The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

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

Hortense and the Shadow – Natalia O’Hara (author), Lauren O’Hara (illustrator)

Hortense and the Shadow CoverFirst Published: 5th October, 2017
Genre: Children’s Fairytale Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Hortense hates her shadow and wants to get rid of it.

I loved the atmosphere of the book. It’s an eerie fairytale, with Hortense living alone in a dark wood, and her shadow as something that can act independently.

There’s a poetic feel and it rhymes in places. Some of the pages have words spread out in artistic ways. This is great for children who love finding words, but could hinder those who struggle. The main thing is to be ready to help struggling readers find their way.

The artwork is intricate in muted tones. The creators were inspired by stories from their Polish grandmother, which particularly shows in the setting. The winters are snowy. The characters wear fur hats and fur-lined clothing. They have black hair and high cheekbones. This is one time where having Eastern European characters as the villains (a group of bandits) actually works, because Hortense is clearly the same ethnicity. It’s not saying that criminals look like this and heroes look like that.

The book has an overall positive message about self (or shadow) acceptance. I appreciated that when Hortense is shouting at her shadow, she doesn’t resort to ableist slurs or similar. It’s a cute book, and will appeal to children who like fairytales with a touch of darkness.

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

The Seafarer’s Kiss – Julia Ember

Seafarer's Kiss CoverFirst Published: 4nd May, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ersel dreams of life beyond the constrictive rules of her merfolk clan. Then she finds a human stranded on the ice.

This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid following the sea witch. It’s set in colder waters with a Norse mythology feel. It follows Ersel’s developing relationship with Ragna, the young woman she finds on the ice, and the deals Ersel makes with Loki to attempt to get what she wants.

One thing that bothers me in mermaid stories is when they’re written as though they take place on land. One moment someone is swimming, and the next they’re doing something that wouldn’t work underwater. This is one of those stories. The great hall is set out like a cafeteria with tables, benches and people carrying food on trays. A bowl is thrown at someone with force. People sit and lie down the way they would on land. I did consider the option of there being some air spaces, but the only one mentioned is in the great hall, and would be above the action. A spoofy story might get away with this, but it doesn’t work when there’s an attempt at realism.

A lot of animal references are thrown in to make it sound more underwatery. This came across as superficial, rather than the way someone who lived in the water would speak. They were mainly restricted to commonly known species, rather than showing a knowledge that goes beyond what the average land person would know. Some of them also didn’t really fit the setting. For example, the simile “as fast as a zebra fish”. Zebra fish usually refers to zebra danios, which are indeed known for fast speed and darting movements. Zebra danios are tropical freshwater fish. The most likely saltwater fish are lionfish, known for their fancy fins and being venomous. These are also tropical fish. Neither really fits well into an arctic setting, and the fast-moving one is a fish merfolk wouldn’t have seen.

Merfolk culture is a restrictive patriarchy with binary gender roles. Young mermaids are rated on their fertility and considered broken if they’re infertile. The mermaids lay eggs, but the social and biological implications of that aren’t really considered. This is another time when things felt more like they took place on land, as the eggs are incubated more like bird eggs, rather than fish eggs. One of the big issues underwater is eggs rotting, so there are different considerations for fish nests.

Ersel is bisexual, which is one thing that isn’t seen as a problem in merfolk society. I wouldn’t say the relationships shown are particularly healthy. Havamal is controlling, which is addressed. Ragna and Ersel end up attacking each other. The abusive dynamic of this isn’t really addressed. It also felt like Ragna and Ersel’s relationship was mainly physical. They don’t really talk that much nor have time to form an emotional bond. It’s more about how hot it is to kiss and have sex.

Loki is genderfluid. This fits how they’re shown in mythology, but the way this is handled is not good. Loki is not the average trickster type, who can help and hinder, and is rather morally grey. Loki is evil all the way down. They’re known as the god of lies to the merfolk and everything they do is intended to be as cruel as possible. They’re the only genderfluid character in a story filled with strict binaries, and they’re the villain attempting to harm all the binary gender folk. I also disliked the strong focus on trying to gender their body anytime they appeared. Ersel sees women as having soft curves and men as having rippling muscles, so Loki’s gender is constantly being judged by those standards. This behaviour does also suggest a person isn’t really non-binary if they don’t have a body deemed to look non-binary (or the ability to shapeshift between bodies).

The story is mixed when it comes to body positivity. Ersel is fat and that’s shown as a good thing as it keeps her warm. Fat shaming isn’t a thing in merfolk society. But when she’s a human, she suddenly has slender legs. What goes for a mermaid’s body doesn’t seem to apply for a human. There’s acceptance both of Ersel’s body changes during the story, and a character who has an amputation, but the king is said to be getting ugly on the outside to match his cruel inside. So the narrative doesn’t get away from shaming bodies when someone isn’t liked.

There are a number of mute characters, though most aren’t really explored in depth. Loki is the main one, who steals voices to replace their own. Unlike the gender issues, there are other mute characters (the people who have voices taken by Loki and one other). That means it doesn’t come across as saying all mute people want to steal voices. However, I’d still have liked more depth on some of them. One in particular only appears when convenient to the plot and could have been introduced earlier.

Outside of my worldbuilding and character issues, there were parts of the story I liked. Once it got going, with Ersel trying to beat Loki at their own games, it got a lot more interesting. It wasn’t enough to overcome the other issues for me, but it did improve a lot in the second half. It was good that Ersel’s not-like-other-girls thing is eventually addressed. She’s not actually the only one who feels restricted by the society, so she’s a lot more like other girls than she realises.

I’m tougher than most on underwater books getting being underwater right, but even without that, there were issues. The portrayal of genderfluid people as liars and the abusive relationship dynamics were not good. The setting idea was potentially interesting, and nothing stood out as a major problem with the bisexual representation, but that wasn’t enough to carry it for me. Note there are off-screen rapes and pregnancy body horror, among other darker themes.

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

Sea Foam and Silence – Lynn E. O’Connacht

Sea Foam CoverFirst Published: 9th June, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Verse Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A little mermaid watches the tall-crabs and starts to think they might be people too, but heading to land to find out will come with a cost.

This is a retelling of The Little Mermaid written in free verse. It’s hard to judge length with long poetry, but the book is around novel length. Fewer words on each page means it’s a relatively quick read.

The mermaid is set the deadline of a year to find love or be turned into sea foam. There are three main sections, with the first covering her life at sea, the second the time up to the deadline, and the third the time after. I liked that it didn’t only focus on the time on land looking for love. It allowed the contrast between life as a mermaid and life on land to be clear, as well as considering new challenges once the initial situation is resolved.

The mermaids were distinctly mermaids, rather than feeling like the author wanted to write humans with a few references to having a tail (which is unfortunately what too many mermaid stories end up doing). They live in a group of sisters, though it’s noted some become fathers during mating time. Among mermaid culture, it’s not considered odd that some don’t take direct part in mating. It’s only on encountering human culture that things start to get complicated, with human concepts of love, marriage and gender. Hunting humans for food is a stable part of their lives, which the little mermaid starts to challenge, but it isn’t portrayed in a binary good and evil way. The same goes for the witch who makes the bargain that gives the mermaid legs. The witch obviously has an agenda of some sort, but what that might be is ambiguous. It’s not a story with a villain, but one that deals with the more everyday difficulties of finding a place in the world.

The goal of finding love is difficult as the mermaid is confused about what that means. There are conflicting messages between all love being love and romantic love being the only one that counts. The narrative falls on the side of love being love in any form. There are also differences between human cultures in how things are viewed, rather than making this only a mermaid versus human issue.

Though it’s clear that the mermaid is asexual, I was less certain about how she viewed romantic attraction. It’s debatable where she falls on the romantic / demiromantic /grey-romantic lines, but she did appear to only potentially consider people that way after knowing them. There is also an aromantic asexual character and a lesbian, along with a polyamorous queerplatonic relationship being shown.

Every step she takes on land causes pain, so she has a fantastical chronic pain condition. At first, this means it’s difficult to walk, but she slowly adapts to the pain. It was good that there’s no magic cure here, though I would have liked to see her having bad pain days when she couldn’t do everything she wants to do. It’s not that it’s unrealistic to adapt to a certain level of pain or to find some things distract from the pain, but even the best pain management scheme will have times when it doesn’t work out.

She is mute and learns sign language to communicate. There’s one instance where someone expresses frustration at her not being able to speak verbally. This is in part because her early sign language is fairly crude and that makes communication difficult, but it’s still a moment I found jarring. I did generally like the sign language though, as well as the use of emoticons in places to convey facial expressions.

There’s a reference to people having different skin tones, but the main characters appear to be white. The mermaid doesn’t have much of a concept of race, so most descriptions are vague.

This is an enjoyable book with a focus on the issues of finding a place to belong. The free verse style works well to portray how the mermaid thinks and her confusion as she tries to figure things out. The chronic pain aspect is where I think it could have used a bit more exploration. The asexual and aromantic aspects were the strongest. Overall, this is worth a read for anyone who loves mermaids and verse novels.

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]