A feel-good “found family on a spaceship” story

One is naturally intimidated when taxed with writing a review for a book that deserves as much positive attention as Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Will my words adequately advertise all its good qualities? What does my review add that other people’s haven’t already?

So first of all, let me start by saying that if you’re reading my reviews because you like my books, if you like the way I construct a spec fic safe space where you don’t have to worry that the characters you’ve grown the most attached to are the ones to die in Act 3, and if you like the found families I create and gender diversity I celebrate, then yes, this book is like that. It’s not like characters are never sad or even devastated in Long Way but there’s an overall positive coating that makes the book a sort of healing bath.

In some senses it’s structured more like a single season of a television show instead of a movie — the adventures of the ship’s crew are more episodic than all part of a continuous arc, with the various stakes in the episodes rising as we near the “season finale.” If there is an arc, it’s the crew becoming more and more like family, as the n00b audience insert character, a human woman from Mars who signs on as a clerk to help the ship deal with paperwork and bureaucracy, integrates into their culture and learns about the various nonhuman species on board. She’s learned about a lot of species in university, but nothing compares with the real thing.

The book gives you so many characters to love. My favorites were Kizzy Shao, who’d be a Manic Pixie if she wasn’t actually the center of her own narrative instead of the catalyst in someone else’s–she labeled the caf and decaf teas “happy tea” and “boring tea” and knitted hats for computer equipment, and “Dr. Chef”, the nickname for the ship’s medic and cook who belongs to a Totoro-shaped alien species that starts out female, then turns male in old age. I loved him for being generally nurturing and adorable, but he belongs to a species with an incredibly tragic history.

In fact, a lot of the book is “here’s an adventure, but what’s really interesting about this chapter is more worldbuilding.” I usually hate the worldbuilding parts of spec fic, but Chambers explained hers so gracefully–integrated into the narrative rather than dry exposition–that I was never confused. For example, another crewmember belongs to a species of sentient, feathered reptiles who love to cuddle, especially in huge groups, and have elaborate childrearing and family structures.

During the course of the book, two of the female characters become involved with each other and stay together, but I won’t mention which two because it’s not often one reads a book where something canonically queer happens but you have the pleasure of not knowing exactly what it’ll be from the beginning. I will also warn for character death, but it’s not any of the women involved in the f/f relationship. It’s a sad moment, but the book needs it because after so many snatches from the jaws of tragedy I think getting to “win” inevery single adventure would have made the happy parts of the book feel cheap. Chambers did take a lot of “easy ways out” — things work and ships don’t blow up; people find out about secrets and don’t shut out the deceptive character for several chapters of angsty cold shoulders — so while that is always really soothing to read, a little sadness sort of justified all that, if you will.

I have to note that I imagined the ship’s cantankerous “annoying coworker” character, Corbin who maintains the algae the ship uses as fuel, as Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest. Not so much because of anything Chambers wrote, but because Rickman’s character when he was playing the actor–not his TV alien role–was so cranky that it just seemed to fit, and I couldn’t shift it. Hope that’s okay!

If Long Way has a theme besides “found family in space”, it’s how to deal with the inherent violence of being alive, or maybe I mean the inherent responsibility we adopt as sentients for being sentient, to avoid violence or at least apply it judiciously. Weapons and who decides to not only use them but even possess them comes up again and again, and Dr. Chef’s backstory is a poignant cautionary tale (it’s laid on thick but so interesting that who gives a shit?) Dr. Chef is a good microcosm of what makes this book so appealing to me–besides the polyamorous cuddling dragon lady–in that he’s had a rough life, but now he’s surrounded by affection and pursuits that make him happy.

The book also goes into issues of bodily autonomy in several different ways, and into the question of whether artificial intelligence should be treated with the same respect and rights as living beings.

I do not remember any major triggers other than that there is character death. Also, Corbin uses slurs, but they’re in-universe slurs–this is a universe where interspecies bigotry is a major thing and often addressed in-text, but there’s no trace of homophobia/heteronormativity or even racism, since humanity seems to have mostly evened out to a random brown.

(Also, the f/f relationship isn’t the only queerness in the story; Kizzy has two dads, I’m fairly sure the reptile aliens don’t give a shit, and there are various alien forms of nonbinary gendering that don’t parse to human models of nonbinary gender.)

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The Olive Conspiracy: a young queen protecting her nation’s agriculture and happiness

Presenting my newest Jewish fantasy novel!

THE OLIVE CONSPIRACY cover

When Ezra tries to blackmail Chef Yael about her being trans, she throws him out of her restaurant and immediately reports him to the queen. When police find Ezra stabbed to death, Queen Shulamit realizes he may have also tried to extort someone more dangerous than a feisty old lady.

The royal investigation leads straight to an international terrorist plot to destroy her country’s economy—and worse, her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of Imbrio, may be involved. Since she’s got a dragon-shifting wizard at her disposal, contacts with friendly foreign witches, and the support of her partner Aviva, Shulamit has hope. What she doesn’t have is time.

A love story between women, between queen and country, and between farmers and their crops.

The Olive Conspiracy is now out electronically and will be out fall 2016 in paperback. eBook purchases directly from the publisher, and paperbacks from anywhere, will include a free copy of Tales from Perach, five bonus short stories.

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The Golem and the Jinni: character-driven costume drama fantasy set in NYC immigrant communities

I love fantasy on an intimate scale like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I like watching magical beings struggle to protect their own lives and the lives of those close to them. I like it when a story treats them with the same dignity as literary, contemporary, and historical fiction treats its humans, as if a woman made of clay or a man who’s been imprisoned in a lamp for a thousand years have every right to dignified and noble emotions and self-exploration instead of being reduced to something shallow and cartoonish. So, I found this book a masterpiece.

The author has combined a series of philosophical questions about free will with a captivating story with characters so wonderful I wish I could see them dramatized.

When I first picked this up from the library and realized it was nearly 500 pages long, I was afraid that plus fantasy would mean I’d be drowning in worldbuilding. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a deeply character driven costume drama-fantasy, set in the Ashkenazi Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrant communities of turn of the 20th century New York City.

What matters in each scene is the thoughts and motivations and relationships/interactions between the leading and supporting characters, which makes this far more riveting for me than a plot hinging on preventing some worldwide cataclysm. Instead, the author made me as a reader fear for the happiness of its supernatural leading lady and leading man and for the humans they’ve grown to care for. These are, among others, an elderly rabbi and his nephew, a pampered but trapped young heiress, a metalworker, a young woman who works in a bakery, and an ice cream seller who used to be a doctor (the book’s major Muslim character.)

The Jewish setting of this book was like snuggling into a warm blanket fresh from the dryer for me. I’m the New York born child of New York born children of Jewish immigrants; some of the streets these characters wander I know from personal experience. My grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side. Both sets of great-grandparents on that side spoke only Yiddish. The line about how everyone in the Lower East Side is craving normal bread towards the end of Passover made me Cheshire Cat grin.

The Syrian setting also came to life for me with characters both Christian and Muslim — mostly Christian, and the jinni himself is actually an atheist.

I wasn’t expecting the plot to twist the way it did, but when the twists started coming, I was pleased that the book delivered on its surprises instead of building to something less compelling than the preceding tension. I also found the ending a satisfying relief, but I can honestly say that I would have enjoyed the book even had it not had that particular soothing ending–and if you know me, you know that’s saying a lot.

Look, she made me actually root for a cis hetero couple! I know half of it is because I was so happy to be reading costume drama fantasy about Jews — but still, she established their connection as believable and desirable to the audience before giving any hint that the book was going to go there, and that takes skill. There are just so many romances out there where the only reason the reader cares about the couple is that the couple cares about the couple. But their connection was built on long walks at night (I am totally there) and on sharing a major difference from everyone else, together (being supernatural.) This means way more to me than any kind of physical attraction. And indeed, the book doesn’t ‘go there’ at all–although the jinni is quite physical with a few other women in the meantime–and that makes me like their connection more. (In fact, I suppose you could argue that the endgame is queerplatonic, but since I’m so allo I can probably heal burns–sorry, hyuk–that isn’t my call to make.)

Some other minor bits I liked: I appreciated that the author stuck in a throwaway line of jinni dialogue indicating that there are indeed gay or bisexual jinni, although the title character “prefers women”–in a book set in 1900, and not about queer people in any way, I really appreciated that. I also loved that she described the golem’s nose as turning down a little at the end because it’s not often I see my nose on things that aren’t propaganda.

But yes: free will, Jewish and Arab immigrants, fantasy and magic (he’s a metal bender! He can shape metal into cool stuff with his hands!), and 486 pages that zipped by for me in one day simply because there wasn’t a whole lot of, you know, chore reading. Something was happening on every page, every scene was needed.

Trigger warning for one of the most gently poetic and elegantly sad descriptions of a miscarriage I have ever read, for suicidal ideation/attempt, and for some Winter Soldierish violence in one of the desert flashback scenes.

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Sorcerer to the Crown paperback giveaway rules!

Hi, y’all! Remember this great book? Author Zen Cho was nice enough to provide two paperback copies for me to give away to interested readers. Here are the rules for the giveaway:

-To enter, you must leave a comment on my review of the book (not here, this page is just for rules and questions) with a recommendation for a fantasy book written by an author from a marginalized group. Give us a sentence or so (no length limit) on why I or my followers should check out this other book. My review of Sorcerer to the Crown should help you determine my tastes and pick a book you think I’d like! (If you want to know more about my tastes, feel free to peruse the blog at my other reviews.)

-You must live in North America because I’m paying for shipping myself.

-Winning entries will be picked on August 1. If you haven’t responded by August 8, I will start picking other entries. Winners will be chosen at random using Excel. You can either put your email address in your comment (I’d advise the “dragonfruit at perach dot moo” method in case those bots from my undergrad days are still a thing) or mention your Twitter name and keep DM’s open.)

Best of luck, everybody!

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Fairest: dark f/f fairy tale where the girls earn their happy ending

Fairest by K.S. Trenten is a lesbian fairy tale that’s loosely a dark love triangle between Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. Well, not quite a triangle—giving away too many details would spoil some of the intricate weaving of the piece, which the reader unwraps scene by scene. The characters might be favorite myths but the plot the author came up with is entirely new, delving into themes of toxic relationships, forgiveness, and, well, girls kissing.

There’s no sex on the page but there’s sensuality all over the place—the Snow White character definitely tripped my beloved Sad Brunette archetype—pretty girls in pretty dresses dealing with magic and anger and regret and love.

If you’re looking for a fairy tale that ends with princesses together destined to rule as joint queens—and I like the way the author created a universe in which “It’s been centuries since a woman has married another woman” rather than taking it for granted that this made-up world was just like ours—this is going to be a good bet for you because the pain and drama of the plot does earn our heroine a happy sapphic ending. And I do hope the author’s use of the name Harold for the one voice of dissension at their plans was an intentional reference to the Harold, They’re Lesbians meme, because HAHAHAHHA.

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Graveyard Sparrow: sweet lesbian romance amidst terrors of Victorian horror setting

Graveyard Sparrow by Kayla Bashe is a dark, yet sweet and happily resolved, piece of lesbian paranormal with a Victorian Gothic setting. This is a world where magical powers are somewhat normal, if not common, but women with magical abilities are still at risk from all the patriarchal dangers that women face in the real world. The main characters both have magic, and they fall in love while one is trying to help the other cope with the dangers of her powers.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is leaving behind a trail of corpses. The women try to use their paranormal abilities to solve the crime but they’re being manipulated by the men around them and will have to break free of what they thought was safety if they are to be together or even *safe*.

I liked the romance, growing from friendship and from feeling safe. One quibble I had was that if Miss Sparrow is truly so telepathic that she’s in physical pain from the amount of other people’s thoughts she hears, that she instantly knows when the policeman’s wife is pregnant, why doesn’t she know immediately that her feelings for Miss Garlant are reciprocated? “Because Kayla Bashe likes to write about people who are in love but think their love isn’t reciprocated,” lol. (Meant affectionately.) Or maybe there was a detail in there that I missed, because I read too quickly–this is very possible.

The adventure of this isn’t the mystery, because the audience knows who the villain is from pretty early on. The adventure is in watching the women grow together as friends and partners, and in women rescuing each other, and using magic and bravery to do so.

This was originally self-published but was picked up by an indie press and re-edited, so other people’s reviews might refer to the earlier version.

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Zahrah the Windseeker: 13 year old girl in plant-based SFF adventure

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor is both a story about a girl rescuing a boy, and a girl growing into her own strength, both of which are themes I enjoy. Zahrah’s story is pretty linear, straightforward, and in some ways predictable, so what really makes this book stand out is the TOTALLY GLITTERPANTS WORLDBUILDING. If there’s such a thing as phytopunk, this book is it — Zahrah’s people have all the latest in today’s technology, only it’s all botanical. They plant computer seeds that grow computers which continue to evolve as the owner uses them, flowers are used as money and lanterns, and a five-story library that sounds like the most cutting-edge futuristic architecture with floor-to-ceiling windows is actually made out of a see-through “glass” tree. (Maybe this is just regular solarpunk. Don’t know my “punks” very well.)

The plant technology isn’t the only fun stuff. The forbidden jungle where Zahrah earns most of her Personal Growth Narrative, is populated by a menagerie of invented animals, some dangerous, some entertaining. Zahrah’s human family and her best friend are all sympathetic characters, and I love the image of the wise leader Papa Grip wearing a hot pink caftan.

I did have a little cognitive dissonance because a major theme of the book is Zahrah freaking out over the fact that she gains the ability to levitate when she gets her first period, because this isn’t normal even in her whimsical fantasy environment. It was hard for me to understand how someone could live in a place so fanciful yet be bewildered by this specific type of magic. It doesn’t really matter, though–the story’s still fun.

By the way, the story is totally approachable to people intimidated by complex speculative worldbuilding. Many of the plant widgets are just cool plant versions of modern real-world devices, and many of the animals are explained by entries in a faulty “digi-book” from the library that romantically sometimes won’t turn on or can’t load the whole entry (I liked this touch; it puts the lie to that accusation that modern technology leaves us bereft of certain 20th century plot gimmicks.)

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