained five stories. I read the updated edition, which also contains two stories previously published as Tales from Outer Lands. I haven’t read the novels, though mostly the stories worked on their own and had self-contained plots. An exception was “Every Us”, which came across as more of an extra scene for people who know the characters.

“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is the strongest in terms of standing alone. Rivka needs money, so ends up taking on a job to rescue a woman. I liked that Rivka and the woman she rescues use their shared faith to communicate: they don’t speak the same daily language, but do know the same stories and prayers. This is also the odd one out in the collection, as it has a fair bit of violence.

The rest of the stories had a generally lighter tone, though I didn’t always react to them in that way. There are microaggressions and threats, which made the stories where they appeared rather more uncomfortable. The one that particularly didn’t work for me was “Aviva and the Aliens”. It’s otherwise a very silly story about hungry locust aliens. But the aliens have all the same attitudes as the men on the planet below, so there’s a forced marriage threat. It changed the tone of the story with a jolt.

I enjoyed the domestic focus of many of the stories, such as running a business and family celebrations. “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” was a particularly fun story, about two children gathering flowers to surprise someone. There’s some interesting fairy lore in this one too.

Many of the characters are queer. This includes trans, bi, lesbian and gay characters. One story has an asexual aromantic supporting character. I appreciated seeing these characters getting to have happy endings. I also liked that their Jewish faith was shown in a positive light. Religion was part of their daily lives.

There’s a lot to like here, but I felt there was an overall mismatch between how I reacted to the stories and what was intended. These are billed as being fluffy, which I could see for some, but not for others. Situations where rape is threatened, leering and microaggressions are all things I find decidedly non-fluffy. It’s not graphic, but those themes are there in some stories.

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