Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Aw, Nuts

This is not the review I wanted to write of my first Alyssa Cole romance. So many of my favorite recommenders love her, and I liked A Princess in Theory when I started it, but I got sidetracked by an overdue library book. Finally, though, I got an advance copy of How to Catch a Queen and read it with my book club, right around the release date!

I'm so sorry, so very sorry to say that I quite strongly disliked this book. 

Shanti has always wanted to be a queen, and she has shaped her whole life around this ambition--learning about governance and philanthropy. Sanyu has only ever wanted to be anything but the king of the country he will inherit from his father. The dating website brings Shanti to Njaza to marry Sanyu by his father's deathbed. But she only has three months to prove herself to be the True Queen or be sent away, like so many of Sanyu's father's queens.

Where to begin? The point of the book is that Sanyu has been damaged by a lot of toxic masculinity in the people who raised him--his father and his father's closest adviser, Musoke. But the problem is that he spends the whole book so broken and dull that I couldn't root for him at all. He's got serious anxiety about messing up his father's legacy, so he doesn't do anything at all--doesn't talk in meetings, doesn't have ideas. He's the king he thinks he's supposed to be--mean to people who imply he's anything but perfect, completely subservient to his chief advisor. 

He spends fully three quarters of the book being just what he thinks a king should be--and hating it. I think I'm supposed to pity the poor man for having to be so miserable when he just wants to love and be loved. I don't. I feel bad for how he treats Shanti, yeah, but I'm ragingly angry at him for not taking better care of his kingdom. He knows better.

So I spent most of the book angry at him. The romance mainly consisted of descriptions of uncontrollable physical attraction in moments when two people are having an awkward, or practical, or uncomfortable conversation. I didn't find it all that convincing, that he was so hot she wanted him even when he was being a jerk to her. I've never met anyone that hot.

I did read Cole's thriller, When No One Is Watching, and found it absolutely skin-crawlingly creepy. I promise to try another of her romances soon. Probably A Duke by Default, because some of the characters from that appear in this one, and Portia seems pretty great. 

Thank you, Netgalley, for the book, and I'm sorry, Ms. Cole and all her fans, that I wasn't able to love this book better.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Old West Midwifery

(I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review.)

In the spirit of reading books close to when they come out, I picked up Anna North's Outlawed, about which I knew nearly nothing except alternate history and midwives, both of which are a hell-yeah for me. Turns out I also get a ragtag band of queer women and nonbinary folks living as outlaws in the Old West. Have you ever heard such a tempting description?

The alternate history premise is pretty great; just after the United States won their independence, a devastating flu killed more than half of the people. The fledgling U.S. didn't make it, but of course the survivors carried on, and by the time of our story the middle of North American is full of small city-states that are basically just Old West towns without the federal government behind them. 

Because of the huge population loss, motherhood has taken a particularly revered, religious, magical overtone. A married woman who doesn't have a child before too long might be a witch, and might end up hanged. When Ada, who's spent her whole life learning to be a midwife from her mother, finds herself childless and getting the side-eye from her neighbors, she has to run.

Her journey over the first half of the book goes to all kinds of places where humanity, knowledge, and superstition live in various combinations. From a convent to a cattle town, to Hole in the Wall, where in real life the notorious Butch Cassidy led his famous gang. Ada's medical skills and thirst for the scientific knowledge that is so thin on the ground in her world is just the kind of detailed worldbuilding fun that I love to read.

The real meat of the book is around the Hole in the Wall Gang, notorious outlaws who are secretly women on the run. Led by the Kid, a visionary whose enormous personality is sometimes all that holds their band together against a world that's out to get them.

While the book is plotted like an adventure, what I love about it is what a careful examination it is of this world--in many ways like our own historical world and even our own current one--and also of what it means to be a person living in it. Ada's is at various points a happy wife, an accused witch, a novice nun, an aspiring scientist, a medic, and an outlaw, and she observes each of these experiences is a way that has me hooked. 

Race is a rising issue in her world, as well, both because of her new friends, but also because of political movements that are spreading through the country. Ada's scientific clarity on the subject is refreshing; her un-outlawlike tendency to say what she's thinking is anxiety-making in a book like this!

I'm at the point where we are engaging in The Big Heist, and I'm so nervous about it that I'm having trouble reading. Pretty much everything that's been at stake at any point in the book is at stake now: Ada's awkwardness as an outlaw, the risk of living disguised as a man, her friend's race, the gang's entire future. But the biggest question mark is the Kid's vision--can a bank heist really create the world they want to live in? 

I honestly don't know the answer. I'm not sure yet if this is the kind of book where we get a happy ending, where alternate history goes the way you want and big ideas and good people can win in the end, or if it's the kind of book where it all falls apart as we're faced with the inevitable fact that we can only shine our little light in the darkness.

Or is it a book where you can win the day and find reality waiting on the other side of your dreams? I have no idea! Hopefully I've just made myself brave enough to read on and find out.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Strong Recommendation, or, An Open Letter to Sarah K.

Dear Sarah,

I owe you an actual email to you, first of all, and that will come. But I'm in a tricky place here. See, I want to force feed A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik, to almost literally everyone I meet, including babies and cats. But I am trying to decide whether to recommend it directly to you.

First: did I love it? Yes, yes I did. How much did I love it? Here's a thing I've literally never done before: I read the book, got to the end, and two days later was not able to stop myself from going back to the beginning and starting the book again. I am halfway through my second read through, a week after my book club talked about it. I love it so much

What did I love? Let's start with Galadriel, the main character, whose voice is absolutely god damned perfect. She is brilliant and unlikable and incredibly rude. She is fragile and perceptive and so lonely. She is trying so hard all the time, and no one can even see it to appreciate it. She is never anything but honest, even when she's playing games with social politics. She's loyal even when she doesn't believe she has anyone to be loyal to. My soul absolutely yearns toward her.

The world building! Imagine Hogwarts without the cheerful fun, just the horrible monsters that seem to crop up in the basement and pipes every now and then. The Scholomance is a school designed to keep magical children as safe as possible from the maleficaria, the creatures that feed on their growing manna. "As safe as possible," however, is not terribly safe, and the school is a very dangerous place to be. 

Galadriel is trying to make her way through school, stay alive, and hopefully make enough of a reputation as a powerful magician to get a spot in one of the safe, walled enclaves when she's out, in spite of the fact that no one ever seems to like her. It doesn't help that she's got a strong innate talent for massive acts of epic destruction. She's destined to be a supervillain, but she absolutely refuses--which means she's fighting the magic as well as her classmates' prejudices.

The book is so good. It fills my heart--the detailed description of the political machinations, of how the school functions and how that forces the students to behave, of the underlying motivations behind obvious behaviors--it's all just spot on brilliant and I love it.

Why, then, you ask me, Sarah, why are you even doubting that you should recommend this wonderful book to me? Here's the thing: it breaks a LOT of rules of "good" writing. There is a huge amount of what I would normally call infodump--chapters where El just explains how magic works, how the school work, how the enclaves work. Objectively, it's a lot. Subjectively, it's a complete pleasure to read--her snarky voice and very practical explanations make me feel like I'm learning useful info about a world I will never be in.

But this results in pages that are single paragraphs of information, long anecdotes told directly to the reader by the narrator. There are chunks that are just about going to class, laced with liberal anecdotes about how dangerous that is.

So I'm cautious--can you get past the walls of text? I think you really should. Because besides what a pleasure it is, the book also takes on some wonderful ideas--ideas about power and the perception of power, about not knowing privilege when you have it, about all kinds of diversity and otherness--and it takes them on with such sympathy and compassion for all these teenagers who are just doing their damnednest not to get eaten by a maw mouth or a siren spider or a soul eater.

Yeah, okay, I've come to a conclusion. Sarah, you should really read this book. Whoever else you are, if you're reading this post, you should also totally and definitely read this book. 

Then maybe read it again.