Finna, by Nino Cipri

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 25, 2020

Summary: When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store — but not that one — slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.

Thoughts: In the early pages of this book, I was reminded somewhat of Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor, but mostly because both stories start in an IKEA-esque environment, and both involve a sort of twisting of the rules of reality. Beyond that, though, the stories go in very different directions.

When an elderly woman goes missing at this definitely-not-IKEA store, it turns out that it’s due to the funny way wormholes can more easily open up in places where it’s easy to get lost. So Ava and Jules, two people who have recently had a rather messy breakup, are “voluntold” (well, Jules volunteered, and Ava was told she’d be risking losing her job if she refused to go along) to head through the wormhole and recover the missing woman. They’re warned that the world or worlds they may visit could be very similar to their own world… or things could be deeply, powerfully different.

Understandably, the journey is rather tense, with Ava and Jules trying to work together despite obvious personal issues between them. Tension ramps higher, though, when it’s discovered that the missing woman is actually dead, and that the FINNA, the device used by Jules and Ava’s workplace to navigate such interdimensional problems, has identified an “appropriate replacement” from another world that the two of them ought to bring back instead.

Finna is a novella, and there’s part of me that wishes it had been expanded into a full novel. On the other hand, what was written was tightly paced and doesn’t waste time on extraneous details. Ava and Jules could have traveled to a dozen, a hundred worlds and had adventures and misadventures, but to be perfectly honest, doing so likely would have felt like padding unless there was a particular reason for them to dwell in any of those worlds. As it was, they may have only visited a few disturbing alternate realities, but those visits were enough, they made their points, and they contributed to the story, so everything felt essential and nothing felt tacked on for the sake of wordcount. Cipri’s writing is tight, the characters interesting and flawed and compelling, and everything is where it ought to be to deliver maximum impact.

There’s a lot of social commentary packed into Finna‘s pages, and I can’t think of anything that I particularly disagree with. Cipri tackles topics like the awkwardness of people trying to respect a non-binary person’s gender identity and pronouns, the way retail environments can kill your soul, the variety of coping mechanisms people use to get through life, and much of it resonated with me. I’ve worked some soul-sucking jobs in my life, and I’m eager to never do so again if I have any say in the matter, so Jules’s disdain for retail and other such jobs really struck a chord with me. You can put your heart and soul into your job, and sadly, more often than not, that job will just take and not give anything back at the end of the day but just enough of a paycheque to convince you that you don’t have a choice but to do the whole thing all over again tomorrow.

And sometimes, even when it’s terrifying to do so, you have to take matters into your own hands, throw caution to the wind, and do something unexpected, maybe even dangerous, to keep your own sanity in the face of a world that would happily grind you down and leave nothing left.

Toward the end, though, was the real mind-blow moment for me, when Ava and Uzmala Nouresh were talking about Ava’s fear and indecision. Uzmala talks about how she felt the same uncertainty about some things, and them realized that across the infinite worlds out there and the infinite iterations of herself, there were worlds in which she was brave enough to do what needed to be done, and worlds where she was too cowardly. The question she asked herself was: which world do I want this to be?

And I was just… I’m not kidding when I say it was a mind-blow moment. You read all the things about just doing what you’re passionate about and seizing the day, and that success will come when you believe it will, and all that stuff, and you think to yourself that yeah, that’s all well and good, but what about the dozen things that get in the way, or all the ways that things might go wrong, and it’s not as easy as just believing you’ll succeed and wanting it enough. You might work hard and never get anywhere, because you worked hard at the wrong thing at the wrong time, or you didn’t meet the right person to help you along the way, or any number of problems with that philosophy.

And… that doesn’t matter. I mean, it does matter, yes, but that’s not really the point, so to speak. It’s not always about success or failure, two binary points on a spectrum with loads of space in between. The point is, in the infinite worlds and with the infinite versions of me in all those worlds, there are worlds in which I’m tenacious enough to work hard at what I love, and worlds where I’m too afraid of failure to let myself start. There are worlds in which I’m brave enough to try, and worlds in which I’m too cowardly to try.

The question is: which world do I want this to be?

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2019

Summary: Prodigy son of a famed mathematician, Nick Hayes is not your average fifteen-year-old. Especially when you consider that he has just discovered he is dying of leukaemia. But there is a part of Nick in all of us, and I immediately empathised with the struggle at the heart of his story.

Nick knows that his time on this planet might be near its end. But when an alluring new girl, Mia, joins his group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends, he realises that life might be giving him one last throw of the dice. Just then, however, his world is turned upside down when he meets a strangely familiar man whose claims about Nick’s future are too harrowing—and unbelievable—to ignore. Soon everything he thought was true, from the laws of physics to the trajectory of his own life, is proved otherwise.

One Word Kill is a story that we’re familiar with: a boy with nothing to lose, forced to put what little he has left on the line. But it’s also the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, because we’ve all dreamed of being like Nick, playing a game with the highest real-life stakes and the world on our shoulders. This time, though, it’s not imaginary.

So, what would you do in his position? What else can you do?

Roll the dice.

Thoughts: I initially saw One Word Kill pitched as something that those who enjoyed Stranger Things would also appreciate, and it’s very easy to see that comparison. You’ve got a group of teens in the 80s, all varying degrees of geekiness, all getting together to play D&D, and things change when a girl enters the picture, breaking down the group’s idea of reality as they know it. I wouldn’t say that One Word Kill is a rip-off of Stranger Things, though, since beyond that initial premise, the two definitely diverge into their own stories and run with their own ideas. Lawrence’s new series might take some inspiration from the popular show, or have some aspects in common with it, but it’s a distinct entity.

The protagonist, Nick, is newly diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and in the 80s, you can imagine just how much fun that is. He wants normalcy in his life, or at least a level of normalcy that he’s comfortable with, and cancer doesn’t fit into that picture. What does fit into the picture is his group of friends, his new friendship and budding relationship with Mia, regular mundane stuff. Not cancer. And definitely not a man who claims to be from the future and who starts asking Nick to do all sorts of strange things in an attempt to save a loved one further down the timeline.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction that brings multiverse theory into the mix. As much as pondering the implications can bring on a headache, I love thinking about the possibilities of timelines, of different universal rules. Lawrence has a grand time playing with those concepts in One Word Kill, talking about diverging timelines and branching points and closed time loops and all sorts. If someone, for instance, remembers meeting their future selves one day, that future self must also go back in time to meet their past self in order to keep the timeline consistent. Lack of doing so would create another timeline, a branching point in which something either did or didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a paradox, because the timeline in which you did go back would still exist. You, in your current awareness, just wouldn’t be on that timeline. An infinity of selves can play out over the multiverse, none of them contradicting another because their timelines are their timelines.

Get me started on this tangent and it’ll be a while before I shut up about it.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading One Word Kill. It involves concepts I find fascinating to contemplate. The story itself may be fairly short, but it contained a whole lot, at least when it comes to thought experiments and quantum fuckery.

It also asked some of the big questions, the kind that can make people freeze up. How much sacrifice is acceptable? How much wrong should be done in the name of doing something right? If someone does a terrible thing but then all the effects, including memories, are erased, then was that terrible thing still terrible? None of these questions really have answers, there is no right or wrong way to answer them, but that’s what makes them so difficult to tackle. Lawrence doesn’t seem to use this story as a way of taking a stance on rhetorical questions or thought experiments. He just… tells the story, and those questions are a factor.

I’m curious to see where the story goes, because as of right now, there are two other novels in the same series, and I want to see if the concepts started here will continue through the rest of Nick’s story. The delightful geeky nostalgia peppered throughout One Word Kill makes me smile (and makes me wish I was more familiar with D&D, to be honest), and the blend of mundane life with quantum multiverse conundrums is very compelling. It’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which these books wouldn’t appeal to me.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities,behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers,and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in-to them, Joy and her corp of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, Joy uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them?

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I first read this book, and I admit, I wasn’t too fond of it the first time around. Knowing that I can get this way with Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books, though, I deliberately let it lie for a while, then picked it up again recently to reread it, to see if my opinions had changes any with the passage of time.

I did enjoy it more the second time around, which I’m happy to say. However, the problems I had with it the first time remained for my second reading.

Hunter was written during the YA dystopia boom and it really shows. Now, Lackey has shown no problem is the past with writing books in popular genres primarily to pay the bills, and in general I have no problem with that, because writing is art and art is work and work deserves to be paid for. I think perhaps it was published a bit too late to really capitalize on that boom, but it hit enough of the tail end of it to still do decently, as both of its sequels have been published between then and now.

A few hundred years in the future, the apocalypse (known as the Diseray, a corruption of Dies Irae) happened, and now the world contains all sorts of malevolent and destructive beasties from the depths of worldwide mythologies. Protecting the remains of humanity from these creatures are the Hunters, people with not only magical talents but also the ability to summon guardian beasts known as Hounds, a pack to guide and fight alongside in the war against Othersiders. In North America, Hunters are required to go to the city of Apex to do their jobs, and that’s where the story begins with Joy, on her way to Apex for the first time.

Once in Apex, Joy finds that not only does she have to protect the citizens there from incursions of Othersiders, but she also has to do so while essentially being a streaming celebrity. Watching Hunters fight monsters is entertainment to the citizens of Apex, and Hunters gain improvements to their lives by rising in the rankings of the entertainment industry. Joy rises quickly through the ranks, but it seems that somebody objects to what she’s doing or how she’s doing it, because she quickly finds herself a target, and whoever has their sights set on her doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

It’s not difficult to see the real-world inspirations for certain aspects of Hunter. People today stream aspects of their lives through sites like Twitch and YouTube, and become celebrities for it, giving people a way to live vicariously through others, and also providing comfort and inspiration to viewers. “Those celebrities started off with no more advantages than I have; I could be just like them one of these days.” It’s a sentiment I know well. It was employed in an interesting way in Hunter, since drone-cameras follow Hunters nearly everywhere to catch the exciting aspects of their lives, but also the broadcasts are on a delay, allowing editors to change or remove footage that doesn’t play into an established narrative. The governing body of Apex doesn’t want people to know that Othersiders are getting closer and closer to the city’s barriers every day, and so alter footage to make it look like Hunters are further away than they really are. Here we have the “circus” aspect of “bread and circuses;” keep people entertained so that they never wonder about broader complications; make them think they see everything, so they never question what’s happening behind the scenes. The way Lackey handled the discourse on whether stream celebrities are authentic or not was heavy-handed in places, but not entirely unwarranted.

I think my biggest problem with Hunter is its main character, Joy. She’s one of those exceptional can-do-no-wrong characters, and that much is made clear very quickly. She has a larger-than-average pack of Hounds, he’s proficient with multiple weapon types, she’s encountered things that Hunters in Apex haven’t and so gives advice to people who have been doing the job as long as or longer than she herself, right from the get-go. She ascends to near the top of the ratings ranks within a few days of arriving at Apex, she makes friends with powerful people, and she does things that have never been done before, such as acquiring someone else’s Hounds after that person dies, because she’s just that special. She’s no-nonsense and has little time for frivolities, she’s earnest about wanting to protect people when many Hunters want the perks that come with the job, and of course this makes her at least one enemy, especially when she decides she wants to push for Elite ranking after having been in Apex for, what, less than a month?

Frankly, this kind of character gets extremely tiring to read about, because they aren’t remotely believable outside of myth, and for an experienced author like Lackey to write somebody this way feels incredibly amateurish. There’s the oft-repeated advice that characters ought to have flaws, believable and relevant flaws, and no, a character who is beautiful and popular and talented at nearly everything but who, for instance, can’t sing, isn’t a believably flawed character. It doesn’t matter that she can’t sing. That’s not really a flaw. That’s just the lack of a talent. The two aren’t the same. The worst flaw I think Joy has is that she doesn’t suffer nonsense, but it’s handled in such a way that even then, she comes off as somehow the winner. If somebody got in Joy’s face and accused her of not knowing something, she’d just tightly point out that she knows how to figure it out and name off all the resources she’d use, and then people would be impressed by how well she handled the situation. She is (and I hate to use the term) the very image of the Mary Sue that is endemic in so many bad fanfiction pieces, the sort of character aspiring authors are cautioned to avoid writing.

Dislike of character types is a highly personal thing, so I admit that Joy’s presentation won’t bother everybody, but it definitely bothered me. I felt less like I was reading about a real person and more like I was reading about somebody attempting to humanize a hypothetical future fictional hero, and that’s is far more complicated than it needs to be.

For as much as I found the presentation problematic, I am, at least, interested in how the rest of the story plays out in later books. I don’t think they’re books I’ll go out of my way to track down, but if I come across them, I’ll probably give them a try, to see if Joy becomes a more interesting character or if any interesting story elements override my annoyance with her. The city of Apex, as a character, is of more interest to me, because it seems to have many layers to it, most of which depend on keeping citizens ignorant and entertained in equal measure, as well as keeping those who know better either in appalling living conditions and scrabbling to eke out a living, or in plush comfort in exchange for their silence. This riding on the coattails of the dystopian wave, I want to know what’s in store for the city, its ruling body, the systems that keep it running, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Joy McSpecial over here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Lady Rogue, by Jenn Bennett

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2019

Summary: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler — more widely known as Dracula — and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Thoughts: When I first heard this book described as something that fans of A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue would enjoy, my attention was caught. Despite me having problems with it’s sequel, I really enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide, and the idea of a book in that vein but with the legend because Vlad the Impaler thrown in, The Lady Rogue sounded like something I would similarly enjoy.

And it wasn’t bad, really. It just wasn’t something I was able to get into as much as I had hoped.

The Lady Rogue is primarily told from the perspective of Theodora, daughter of a wealthy adventurer who is frequently left behind in the care of tutors and caretakers while her father travels the world on grand adventures, seeking lost artifacts and mysteries. Suddenly reunited with her previous boyfriend, who was supposed to be traveling with Theodora’s father, she finds herself caught up in an adventure of her own as she not only attempts to track down her missing father, but also a lost ring connected to Dracula’s legacy and the dark power that runs through her veins.

In between many of the chapters are short interludes from her father’s journal, where we see the entries dated in the late 1930s. I will be completely honest here — I spent a good amount of the novel thinking that the reason Theodora’s father was missing was because he had somehow traveled back in time. I came to this erroneous conclusion because none of Theodora and Huck’s sections were dated, and they both talked as though they were far closer to today than to almost 80 years ago. Almost nothing was given to indicate the time they existed in, and I based my cues on their behaviour and speech, and it wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any indication that time travel was actually going to be a plot element that I had to look up when the entire book took place.

Now yes, there are some things that do indeed indicate the time period, but I think many of them, to a reader less inclined to look things up, might just assume that they could be explained away by east Europe being, well, not North America. Of course rural European settings would use small mail delivery planes. Of course people would take trains and buses rather than going by car. That’s just how it’s done over there.

It didn’t help that I found two instances (at least, two that stand out in my mind) of characters using slang that is entirely inappropriate for the time period. At one point, Theodora is telling her father off, and comments that, “FYI, [thing].” Now, FYI as an abbreviation for “for your information” did certainly exist in the 1930s, but primarily in a journalistic sense, from what my research has led me to conclude. You would see it in marginalia and in newspaper corrections, that sort of thing. It’s hardly something you would have heard many people say aloud as though they were 90s teens.

The second instance that comes to mind is Huck saying toward the end that he was getting “hangry,” and no, I’m sorry, but that portmanteau gained popularity in the 90s, even if it was used as far back as the 50s, and neither of those decades are the 30s.

Now, I admit that I read an ARC of this book, and those issues might not be in the final release, so I admit that those particular problems might not even be problems in the version that most people will read. However, that doesn’t eliminate any of my commentary on why I was confused about the time period of the book. Neither Theo nor Huck talked or behaved as though they came from any time period but “timeless modern,” and considering this book is meant to be historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural to it, so much felt so out of place for so long.

I did, admittedly, enjoy the story of The Lady Rogue, when I was getting distracted by how anachronistic many of the characters acted. The mystery of Theodora’s father’s disappearance powered most of the book, though along the way, as they made their way from Istanbul to various Romanian cities and towns, the subplot of the ring slowly overtook all else. Theodora’s father was initially searching for the ring, on the premise that 3 identical rings were made but only 1 was real, and supposedly connected to dark magics that gave the wearer great power but also brought death and ruin down around them. In this, I can see how the comparison to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue were made; both are historical fiction, and both feature a possibly-magical item as a motivation for the characters to progress through the story. Whether that item is actually magical or not is irrelevant; what matters is that people believe it to be, and act accordingly.

The ring was magical (the rest of the legend surrounding it wasn’t quite accurate, though I’ll refrain from giving too many details so that at least something in this book isn’t spoiled for future readers), though it really only proved itself to be at the very end. There were signs building up to it, signs which certainly convinced Theodora even if they didn’t quite convince Huck, but similar to Gentleman’s Guide, the magic itself wasn’t what compelled people. It was the belief in the magic, the legends themselves that made people seek it out, committing sometimes terrible acts in the name of legends and folklore, and I find that sort of thing fascinating. It interests me, to see what people will do in the pursuit of perceived power, what they might be motivated to do to get closer to something they only believe is the truth but don’t have definitive proof of. It’s a testament to the power of myth and belief, and I’m glad to have seen this appear in multiple novels over the past few years.

Unlike Gentleman’s Guide, however, there was no queer element to this story at all. It shares the same element of historical adventure with a supernatural element, but that’s where the similarities end, and I know many people enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide because it was all that and more, a good piece of queer representation. Readers looking for something similar in The Lady Rogue are only going to find superficial resemblance, I think.

The Lady Rogue is certainly an adventure, with a few interesting mysteries that the characters must solve along the way, usually employing a bit of cryptography and sleuthing. The characters are decently developed, though I admit that if you asked me to describe them outside of the context of the story within this book, I’m not sure they’d be that recognizable. Theodora is hot-tempered, intelligent, and in many ways spoiled. Huck is… Irish, and Theodora’s ex-boyfriend-but-it’s-complicated. Theodora’s father is… I don’t know here. An adventurer. Selfish and thoughtless. That’s about it. But within the context of the novel itself, they are distinct from each other when it comes to tone, dialogue, behaviour, and so it wasn’t difficult to tell who was doing or say what if you picked a random line in the middle of a random page.

But on the whole, I didn’t close out The Lady Rogue with many positive feelings toward it. Not many negative, either, for what it’s worth. I had an awkward start with it due to the anachronistic issues I mentioned earlier, but I enjoyed the mystery of the ring well enough, and I think the two sort of cancel each other out, leaving me with a rather neutral impression overall. I don’t think this is one I will ever get the urge to reread, and I think I can feel confident in recommending it to those who enjoy YA historical fiction with a bit of a twist, but that’s likely a fairly niche group, and I’m not sure it has much appeal beyond that. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one I’d recommend going out of your way to read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2018

Summary: A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Thoughts: After thoroughly enjoying Mackenzi Lee’s previous novel pertaining to the Montague siblings, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I expected to like this book just as much. In the end, though, I can’t say that I did. Oh, I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and it certainly has its strengths and is worth taking the time to read if you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way as its predecessor, and after that strong introduction to the author’s writing, this one felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy allows Felicity (Monty’s sister and semi-unwilling traveling companion from the previous book) to take centre stage as she tries to gain admittance into the grand masculine halls of higher education. Unsurprisingly given the time period of these books, she is unsuccessful, with her gender being held against her as making her “unfit” to study medicine. Because girly parts and wandering uteruses and blah blah fragile masculinity blah. Felicity is not so much upset as she is angry about this. So when there’s the slim hope of a chance to study under a man she admires, Dr. Platt, she launches herself head-first forward. Even if it means reuniting with an old friend she fell out with years ago. Even if it involves getting mixed up with pirates and murky schemes.

Even if her idol isn’t quite the man she thought he was.

For all that The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy maintains a similar sense of adventure as its predecessor, that adventure didn’t grab me in quite the same way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in Felicity’s journey or her discoveries about the world and herself, but Monty’s starring role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meant that a delightfully irreverent sense of humour was there throughout the pages, and his general absence here meant a lack of the same. Felicity’s narration is very different from Monty’s, filled more with anger and stubbornness than wit and baffled privilege. Felicity viewpoint is absolutely important, and still relevant today (much to my chagrin), but as far as entertainment value, I do have to say that Monty’s narration really gave the previous novel an edge over this one.

Felicity’s position is undeniably a hard one to be in. She’s intelligent, driven, passionate, and she wants more for her life than just to settle down and be the wife to a man who would expect her to put away childish things like the desire to learn and be respected in the same way and for doing the same things that a man would. Felicity doesn’t want to be a man, but she wants what men have, and who can blame her? Society dictates that she, her very essence, is unseemly, that she should have abandoned her desires as a childish conceit, or at least done what her friend Johanna did and become more acceptably feminine even if her academic interests remained the same. Through the story Felicity wrestles time and again with whether pursuing her goals is even worth it, whether she can say that it brings her happiness or peace to do so even with the knowledge that she will very likely fail, or whether she should shunt all of that to the side and aim for more social acceptance and put on the mask of civility so that she stops rubbing everyone around her raw.

Honestly, it’s a debate I’ve had with myself multiple times, so I can very much understand and appreciate Felicity’s dilemma. Is it better to hide the deepest part of oneself and to conform in the name of making life more harmonious, or is it better to be true to oneself even if the cost is social cohesion and connection? Which brings greater satisfaction? Which is more important? Though it may seem to the reader that Felicity comes off as flip-floppy or indecisive regarding something we already know she feels strongly about, that indecision is, in fact, a very realistic aspect to the lives of many who don’t fit in, who are too passionate or odd to adapt to society’s mold. Frankly, I’m in my 30s and I still wrestle with this from time to time. It’s a debate that doesn’t just end after one decision. There is always something around the corner that makes you doubt whether self-denial might be worth it after all.

Once again comparing this novel to the one that came before it, the supernatural element seemed stronger and more overt this time around. In Monty’s story, the mere rumour of a magical or alchemical panacea drove a lot of the plot forward. Here, while for a while the story is about Felicity reaching Dr. Platt and then uncovering his true motives, there’s also the issue of Sim, whose presence comes and goes but is ultimately tied to her family’s legacy of keeping the secret of the sea serpents whose scales act like a drug when ingested. Once Sim reveals that information, Felicity can look back on her interactions with Platt and see that he already knew about the serpents and their scales, and that the otherwordly (so to speak) element was present the whole time within the story.

Honestly, this didn’t really do anything for me. Felicity and Johanna’s encounter with the sea serpents and their theories on how they live were interesting and reminiscent of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but the execution of that plot element didn’t feel as deft as the similar element in the previous book. As I said, I was intrigued by how much Monty was driven by the rumour of the alchemical panacea, to the point where it frankly didn’t really matter whether there was truth behind the rumour or not. The possibility sparked both adventure and misadventure, and it was a great example of what a person can do with mere whispers in their ears. Here, though, it was like Felicity’s goal changed repeatedly, that she had nothing until she had everything, and there wasn’t a great mystery to solve, no wondering as to the truth of what she hears. There are sea serpents, Platt is after them, the scales do exactly what Felicity had been told they do.

If it had been more akin to what The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had presented, Sim’s family would have believed the dragons to be real but wouldn’t have show undeniable proof, Felicity and Johanna would never have found the dead beached serpent nor its orphaned offspring, a serpent wouldn’t have risen from the depths to crush their enemies, and the whole journey would have been Felicity trying to reach her mentor, then going off on an adventure with her childhood friend to discover whether or not the rumours of such miraculous creatures had any truth to them, and they would have found nothing concrete but seen something under the ocean’s waves that we’d all know to be the sea serpent, but that’s as close as anyone would come to concrete evidence. The journey sparked by personal ambition, changing to include the desires of or for a childhood friend, rumours pushing them on, and in the end both nothing and everything changed.

Since I’m sure it’s on the minds of anyone reading this review, yes, there is once again queer representation in this book, though it’s not exactly as positive as before. Felicity isn’t precisely disgusted by the relationship between her brother and Percy, but she acts often as though she doesn’t want to see it and doesn’t want to be around them when they’re acting like a couple. She accepts that they’re in love and that they make each other happy, but she herself is happiest when they’re not around her being happy with each other. Frankly, that was rather unpleasant to read.

Sim is undeniably attracted to women (less sure about whether she’s attracted to men also; that wasn’t really touched on), and I honestly would read an entire novel about her because she’s a great character with lots of potential, although as I mentioned previously, she dips in and out of the story when the plot needs her to, so she’s not present as much as she could be and as such didn’t get as much development as some of the others. And I know it’s likely to be a case of Unfortunate Implications rather than anything deliberate, but when Sim is a Muslim woman who vanishes from the story at intervals because it’s not convenient to have her around and doesn’t get the development of characters like Johanna, it can come across a bit as saying that the openly-Muslim characters aren’t as important as the white Europeans. Or that they’re only good to have around when they’re needed to advance someone else’s story. Again, probably not the author’s intention, but it can read that way at times, and it’s something that’s worth paying attention to.

As for how Felicity relates to queer representation… It’s not said explicitly, since the terms weren’t really in common use with modern connotations during the time this book is set, but Felicity is probably either asexual, aromantic, or both. I’m not even entirely sure, if Felicity were given those terms and modern knowledge, whether she would know. Neither man nor woman has been able to light a fire in her, so to speak, but that doesn’t narrow it down, and it might just mean she doesn’t like kissing. It’s not a universal like, after all. And while it was good to see a potentially aro/ace character in a YA novel, I do have some issues with the presentation.

First, it’s not concrete. As I said, her experience has mostly been that she hasn’t been interested in anyone so far and isn’t that into kissing. Compared to her brother’s clear and self-expressed attraction to men and women, it’s easy for readers who don’t want to see more aro/ace characters to just not read that in Felicity, and to downplay it as her just not having found “the right person” yet.

And believe me, I wish I could properly convey the sour feeling associated with those words, because I’ve heard them from many people in regard to myself, and there’s a lot of bitterness surrounding the idea that asexual people just need somebody to awaken latent sexual desire within them. Like we’re all “late bloomers,” sexually immature, and that we need sexytimes to prove to ourselves that we want sexytimes, and yes, “you’ll want it after you’ve had it,” is a common idea and is just as damaging and creepy as you might think it is.

Secondly, a lot of presentations of asexuality in media come across as more a matter of a character not knowing what they want and less as knowing what they don’t want. Asexual people do go through a journey of discovery when it comes to their sexuality, absolutely, and we don’t always instantly know, “Ah yes, I absolutely have no sexual or romantic desire for people,” but very often the formula seems to break down as:

Am I interested in the opposite gender? No.
Am I interested in the same gender? No.
Well golly, there must be something wrong and weird about me. Why can’t I decide which I like?

The idea that sexual or romantic attraction is innate rather than just being common is one that prevents asexual and aromantic people from accepting themselves. And society backs up this idea, because there’s so much even now that tells us we have to define ourselves by what we are, by what we like, that nobody every considers that not liking a thing is a thing in itself. If someone didn’t like living in apartments, we wouldn’t automatically assume that they do like living in houses, but we go that route with sexuality all the time. If someone has no attraction to either gender, they often struggle defining themselves because this culture and this language doesn’t really have much call for expressing who we are by what we don’t have an interest in. That seems negative,and so must be discouraged. We can’t say that we dislike living in apartments; we must say we like living in houses, even if that isn’t really the truth of the matter. Even if the dislike of apartments defines us more than liking to live in houses, our identity must stem from what we like, what we are, what we do, or else we’re curmudgeons and negative and nobody wants to be around a Negative Nelly.

Where am I going with this? Essentially, to the point that Felicity’s sexual orientation in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is hinted at only by telling us what she doesn’t like. We’re meant to follow that to the conclusion of asexuality or aromanticism, but its never said. Felicity never says, or thinks, “I have no romantic or sexual desire for anybody.” She just expresses that kissing men didn’t appeal to her, and kissing Sim was better but still not that appealing, and so the reader is meant to reach the conclusion through a series of if/then coding. If not this, then that. If not that, then the other thing. Saying it without saying it, because even if a clever author could easily find ways to express that a lack of desire is still something, there was no such cleverness here, and it was disappointing.

Third and final, Felicity’s potential asexuality and/or aromanticism is tied to her personality of not having much time for anyone and anything that doesn’t suit her and her goals. She’s impatient, driven, passionate, and at times extremely single-minded, and it’s too easy to read that her lack of desire for sexual or romantic connection is just another facet of that “no time for anything else” personality, rather than something that can and does play a part in the lives of many kinds of people with a variety of different personality types. It’s a trope at this point. The asexual characters is nearly always the one that’s asexual due to trauma or religion, or they’re the obsessive goes-against-the-grain type that often can’t see outside their own narrow scope.

And once again, it was disappointing.

Similar to the issue with Sim, I feel that this was less the author’s deliberate intention and more a case of unfortunate implications. But these implications are once again things that can damage and delay acceptance. I can all too easily imagine a teen reading this book and thinking, “Felicity’s just like me that way, I’m not interested in sex/romance either, but oh wait, Felicity’s not interested in anything outside of her focus and drive to get into medicine, so maybe she’s got so time for romance just like she had no time for Johanna’s pretty dresses.” Instead of someone seeing themselves in a book for possibly the first time, they see someone who might be like them, maybe, but it’s so easy to explain away, and it’s never even explicitly stated to begin with.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I will say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, and that I found the previous book to be better on a multitude of levels. I can see The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy appealing to people who enjoy historical fiction, and to those who are interested in historical aspects of feminism. But where The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue shone, this book merely glitters in comparison, and I think it could have stood a couple more sensitivity readers going over the material to smooth over some of the rough edges that might scratch at people who need to be met with better. It’s easily skippable even if you really enjoyed the first book of the series, though in fairness, a third book is still on the horizon and might well build off certain things established here, so I can’t say for absolute certainty that this will remain my opinion in the future.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 27, 2017

Summary: A young bisexual British lord embarks on an unforgettable Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend/secret crush. An 18th-century romantic adventure for the modern age written by This Monstrous Thing author Mackenzi Lee—Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets the 1700s.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

Thoughts: There needs to be more historical fantasy with queer characters; I’ll say that for nothing. Queer people aren’t some modern phenomenon, and I enjoy seeing such characters in historical settings, and doubly so in YA novels, because there are still a number of people who hold that queer culture and experience is something that only adults are capable of handling and so teens don’t need to know.

My sincere regrets to the myriad queer teens out there who have to deal with this. I was one of you, once, before growing into a queer adult, and I can say with certainty that greater exposure and education would have made coming to grips with myself a lot easier, had such things been more readily available in my youth.

The protagonist, Henry “Monty” Montague, is something of the black sheep of his family. Drinking, gambling, and going to bed with men and women alike, though with his heart set on his best friend, Percy. Percy, who is a young black man in the 1700s, so you can well imagine what his social status is and how he’s treated by many. Before settling down to take over the family’s estate, Monty has plans to tour Europe (along with Percy, to his happiness, and his sister Felicity, to his chagrin), and to use it as an excuse for hedonistic debauchery before having to give at least some of that up for social propriety. But his plans for fun keep getting derailed, first by misunderstandings with Percy and the chaperone the group was forced to bring, and then by the discovery that Percy has epilepsy, and contrary to the story he told about going to school at the end of the tour, he’s actually being sent to an asylum, where he can be, to put it mildly, “less of an inconvenience.” Percy won’t stand for this, and when rumours reach his ears of something that might cure Percy’s epilepsy, the trio’s journey takes a sharp turn toward the uncanny and dangerous.

It was fairly obvious, just from the back-of-the-book synopsis, that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was going to be a queer historical, and that alone would have convinced me to read it. I didn’t expect that it would have fantastical elements to it, though, and that was a very pleasant bonus. That aspect of the story isn’t revealed until well past the halfway point, giving the reader plenty of time to get hooked on the rest of the story first. The cure for Percy’s epilepsy is alchemical, of sorts, a magical panacea in the form of an undying human heart. That this is even possible is a surprise to all characters, since The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is, until the discovery of that plot point, based very firmly in historical reality, rather than historical fantasy. The handling of the magical elements reminded me very much of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord and its magical carousel: it’s a motivating force for the characters, it drives part of the plot along, but it doesn’t really show up on centre stage. Its biggest effect isn’t in what it actually does so much as what it motivates character to do in order to obtain it.

It’s worth noting that the story could have gone in much the same fashion whether or not the heart had any magical curative properties. The mere rumour of it, hints at where it might be and what it might do, influenced Monty. By the time he found it, his life had already changed just from hearing of it, and it scarcely mattered if it was true or merely compelling fiction. It was a deft way to handle something so mystical while still keeping the story feeling very much grounded in reality, and I would love to see more books take this tack.

As for Monty himself, he is the very epitome of privilege. He is a wealthy white man in the 1700s, and while it can’t be denied that his life has some legitimate hardships (being bisexual was hardly approved of at the time, and he was pressured from many sides to hide or change that aspect of himself), he was startlingly ignorant about the hardships anyone else may endure in their lives. His European Tour with Percy and Felicity was, by and large, his coming of age story. Intended to be his “last hedonistic hurrah,” he instead finds himself confronted at every turn with the fact that he is ignorant and selfish, and that those closest to him suffer for those traits. He sees hypocrisy in his sister for wanting to study and simultaneously not wanting to be sent away to school (not learning until much later that she is being sent to a finishing school, where she’ll be taught manners and comportment and all things “befitting a lady,” not a school where she can learn academically the way a man might), he refuses to see that Percy may suffer for being black and for having a chronic illness, and generally thinks that his way is the right way solely because he thought of it, regardless of what others want. When Monty decides to seek the magical panacea, it’s not because Percy expressed that he wanted to be cured of his epilepsy, but because Monty wanted Percy to be cured, and wanted that so that Percy wouldn’t have to be sent away. His heart was in the right place, but his privilege made him so blind to the validity and value of others that he didn’t think anything was wrong with demanding his way all the time.

Frankly, it was nice to see him be taken down a few pegs through the book’s progression, to see him forced to confront, undeniably, that the whole world wasn’t the way he had experienced in his small and carefully manufactured life, and that his wants could not always come first and foremost.

I may not know the most about the time period and locations this novel took place in, but it was clear that the author did some research about the subjects she was tackling in her writing. Historical treatment of women, of people of colour, of people with chronic and/or serious illnesses, or queer people, all came into play during A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and even if some license was taken in places, the overall feel of the novel was indeed one of authenticity, of enough historical references and turns of phrase to centre a reader in the moment while still maintaining and witty and irreverent tone through the narrative to keep the reader entertained. It was, to be blunt, a damn fine read, a historical romp through marginalized groups as seen through the eyes of someone whose privilege is getting stripped away in layers, and the story of a young man finally growing up. I can heartily recommend this to fans of YA historical fiction (even those who don’t typically go in for a touch of fantasy) and to those seeking more books with queer and other marginalized characters.

The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: 730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

Thoughts: I’d heard so many good things about The Walled City, and the concept certainly intrigued me. A city cut off from the things and people outside it, a lawlessness that had its own rules, people caught up in schemes far bigger than they could imagine, all intersecting to bring their stories together. It seemed like a great starting point for an epic story.

So what went wrong?

I suspect in many ways the disconnect I felt for this book is purely a personal thing, because most other reviews I read for it don’t mention the particular aspects that were problems for me. Everyone’s got their individual tastes, and that’s fine. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone out there who will have the same problems, I feel that they’re worth discussing.

The Walled City of Hak Nam is based on Kowloon Walled City, an old fort in Hong Kong that was essentially left to its own devices and became a sort of city within a city, a place where the usual rules don’t apply, and where drugs, murder, prostitution, the whole nine yards were run often without any interference from outside forces, because Kowloon both was and wasn’t within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. It was a complicated situation, just as it is within The Walled City, with Hak Nam replacing Kowloon, and Seng Ngoi replacing Hong Kong.

You might think, then, that The Walled City is a small sample of a much larger world, the story that we get to see set in a secondary world that is most decidedly not the world we know and live in. But no, not really. Or if it is, it’s the same in every respect except for two place names being different. The world within The Walled City has 747 airplanes, Mercedes cars, television. Seng Ngoi and Hak Nam are in the eastern part of the world, and English is a language. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that The Walled City is set in this world, only, as I said, with 2 places having different names than we’re used to.

This comes across an awful lot like the author wanted to write a story set within Kowloon, but didn’t want to commit to writing something about a place that actually existed, and so instead set the story in a place that was identical for all intents and purposes, but with an easy out in case something ended up not being historically accurate to the places that inspired the book’s setting. A way to say, “Well, it’s not really Kowloon, not really Hong Kong, so there’s nothing to really be accurate about.”

Which left this world wide open for so much creative execution, so many ways to change a few things here and there and make it a wholly original world, even if it was heavily inspired by something real. Television could still happen in this world, but just leave out the mentions of brand names. The setting can be in the east, but change English to, I don’t know, some language that isn’t real and that you don’t have to deal with beyond giving it a name. Then suddenly Hak Nam and Seng Ngoi become real within their own world, a self-contained part of a much broader reality, instead of being fake places based on real places, set in the real world.

It would have been a small change but it would have made so much difference, at least to my reading of the book. It felt like unused potential, and it dogged the footsteps of the story throughout.

As for the story itself, rather than the setting, it was interesting enough. The book follows three primary characters: Dai, a rich boy who was exiled to Hak Nam and now seeks to find evidence against a drug lord to barter for his freedom; Jin, a girl who disguises herself as a boy for her safety and whose goal is to find her sister within one of the city’s brothels; and Mei Yee, Jin’s sister, working within one of the brothels owned by Hak Nam’s most powerful drug lord. Jin and Dai’s paths cross and they begin working together, mostly for Dai’s purposes but it also dovetails nicely into Jin’s plan to find and free her sister. Naturally, Dai ends up meeting Mei Yee along the way, conversing with her through her window since Mei Yee isn’t allowed outside, and the two develop a crush on each other as they learn more about each other’s lives and goals.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and their voices are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell them apart despite all chapters being written in the first person. Mei Yee has more poetic imagery in her observations, Dai is confident and cocky, and Jin’s sentences are often shorter and to the point, which ties back well to her life on the street filled with abbreviated experiences and frantic lifestyle. You can turn to any random page in the book and within a few sentences get a very clear idea of who is narrating, and credit where credit is due, that’s a tough thing to manage and I think the author pulled it off quite well.

The romance between Dai and Mei Yee was fairly predictable, and though it wasn’t given much time to really develop on the pages, it still was somewhat sweet. The two do fall for each other without knowing much about who the other really is and what they really want at first, and I think much of their attraction was based on who they each wanted the other to be, a sort of aspirational crush, as it were, but it was still rather cute to read their budding romance and to wonder how long it would last once they experienced the world beyond Hak Nam’s walls and their own immediate wants? Would it survive? Would they remain compatible with each other? Were they even as compatible as they assumed they were? Honestly, I can’t answer any of those questions, because the focus of the story wasn’t on their romance. But I will say that their interest was believable, realistic, and didn’t immediately go into the realm of obsessive attraction, and for that, I was thankful.

In the end, The Walled City wasn’t a bad story, and it had enough action and intrigue to convince me to read the whole thing through, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have easily been so much more. The world-building felt nonexistent at best and confused at worst, and as I previously mentioned, it felt like the author was afraid to commit to telling a story about people in the actual Kowloon Walled City. It ended up making a novel that was somewhere between historical fiction and speculative/secondary-world fiction, fitting in neither and so being very hard to categorize. This is one you read when you want something you don’t want to look deeply at, because then the cracks become obvious and you start to ask more questions that can’t be answered. Its lack of easy categorization makes it difficult to recommend: “people might enjoy this if they enjoy… books, I guess?”

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

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Author website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1959

Summary: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Review: After watching and really enjoying the new Netflix adaptation of this story, I decided it was high time I actually sat down and read the novel that inspired it. I mean, I also watched the 1999 movie adaptation and enjoyed that, so surely the book must be good too. (Don’t judge me; I was in high school, and I saw that movie on a date and was thrilled to death with an openly-bisexual character. I was easily impressed then and had no refinement to my movie-watching tastes.)

Anyway, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (often reprinted as simply The Haunting) is a short read, quick and to the point, but with plenty of room for interesting interpretation and discussion. The story is told from the perspective of Eleanor, nicknamed Nell, who accepts an invitation to Hill House after the death of her mother. Life is… difficult for Eleanor, to say the least. She lives with family who doesn’t think much of her, doesn’t have a strong personality, and spent her whole adult life caring for her ailing mother and carries residual guilt for the woman’s death. She welcomes the chance to get away from things, even if just for a little while.

The other temporary inhabitants of Hill House are Dr Montague, a researcher hoping to find evidence that Hill House is haunted, and that certain “sensitive” people might bring out conclusive evidence; Luke Sanderson, a man in line to inherit the house some day, and Theodora, who refuses to admit her surname and who Eleanor takes quite a fancy to, becoming fast friends with her despite her rather mercurial personality. There are also the Dudleys, who take care of the house but are rarely seen (Mrs Dudley is seen more than her husband, but her dialogue is often the same day in and day out, and she seems mostly put out by any change to routine, which made me wonder if she was a touch neuroatypical), and eventually Mrs Montague and her companion Arthur show up to thoroughly annoy the hell out of everyone, including the reader. But for the most part, we’re dealing with Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr Montague.

Hill House itself may well be counted as a character, since it certainly seems to contain some sort of will or intelligence of its own. During the brief time people stay there, odd things happen, such as messages to Eleanor showing up in strange places, or door closing of their own accord (though that could possibly be explained by the whole house being built with very slightly odd angles, which is addressed in the book), or phantom noises and shapes darting through hallways. The problems don’t seem to come from particular spirits or personalities that remain within the house so much as they come from the house itself, which is an interesting take on haunted house since most such stories typically involve a malevolent personality lingering on after death to cause problems. No, here the problem is the house itself, and whatever will it possesses.

As for Eleanor herself, I have to say right here that I feel so very bad for her. Her life hasn’t been easy, as I previously mentioned, and over the course of the story you can see her mental state start to slip. Her thoughts become disordered and occasionally repetitious, she acts in ways that are completely at odds with what’s going on inside her head. She doesn’t start off this way, not really, but her time in Hill House affects her very strongly.

And a lot of what she experienced was incredibly relatable to me, as I’ve dealt with mental illness in some form for pretty much as long as I can remember. Certain scenes in The Haunting of Hill House felt like they were half lifted from my own life, with myself as Eleanor, and that was more than a little bit distressing. I recall one scene where she was behaving perfectly politely, very civil and kind in her conversation with others, while thinking to herself that she wanted nothing so much as to hurt Theodora. That disconnect between internal and external, thought and action, was uncomfortably familiar to me, and I think Jackson did a very good job of conveying just how much we put on a mask, so to speak, to appear normal and do what’s expected when inside we’re anything but. The way Theodora used Luke against Eleanor, too, to make Eleanor jealous that Theo was giving her attention to someone else, eerily echoed the way one of my old friends treated me for some time.

Bonus cringe in that I absolutely had a crush on this friend at the time, so the echoes are even more poignant. (Theodora is absolutely coded as not being straight. I wondered if that was something that was in the original story as well as the film and TV adaptations, and yes. Yes it is.)

When it comes to The Haunting of Hill House, you often find people getting into discussions about whether Nell’s behaviour were due to mental illness or the house’s malign influence. Rarely do I ever see people talk about how it could be both — for some reason people often insist it has to be either one or the other. For my part, it seemed to me that Eleanor really did suffer from some degree of mental illness, exacerbated by whatever odd energies were made manifest in Hill House. To ignore the idea that something supernatural was occurring would be tantamount to saying that Eleanor was entirely alone in the house the whole time and hallucinated the whole thing. Other people experienced different events, or even the same events that Eleanor did, after all. Now yes, there are times where, if you read between the lines a little, the book seems to suggest that sometimes Eleanor does hear people speak when in fact they said nothing at all, but that’s a far cry from imagining whole conversations with multiple people. Of all the people in the house, Eleanor had the most damage, was the most desperate for a place she could call home, and Hill House preyed upon that need. It could have been any of them, really, but what self-respecting predator wouldn’t prey upon the weakest in a group, after all?

So yes, Eleanor absolutely suffered from mental illness, and that explains a number of things within the story, but mostly the things that are contained to Eleanor herself, her reactions and thoughts. External events, especially ones witnessed by others, are another matter.

In the end, while the tone of the writing in The Haunting of Hill House definitely feels a bit dated, the story itself is solid, the characters varied and interesting, and for such a short book, there’s a lot to unpack. This review really only brushed the surface, and I left out a lot of what I wanted to say about smaller scenes and random bits of dialogue that had personal meaning, and when you get right down to it, that’s exactly how a good horror story should be. It should make a mark, leave an impression, and give you plenty to come back to even once the last page has been read and the book closed. This is a classic for a reason, and I recommend reading it if you have the opportunity.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)