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]

Love, Lattes and Angel – Sandra Cox

Love, Lattes and Angel CoverSeries: Mutants, #3
First Published: 12th April, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Piper is a dolphin-human hybrid, called a dolph. She and her friends are on the run from the scientist who created the dolphs. Her friends include her human boyfriend Tyler, her baby daughter Angel, dolph siblings Joel and Amy, and her human grandfather. Angel was recently created in a lab, from Piper and Joel’s DNA, and seems to have many new abilities. They’ll have to deal with strange storms, voodoo, and love triangles. Note that though it’s generally a light book, there are some scenes of medical torture.

I like stories centred around oceans and mermaids, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Dolphin-human hybrids sounded as though they could be interesting, even with a mention of a love triangle (which isn’t my thing) and voodoo (often handled very badly) in the description. Sometimes I regret my choices.

It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Piper and Joel. The book is not well-written right from the start. It has confusing and awkward lines, dialogue that doesn’t sound real, and paper-thin characters. The opening makes little sense, as it has Joel waking up from having his tracking chip removed. But no one considered that taking off the suppressor he was wearing would lead the bad guys right to them. There’s no obvious reason why the suppressor couldn’t be kept near the chip at all times during surgery, except that the plot couldn’t happen if they were sensible.

So Piper, Joel and Angel need to get back to the others immediately, as the bad guys might be on the way. That means time to stop for a swim, which mainly seems to happen so Joel can admire Piper’s long legs, flat belly and perky breasts. That’s obviously more important than getting to safety.

Piper doesn’t get to make her own decisions about the love triangle (with Tyler and Joel). It’s all about what the men decide to do, not about what she decides. They decide if it’d be wrong for her to have a relationship with them. They decide when it’s over. Piper is often likened in the narrative to her daughter. They do the same things, get the same gifts from Joel, and he thinks of them together as his girls… but Piper is an adult and Angel is a child. Everyone seems to forget that Piper is not a child, and should be able to make her own decisions.

At one point, Piper does complain that a decision was made for her. But the narrative is quick to confirm she’s just being silly, as Joel knows best and is doing what’s right. Later, Piper thinks of herself as being female and irrational. Thank goodness she has some rational men around to guide her and save her from danger.

Angel is the perfect child. She doesn’t smell like vomit, never needs her nappies changed, and is always cooperative. She is the best dolph of them all, as she can speak as a baby, swim faster, is telepathic, and knows the languages of all living creatures. I was waiting for some crack, but she remains perfect in every way. I suppose she had to be, because it’s not like her parents were about to come up with a plan before rushing into certain death.

This is science fiction that doesn’t realise it’s not hard science, so keeps trying to explain things in ways that break the suspension of disbelief. More handwaving the details would have gone a long way, because the science is magic.

For example, having DNA from a certain species wouldn’t magically give someone the abilities of that species. Only having the traits the DNA codes for would do that. But in this book, dolphin DNA means they can swim faster, without any fins, flippers, webbed hands/feet or anything of that nature. When Angel can swim even faster, they think she must have some fish DNA that causes that. But still no outward physical swimming adaptations.

What dolphin DNA does give them is a blowhole and the ability to hold their breath for a long time. It also gives them eyes the colour of the ocean, hot model bodies, wonderful body scent, and beautiful voices. Because dolphins are known for all those things.

There’s also the discussion about dolphin telepathy. Saying that dolphins are telepathic, and therefore that’s why Angel is telepathic, is the sort of handwaving that goes on in science fiction. However, it actually says, “Dolphins can encode information with their echolocation and whistles. Some folks consider that telepathic.” I encode information in sounds from my vocal chords all the time, which I like to call having a language.

On to the part I was concerned about from the initial description: the voodoo. Molita is a vodou high priestess, who does various rituals for them. Angel, of course, is wiser than anyone who practises vodou and teaches Moilta better ways to do things. Later, there’s a conversation between the characters to explain to the reader about vodou. The whole thing is awkward, and full of the white characters thinking of it as dangerous dark magic and the like. There is at least some pushback that it’s a religion, but I wouldn’t call this a good example of vodou. It’s about on a level with the rest of the book.

Amy is barely there as a character, until she needs rescuing. One of the bad guys is described as albino, which reinforces the trope of albinistic people being inherently evil. Everyone falls in instalove. There are just so many points where I regretted thinking dolphin-human hybrids sounded fun.

Bad writing, worldbuilding and characterisation mean there’s not a lot going for this. I can see people reading it to boggle at the badness, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it. I did like the pet chicken.

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

Steamborn – Eric R. Asher

Steamborn CoverSeries: The Steamborn Series, #1
First Published: 29th November, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jacob is a boy living in a walled city, under constant attack from giant invertebrates. When an attack devastates part of the city, he and his friends investigate the cause.

I read this because of my love of invertebrates. It’s a steampunk world where invertebrates can grow to giant sizes. There are knights who ride giant spiders, insects pulling carriages, and the threat from wild invertebrates coming over the walls. I liked that though the wild ones were dangerous, it wasn’t that invertebrates were evil. Predators will kill people because they hunt, but there were invertebrates who were tame, who were farmed for food, and so on.

It’s one of the few books that treat spiders as just another animal. As well as the giant ones people ride, there are large (several inches across) jumping spiders that live around the city. Not everyone likes them, but they’re mostly treated as harmless.

Class themes are important. Jacob is from a poor family, who live in the Lowlands. As well as generally struggling with money for food and medicine, the walls protecting the Lowlands aren’t as good. That means they’re at risk from attacks. The rich area of the city is at the highest point, with the best walls.

It touches on some disability issues, as amputees are common due to the attacks. Jacob gets to work making prosthetics for people. This also links to the past, when the city was at war with people who had very advanced steampunk cybernetics. Some as prosthetics for people who’d lost limbs, but also some who’d been turned into cyborg soldiers. This would have had more impact if someone in the main cast had been injured, rather than being something that happened to minor characters. Though dehumanizing people with these prosthetics was treated as a serious issue, it was all rather distant.

The characters weren’t particularly diverse. They were mainly men/boys. Though it’s claimed the people in the present of the story are a mixture of all the races of the old world, everyone looks rather white until a few characters at the end. They fit a lot of stock character types. The eccentric old inventor. The reckless young boy who’ll save the world. Alice, the only girl who really had a major role, was there as the sensible one who told Jacob off for being too reckless.

The result is I was a lot more interested in the world than the characters living in it. The history and the society built around giant invertebrates was fun to explore. The characters who did the exploring were not the major draw for me.

The book is a little heavy on capitalised new names for things, which often made it harder to understand rather than clarifying what things were. It’s also the first in an ongoing story. There’s some resolution at the end, but it’s more of a pause before continuing the larger narrative.

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

Gone to Drift – Diana McCaulay

Gone to Drift CoverFirst Published: 28th February, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lloyd’s grandfather, Conrad, doesn’t come back from a fishing trip. Lloyd is certain that Conrad wouldn’t have got caught out at sea, so something else must have happened. He’s going to find out what, no matter the danger.

The story is told from two points-of-view. Lloyd in third person, as he searches for his grandfather. Conrad in first person, as he thinks about his past and his current situation. It’s an interesting mystery, as Conrad’s disappearance is not as simple as an accident at sea. Lloyd has to ask questions and search for clues, all the while being careful that he might be heading into some dangerous territory. The reader knows Conrad is still alive, but he won’t survive forever. Lloyd has limited time to solve the mystery, even if he doesn’t quite realise it at first.

Conrad’s perspective gives a broader view of how Jamaica has changed during his lifetime. Technology has brought benefits, like cell phones for staying in contact, and boat engines able to take fishers out further. It’s also meant greater pollution and dwindling fish stocks.

I appreciated the family fishing versus environmentalism plotline. This is something that impacts my local community too, as environmental laws often end up harming the local fishing fleet (of small beach-launched vessels) much more than the big factory ships. It’s important to have fishing quotas and laws to protect the environment, but they need to be made with the community, rather than against them. For Lloyd’s community, it means fishers turning to less legal sources of income, including capturing dolphins.

This book is an example of how things like binary gender roles can exist in a narrative in a way that doesn’t endorse them. Men and women have rigidly defined roles in the community. Lloyd takes this as simply being how things are. Conrad is starting to question it, such as regretting not being part of his mother’s world, and whether she felt lonely as the only woman in the family. This is also challenged from the outside by Jules, a local black woman who has trained as a scientist and is clearly at home on the ocean (a man’s place).

Some other issues are touched on briefly. Slowly, a homeless man who everyone says is mad, is clearly suffering from trauma after having been lost at sea. He’s not portrayed as a threat. Simply as someone who couldn’t cope and didn’t have access to any help. There are a lot of people like Slowly who end up homeless.

I was uncomfortable with Conrad’s fantasy about being descended from an Arawak prince. He might be right in having Arawak/Taíno ancestry, but the prince angle was much more fictional trope than reality. It also sets up Native Americans as past tense, without making it clear this is talking about the local situation, rather than as a whole. Unlike something like the strict idea of men and women’s roles, there’s no counter to this in the narrative. It relies on the reader coming in with prior knowledge.

I also wish they’d marked Conrad’s sections in something other than italics. This is difficult for me as a dyslexic reader.

Outside of those things, I enjoyed the book. Lloyd and Conrad’s relationship shines through, which is difficult to achieve when two characters spend the story apart. The social issues of fishing and dolphins caught for entertainment are also very topical. It’s a beautifully written book with an engaging mystery.

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

The Missing – Melanie Florence

The Missing CoverFirst Published: 12th February, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Lorimer

Girls are going missing at Feather’s school, but the police aren’t taking it seriously because they’re Aboriginal. Feather has to deal with the aftermath of the disappearances, as well as try to figure out who might be taking them.

There are a lot of serious subjects tackled in the book, such as the disappearance of Native girls being ignored by the police, anti-gay sentiments, child abuse, and victim blaming. It ties into many real cases where such disappearances are ignored or mishandled. Though it has some mystery aspects, investigating the disappearances is not the primary focus. It centres much more on how Feather and her friends cope with what’s going on.

I liked the interaction between the characters as they come to terms with what’s happened. Everyone reacts differently. Sometimes in ways that show they’re not such nice people after all. Feather has to work out her feelings about this, as well as understanding that her friends come from very different family environments. Not everyone has their family’s support.

The killer’s perspective was also interesting. He uses a lot of exotifying terms, like describing the girls he watches in comparison with food. It’s pretty creepy to be constantly compared to food products, whilst never getting to be a person, and these sections highlight that perfectly. The girls aren’t people to him. They’re sugar-sweet playthings. It’d be nice if this was required reading for authors who think it’s a compliment to liken non-white people to chocolate.

I did wonder at one point why Feather didn’t take a weapon with her. She seems to have thought everything else though, except for that. I was also hoping for a bit more mystery solving towards the end.

Despite being good at handling some issues, it did fall down somewhat when it comes to mental health. The killer is described as crazy and insane. It’d be nice to find a story where the killer isn’t depicted as a crazy person, especially when it’s in this sort of context. Using privilege as a weapon against marginalised people isn’t a sign of insanity. A non-neurotypical person is much more likely to be the victim in this scenario.

The book is written for reluctant readers, and achieves the aim of mature subjects written in easier language. It has short chapters and clear writing. Some of the dialogue is a little stilted. However, a reader who is absorbed in the story is likely to overlook this.

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