The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black)

5 stars

“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.” 

I’d had this book on my ‘to be read’ list for a while, but had somehow decided that it was another heterosexual faerie story that I wasn’t really all that interested in. Oh, how wrong I turned out to be…I can remember seeing this book recommended on a pride month list and being deeply confused. There were queer people in this book? Why had I never gotten that memo? So, queer people and faeries, this book immediately shot right up my reading list. It was a beautiful beautiful coincidence that the following day I happened upon a well loved hardback of this exact novel in my favourite charity bookshop. It was meant to be.

Hazel lives with her brother Ben and their somewhat unusual parents in the town of Fairfold, a town where faeries and humans tentatively co-exist. Faerie magic attracts tourists to the otherwise innocuous town, whilst locals side step faerie tricks by avoiding the deep woods and the full moon revels. Hazel knighted herself as a killer of monsters when she was very young, slipping into the forest with her brother to hunt the faeries that wished the people of Fairfold ill. But growing older has meant growing away from her childhood days of knighthood and growing away from the strange faerie music that her brother used to be able to wield. Now Hazel has put her sword to sleep, and Ben has locked his music away entirely.

People from far and wide travel to see Fairfold’s most unique attraction, a faerie boy with horns nestled in his curls, sleeping within a casket of glass. To the people of Fairfold he is an omnipresent spectre, the sleeping prince around which teenagers hold their own midnight revels and spill their secrets upon the glass.

Until one day they find the glass casket shattered, the faerie boy missing, and a strange ancient creature of sorrow stalking their once familiar forest.

I love faerie stories, always have done. Growing up, I too was raised in a faerie forest, rich with lore, dark and beautiful, and there was something about this book that perfectly captures that. It’s gnarled trees and crisp leaf litter, gurgling streams and paint smeared pages, the never-ever silence of the forest and nests of warm sheets. It’s boys and girls with glinting eyes and sharp smiles, the spin and surge of a faerie revel and the coolness of a full moon’s gaze. It’s everything that I wanted it to be.

“They are twilight creatures, beings of dawn and dusk, of standing between one thing and another, of not quite and almost, of borderlands and shadows.” 

Hazel, our protagonist, is a girl torn in two. Part of her yearns for normalcy, the rest of her rejects it as a cage. She feels that she is running on borrowed time after making a bargain with the Erl King in exchange for seven years of her life and fears that she must savour every moment as if it is her last. Hazel has always looked to her brother and her parents as ‘true creatives’, feeling as if she is living somewhat in their shadow. Once she was a killer of monsters and now she is finding that being ‘normal’ isn’t all it was cut out to be.

Not popular, but not quite ostracized, Hazel and her elder brother, Ben, both long for a faerie prince of their own. Fierce Hazel and soft musician Ben have spent all of their life spinning stories of the boy in the casket, now he is free and they’re not quite sure what to think. I loved the interactions that Black writes between these two, how both are deep wells of secrets united by a childhood spent entirely in each other’s company. They are siblings that truly love and support one another, especially growing up in a household where their parents were less than reliable.

A common point in both their lives is Jack, a faerie changeling who, unusually, lives alongside his human counterpart. Half Yoruban, with gorgeous high cheekbones, glowing brown eyes, silver loops in his ears and perfect hipster style, Hazel has the biggest crush on Jack, but doesn’t believe that he reciprocates it. I don’t want to say anything to ruin the plot, but he quickly became one of my favourite characters. Raised in the human world by a mother who refused to give him back to the fae, Jack is both part of the town of Fairfold and strangely separate. When faerie sentiment changes towards the town, and people start to get hurt, Jack becomes the focus of their attention. He is not one of them. It was heartbreaking to see how people reveal their true colours the moment that their hateful views become in any way ‘legitimized’.

Black has said that this story is set in the same faerie world as ‘Tithe’, ‘Valiant’ and ‘Ironside’, though in a court somewhat separate from those of the Seelie and Unseelie. I read ‘Tithe’ for the first time a week ago and loved it, but it’s incredible to see how much Black has grown as a story teller since then. This book is so lush and vibrant and chilling. I could rave for days about how much I love how smoothly she integrates lore and story and flashback. It’s perfect, it was honestly like reading a faerie tale from my childhood.

I’ve avoided talking about the boy in the casket here, mostly because anything I wanted to say felt like a spoiler. One of my favourite parts of the story was learning about him, so I won’t take that mystery away from you. I will say, however, that I adored how this story ended, so so much.

So, if you’re looking for a non heteronormative faerie story with all the richness and dark charm of the Erl King’s Court, filled with the creak of the old forest and the wild magic of the midnight hunt, I implore you to pick this book up. It exceeded every single one of my expectations.

“Stories like that were will-o’-the-wisps, glowing in the deepest, darkest parts of forests, leading travelers farther and farther from safety, out toward an ever-moving mark.” 

Shattered Minds (Laura Lam)

4.5 stars

“Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill.

She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows hes probably dead.

Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis or shes next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, shell need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary before it changes us and our society, forever.”

 

Set in the same dark future as ‘False Hearts’, the newest offering from Laura Lam is a very different book. Whereas ‘False Hearts’ was a book of neon warmth and arching redwoods, ‘Shattered Minds’ is a story filled with clinical chrome and the buzz of electronic instruments. It is a harder, colder book, less forgiving, with characters that take a little bit longer to love. But love them you definitely do.

Centring around a hacking group that is attempting to bring down a large, corrupt corporation that seems to own most of the West Coast (now Pacifica), ‘Shattered Minds’ has a really classic cyberpunk feel that put me in mind of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. Members of society now have complex neural implants to allow functions such as the straight downloading of information from external systems. Such neural implants can also allow hacking via VR, a more natural interface than hard code, though also bringing the added risk of cybersecurity systems being able to ‘fry’ user implants remotely, and, with them, the user’s own mind.

Carina, our protagonist, an ex neuroprogrammer, takes some time to warm to. She’s blunt and difficult, though once you realise how much of that ‘difficulty’ is due to self loathing and trauma she’s much easier to understand. She’s a character who has been betrayed by everyone she ever thought to trust, from her father to Roz, the scientist who was supposed to take her pain away. ‘Taking the pain’ away in Carina’s case turned out to be much more literal, with Roz re-engineering Carina’s brain in a way that made it so she rarely felt strong emotion. It was only when that programming began to unravel and sudden strong compulsions to commit violence and murder began to develop that Carina realised what had happened to her. Terrified of hurting people, she retreats into the world of zeal, a drug that allows users to manipulate their own dreamscapes. Her body falling apart at the seams, Carina feels that at least she is less of a threat to those around her…it’s heartbreaking on so many levels. The story raises the question on multiple occasions of just how much of Carina’s personality is her own and how much is what the brain engineering made her. Even if they were to reverse that engineering, how much of what Carina is was caused by nature and how much is what was done to her?

Dax, an important secondary POV character and love interest, was my favourite. I try not to play favourites, but I just couldn’t help it. He is, in Laura’s own words, the ‘cinnamon roll’, and I entirely agree with that assessment. The medic to our hacking collective, Dax originally was a surgeon specialising in body modification, common in the state of Pacifica. Always excellent at including LGBTQA+ characters and respectful rep in her stories, Laura’s decision to write Dax as a trans man is such a positive thing. Dax’s identity is not a plot point, it’s not a twist, it simply is. More books need to include LGBTQA+ characters in a way that makes identity incidental and not somehow part of the plot. LGBTQA+ people exist and their story doesn’t have to end there, let them have stories beyond that! Let them be heroes and villains and hackers and doctors, let them be whatever your stories need them to be, like any other character.

Also, you know, let them be cinnamon roll Native Doctors, because I love Dax so much.

Before I go on an excessively long ramble about how much I love one character, I’ll direct you towards our villain, the ruthlessly driven Roz. It’s been a while since I’ve disliked a villain quite as much as Roz. Cold, hard, indifferent to the feelings of others, she is probably my entire opposite, but I don’t think it’s even that which got under my skin so much. The most horrifying thing about Roz is how she doesn’t view consent as something sacred. She doesn’t care what you want, you’re simply her experiment and she has no qualms whatsoever in knocking you out and making fundamental changes to your brain. Genuinely, she gives me the shudders.

The half a star came off because I wasn’t able to gel with the story quite as much as I would have liked. It has a complicated structure, moving backwards and forwards in time in a way that makes a lot of sense for the plot and for Carina’s character, but sometimes left me a little confused. I’ve also mentioned before that Carina is maybe a little more difficult to love than your classic protagonist, but I think, once again, that that’s a personal thing and I know from reading other reviews that other people have absolutely adored her.

One of my favourite parts of the world that Laura builds for her Pacifica novels is the culture and the cities. There are all these subtle hints at other stories happening behind the scenes, like the fan who tried to clone his idols and led to a fashion for covering all fingerprints and shaving off all hair, so that no DNA was accidentally left behind. There’s also some overlap with ‘False Hearts’, in mentions of the cult that the protagonists were raised in, characters reappearing and further discussion of the some of the repercussions of events in the other book. Whilst you don’t have to have read ‘False Hearts’ to enjoy this, I’d honest recommend picking up both books, because ‘False Hearts’ is one of my favourite books of all time, and the world that Laura has created is a joy to read.

So, if you’re looking for a cerebral thriller (no pun intended), with diverse characters, genuine threat and much much neurohacking, this is definitely the book for you.

‘Shattered Minds’ is out on the 15th of June, and Laura has a pre order promotion going at the moment with 10K of extra Pacifica fiction available in return for proof of pre-order!

Many thanks to Tor Books for a copy in return for an honest review!

 

 

 

 

When the Moon was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore)

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“To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.”

4 stars

It took me longer to read this book than I would have liked. It’s not a fast book, it’s a slow, meandering, thoughtful book with beautiful, lyrical prose. It contains probably the most sensitive portrayal of a trans character that I’ve come across, a trans character that is allowed to fall in love and explore his sexuality without fetishization.

I think I can safely say that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Things happen and you just have to let go and accept that they’re happening. This book is the definition of Magical Realism, down to the beautiful authenticity of the Latin American elements present in the book. Think pumpkins turning to glass, brujas pulling the lovesickness from a heart, shining painted moons, and a roping vine of rose that buds and flowers in response to the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

You can really tell that this book is ‘own voices’. McLemore draws upon her heritage and, as is described in the afterword, her marriage to her husband, who transitioned after they started dating. It gives the book a truthful feeling even amidst the unreality of some of the magical elements. You feel as if McLemore is very carefully and sensitively choosing her words. The relationship between Miel and Sam, how it blossoms and, equally as importantly, how they help to manage each other’s foibles is just so tenderly handled that it makes your heart swell in your chest.

‘To Sam, she was the girl who gave his moons somewhere to go. She was the dark amber of beechwood honey, the caramel of sourwood, and the bitter aftertaste of heather and pine. She was every shade of blue between two midnights.’

I also loved how McLemore intertwined the cultural identities of our two characters, how Sam shared traditions of his Pakastani heritage with Miel, and she shared with him the Mexican culture of her family. It’s sad and powerful and feels very true.

One star was removed because I felt that, in places, this book could have benefitted from being shorter. There were some beautiful passages that lost their power for me because I felt as if I’d heard them before earlier in the book. I felt it was dilute when it could easily have been concentrated.

However, I think overall that any positives far outweigh the benefits. I think it’s still sadly unusual to find a book ‘for’ lgbt individuals as opposed to ‘about’ lgbt individuals. There are some books I’ve read where I worry for the lgbt kids reading them, where an overuse of slurs to illustrate the hardships facing lgbt individuals ends up hurting those who read it whilst looking for characters like themselves. This book was different. Yes, it covered transmisogyny and dysphoria, but importantly it gave its lgbt characters a happy loving relationship and a warm positive ending. I cannot thank McLemore enough for that.

Thank you to St Martin’s Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

Dreadnought (April Daniels)

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Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderera cyborg named Utopiastill haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.”

4 Stars

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing me a copy in return for a honest review.

This is a really important book. I think, off the top of my head, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read with trans characters. Considering how many friends and people I know that identify as trans or nonbinary, its actually pretty terrible how little representation there is for them in TV, film and books. This book is extra special because its accessible to the people who really need to be exposed to this book, your middle grade and younger adult readers.

‘Dreadnought’ did a really good job of taking the kind of high tech, metahuman world we see in X-Men and using it to examine real world problems. A world that will accept a flying green man but still balks at transwomen. It’s about hypocrisy in the face of progress and ‘equality for all…except you’.

I also feel this book really speaks to our current generation, kids who are finding themselves on the internet and our need for superheroes in a disappointing and downright dangerous world. We have an MC, Danny, who knows her own mind and is yet constantly told that she’s too young to make decisions for herself, to ‘consider’ the wants of her parents and put them before herself. I like that the book definitively calls out the vileness that Danny is subjected to. Misgendering? Slayed. Discrimination? Pulled up by the scruff of the neck. Trans-exclusionary rad fems? Slam dunked in the trash can.

It’s a short read, with a sparky, quick moving story that doesn’t shy away from confronting prejudice. I think one of my favourite messages of the book is that being a lawful good superhero shouldn’t stop you from examining your prejudices; that even a saint can be a bigot if they don’t listen to those around them.

Why not 5 stars?

I’m writing this review as a white cis bi woman so please correct me if you feel I’ve said something offensive/ incorrect. This book is #ownvoices, and it’s telling a really important story. My one big qualm with ‘Dreadnought’ was that, ironically, it did not feel that friendly to LGBT teens. In depicting the discrimination against Danny a lot of really quite nasty slurs were used, and, whilst, that’s good at teaching your average white teen about what it can feel like to be LGBT (and here more specifically trans) it can be a hostile environment for a young reader who wants to read about people like them.

It’s a difficult line to tread and, whilst I felt the ending was quite empowering, I’m not sure whether there were too many slurs used throughout. I’ve never had most of those words used against me and I felt uncomfortable. Now imagine you’re a 15 year old kid who is feeling really down, really isolated and wants to read a book about people like them. Is that kid really going to be glad about the MC being called a f*gg*t and being subjected to violent transmisogyny? I’d be interested to see what other readers thought. Maybe the book could have come with a trigger warning just to warn kids that it’s maybe one to save for when they’re feeling a bit more secure?

Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I give this book 4 MILLION KRUGE *cough* stars…

It took me way too long to get around to reading this book. I hadn’t actually finished the Grisha trilogy until a month or so ago and I wanted to save SOC for my summer reading. I’m very very glad I did.

Six of Crows is a book to be savored, to be devoured and thought about to the exclusion of all else. I read it on a balcony overlooking Lake Garda in the searing summer heat with a flute of cold Prosecco but I would have adored it even if I had been sitting in my room in wet, humid old Britain.

I will be honest and say that the concept of a heist, when I first read the blurb, didn’t entirely interest me that much. I was drawn in more by the beautiful graphics I’d seen on tumblr and the rabid praise of my friends. If you, like me, aren’t entirely drawn in by the Ocean’s Eleven style premise, I do suggest you put aside your prejudices and pick it up regardless. To me this book was more about characters and the relationships between them, which is EVERYTHING I am interested in as a reader. That and humour that is sharp as a whip crack.

We are introduced to a ragtag band of criminals and residents of the less than salubrious Ketterdam district of ‘The Barrel’. The amoral dagger sharp gang lieutenant Kaz, card loose, gun touting Jesper, and our ‘whisper on the wind’ assassin Inej of the ‘Dregs’. From there the plot thickens, involving some rather nasty experimentation with captive Grisha, a sketchy Merchant Lord and a prudish Witch Hunter who pretty much despises everything that makes up the ‘Dregs’ (and yet finds himself rather uncomfortably beholden to them). See also, our runaway, cake loving Ravkan Nina and the wispy haired demolitions man (*cough* boy) Wylan.

The characters in this book are everything. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent with my brother laughing at the idea of each of them in different situations. They’re so real, so rich and utterly hilarious. Of course, this wouldn’t be one of my favourite books of all time if they weren’t also all nursing deeply traumatic backstories.

This book will grab you by the scruff of the neck and leave you hostage to the need to just keep turning the pages. There are three sections that I call the ‘chapters of unmentionable pain’ and, I warn you, they are very much as horrific as they sound.

You do not have to have read the Grisha trilogy to read and enjoy this. My brother was my test subject in regards to this and he seemed to love it every single bit as much as I did regardless of having not been familiar with the world beforehand.

I utterly adored this book, I’m sure there are ten thousands things I could have talked about in this review that I’ve managed to miss (like the fact I literally ship everything and everyone, amazingly diverse characters and a disabled protagonist!!!) but I would rather just tell you it was bloodydamn amazing and that you should go and read it and then come back and yell at me in excitement!!