The Dragons of Nova (Elise Kova)

5 stars

This is a review for the second book in the ‘Alchemists of Loom’ Trilogy and, as such, spoilers for book one will abound. If you want to learn more about the series, you can find my review for the first book, ‘The Alchemists of Loom’, here.

When I read ‘The Alchemists of Loom’ last year, it was actually the first of Elise’s books that I had ever read. Oh, how times have changed…

I can remember falling in love with the world of Loom, so dark and exciting and original, with its complicated Guild system and video game worthy mechanics. There’s always the worry when you find a book which is so fresh and different, that the second book will not be able to live up to the standards of the first. Thankfully, that is far from the case in ‘The Dragons of Nova’. If anything, Elise has stepped up her game with book two. It is a dream of a sequel.

So, without further ado, let’s get ourselves reacquainted with the world of Loom.

Ari is a chimaera, a Fenthri who has been spliced with multiple dragons parts to gain their magical properties. The events of book one saw our heroine leave Dortam, where she was the infamous thief ‘The White Wraith’, in the company of her apprentice, Florence, and a man who should, by all accounts, be her enemy, the Dragon Cvareh. The only thing keeping them together? The promise of a boon if she gets the errant Dragon to the distant Alchemists Guild.

But the journey was far from simple. Ari finds herself chased by the vicious Riders of the Dragon King, and, perhaps more harrowingly, by her own past. For in a world where chimaeras rot from the inside out under the taint of dragon magic, Ari is not. She is a perfect chimaera, every dragons greatest fear, and she must stop at nothing to avoid that information from spreading. Life is complicated further by her burgeoning emotions for Cvareh, a man she should feel nothing but hate for, and her distaste that her feelings are far from that.

‘The Dragons of Nova’ opens with Ari joining Cvareh on a journey to the Dragon land of Nova, floating islands hanging in the sky above the desolation of Loom. There they are to meet with his sister Petra, in the understanding that it is in both of their interests for the Dragon King to fall. There is, over all, the question of the Philosopher’s Box, the key component in the creation of a perfect Chimaera. How much does Ari know about their construction? And how much of that knowledge about the box, and herself, is she willing to share with her Dragon allies?

Down on Loom, Florence continues her work with the Alchemists Guild, very aware that, once again, she is an outsider in the Guilds and they will always put their lives before her own. Sent on a journey via train to the Harvester’s Guild, Florence becomes intimately acquainted with all facets of monstrosity; the monsters of Loom, and the monsters in humanity. Things are changing on Loom, and our top-hatted Raven-turned-Revolver has a first row seat for the action.

It is very hard to not just keyboard smash when writing this review. SO much happens in this book and my reaction is very much simply the emoji, 😱. Oh, you are truly lulled into a false sense of security by the end of book one. No-one is safe, no-one is secure in ‘TDON’. Our characters are truly trying to navigate violent rapids in a bathtub!

Ari, our protagonist, is mistrust and pride incarnate. Unwilling to accept help, partly because she has been so burned by her part, but also because she’s just the sort of person who would rather walk on hot coals than fall upon the generosity of another. Stubborn, capricious, difficult to love and let herself be loved, I, nevertheless, adore her. Driven by logic, yet coming to appreciate the ‘beauty as its own reward’ culture of Nova, we see so much growth in Ari during the book, both magically and personally. She’s also canonically attracted to more than one gender! Praise be for bisexual or pansexual protagonists in fantasy novels! They’re about as rare as white tigers, and it fills my little bi heart with joy to see myself represented in my favourite genre.

Ari is not the only character to undergo significant development throughout the novel. Florence, who had potentially been my least favourite of the main characters in book one, truly came into her own in ‘TDON’. ‘Tiny girl with a big gun’ is, in my opinion, one of the best tropes to come out of video games, and it’s a joy to see Florence actually be allowed to flourish without Ari being their to ‘save’ her before she gets a chance to save herself. Watching Florence come to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world was honestly one of the most exciting parts of the book. There were a couple of decisions that Florence made during the story that left me so shocked and impressed that I actually laughed out loud.

We see a lot more of Nova in this book, spending more than half of the page time above the cloud line. It’s a real treat to get to see more of the floating islands, with their environment and culture that is so different to that of Loom. Where Loom is built for function, the architecture of Nova is engineered for beauty and form. Cvareh seems a lot more comfortable and confident amongst the culture of his people, and we definitely see a different side to him, that of his sister’s second in command. Privy to his sister’s machinations and quest to return their family to power, there is a very political side to this story, exploring the social hierarchy of Nova and the implications of each and every act within their culture. Politics, I hear you groan, but do not fear, this isn’t a dry story of meetings, but politics that happens in the fighting pit and the gossip houses. The world building is far too interesting to ever let the politics get onerous.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the events of the story and the ending truly do set the series up for an enormous conclusion. There’s bloody violence, betrayal, assassination and ‘Game of Thrones’-esque political maneuverings. It truly is beautifully and exquisitely satisfying (and painful).

The famous line from Robbie Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ comes to mind at this moment:

‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley’.

We truly have been set up for suffering. It’s going to be a painful old wait for book three!

Many thanks to Keymaster Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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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?