Saturday, June 30, 2018

Luck in the Shadows

Lynn Flewelling
Completed 6/30/2018, Reviewed 6/30/2018
3 stars

This is the first of a series of fantasy novels.  Books three through seven in the series were nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.  This book has only a few hints of the gay content that the later books were acclaimed for.  It is a good book in its own right, weaving a tale of magic, mentorship, thieving, and spying.  It has good world building and spends a lot of time introducing the characters.  It’s a good, enjoyable book, but slow on the uptake.

The primary strength of the book is the world building.  The countries, the gods, the queen and her dynasty, and the elves all make for decent story telling.  What it lacks is plot.  What plot there is is basically an introduction to the main characters.  Alec is a sixteen-year-old boy wrongly imprisoned for spying.  His cellmate helps him escape and sets him up as an apprentice.  The cellmate, Seregil, is a bard, a thief, and a spy, among other things.  Seregil mentors Alec, helping him become something other than the country bumpkin he is.  Together, they get involved in trying to uncover a plot to overthrow the Queen.

Both Alec and Seregil are very likeable characters.  Alec is quick, smart, and an excellent bowman, even though he can’t read.  Seregil is wonderfully mysterious, full of surprises that are slowly revealed as he reveals himself to Alec.  He is continually much more than he seems.  He has a quick wit that adds humor to the story.  He mentors Alec in his crafts, giving the boy a purpose in life. 

There are several other characters that receive a lot of attention.  Micum is Seregil’s friend and part-time cohort.  At one point in their past, Seregil fell in love with Micum, although the latter chose to marry a woman instead.  Nysander is also Seregil’s friend and former mentor.  He’s a wizened wizard who has close ties to the Queen’s court.  He is kind of a Gandalf-ish sort of character who also has a sense of humor.  Micum and Nysander also help in mentoring Alec a little, each taking him under their wing at various times. 

One thing that is very interesting about the book is that the author lets women have strong roles.  Specifically, women get to be soldiers.  Also, the royalty is matrilineal.  The land is ruled by the Queen, and upon her death, the eldest daughter takes the throne.  Thus, there are numerous women showing up as supporting characters in the novel.  So it’s not just a sausage fest of the four male main characters.  And I have to say that most of the characters are very multi-dimensional.   You get the sense that they are real people. 

The book is good, but it’s a slow burn.  There are several subplots running through the story and only one of them has much resolution.  The rest are all setups for the remainder of the series.  At times I didn’t mind it because it allowed for good character development, but it also dragged in the second half.  I give this book three stars out of five. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sea, Swallow Me

Craig Laurance Gidney
Completed 6/20/2018, Reviewed 6/24/2018
4 stars

This is a collection of short stories which was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror.  Most of the stories would fall into the Fantasy category, and perhaps under the subheading of Urban Fantasy.  Almost all have to do with some sort of spiritual or mystical experience.  The prose is absolutely beautiful and the characters developed nicely for short stories.  The protagonists are mostly gay and/or black, with a few exceptions being a young Buddhist monk in a monastery, and a white Frenchman.  It’s a wonderful collection that I was glad to finally get around to. 

I really liked all the stories, but here are a few that I though stood out from the rest.

Her Spirit Hovering – This is about Howard, a young man longing to be a famous artist.  He has a mother who disapproved of almost everything in Howard’s life: his art, an Indian girlfriend, a white boyfriend, living in the city.  Howard carries her around in his head, even after she dies.

Come Join Me – Aime is a young boy who after a long spell of what sounds like the flu develops the ability to see dead people.  First, he sees relatives, later, all the people from the town he’s growing up in who came before him, particularly African and Native American people.  The last member of his family to have this gift killed herself because the voice of the dead people calling to her was so strong.  Will Aime suffer the same fate?

Sea, Swallow Me – The titular story is about a man on a tropical vacation who leaves his resort to experience the local flavor of the native peoples.  He comes across a village that is having some sort of religious experience with the Sea.  He follows, only to become trapped in their ritual.

Circus Boy Without a Safety Net – CB becomes obsessed with Lena Horne after watching the movie version of “The Wiz”, becoming his patron saint.  His parents of course disapproved when they found black Barbie-like dolls in gorgeous glitter gowns hidden in his closet.  In response, CB joins the church choir, where his talent for singing shines.  Despite all this hiding, the question becomes, will he ever be able to come out. 

A Bird of Ice – This story is about a young Buddhist monk who lives in a monastery.  One day he saves a swan from freezing in the river.  It turns out the swan is really a spirit who has fallen in love with him.  The young monk must decide if he will let himself love the spirit back. 

Catch Him by the Toe – A dark tale about the town of Azalea when the circus comes to town.  One of the acts is Sambo, an African Tiger Tamer, and Simba, the tiger he tames.  When Simba gets loose, fear grips the town and they descend to their basest instincts in resolving the problem.

Well, I guess that’s most of the stories.  I think what this says is that the stories really stuck with me.  I give this book four out of five stars.  The stories are haunting and deliciously prosy.  The collection is short, only about two hundred pages for nine stories.  Well worth the time to become acquainted with this excellent young voice in the fantasy genre. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


L.A. Witt
Completed 6/15/2018, Reviewed 6/17/2018
4 stars

Normally, “shifter” stories are about people who can shift form into other creatures, like werewolves.  In this book, a shifter is someone who changes gender at will.  It’s part of their DNA to be able to change gender.  Some prefer to be a man most of the time, others a woman, and some are 50-50.  This book borrows from the transgender experience, illustrating the difficulty in switching gender to conform with inner identity. 

Alex is a shifter.  His parents force an implant upon him which is designed to prevent shifting.  He’s a man when this procedure is done, so now he is stuck in a man’s body.  Damon, Alex’s lover, is heterosexual and unaware that Alex is a shifter.  Now he has to deal with Alex as a man, instead of as a woman.  Damon now must question the depth of his love for Alex, pondering the ultimate question of can he stop loving Alex just because he’s static as a man. 

This book is short, just over 200 pages and is a real page turner.  The basic plot of the book is about whether Alex can get the implant removed.  But the real thrust of the novel deals with Damon’s coming to grips with Alex as a man when he’s only known him as a woman.  The book is told in alternating point of view, between Alex and Damon.  It’s done really well and lets us get to know Damon through his questioning his own sexual and emotional identity and Alex’s struggle with not being able to change genders when his inner identity changes as well as his guilt for not telling Damon sooner that he is a shifter. 

Static is remarkable in that it heartbreakingly captures the issues and prejudices the trans community faces, including parents, religion, lovers, and the workplace.  Witt did a lot of research into issues and she it really shows in how the characters develop and interact.  She even includes struggling with alcohol, an issue that is very prevalent in the LGBTQ community.

This book was nominated for a slew of LGBTQ awards, including two Lambda Literary Awards, for Transgender Fiction and for SF/Fantasy/Horror.  I think it’s well deserving of the acclaim.  It takes the shifting genre in a new direction and makes it enthralling.  I give this book four out of five stars. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Godmother Night

Rachel Pollack
Completed 6/17/2018, Reviewed 6/17/2018
5 stars

This book is a tear-jerker.  I had tears streaming down my face at the end.  I had to walk around a bit to chill before writing this review.  It’s a modern-day fairy tale told in a somewhat naïve voice about the personification of death in the lives of a lesbian couple and their daughter.  Despite its simple language, the prose is wonderful and the plot is inventive.  It poses the question of what death would be like as a godmother.

The story begins with Jacqueline trying to find herself by figuring out what to call herself.  When she settles on Jaqe (pronounced “Jake”), positive things begin to happen to her, including finding a lover, Laurie.  They go through all the normal things to lovers go through when they first come together.  Then Jaqe decides she wants to have a baby.  Throughout their time together, a mysterious old woman called Mother Night weaves through their lives seemingly giving them what they most want.  Of course, there is a price which will be collected later.  Happiness now for heartbreak later.

The narration threw me off at first.  It’s told from third person omniscient, but in a fairy tale sort of way.  In other word, we always know what everyone is thinking.  But then it clicked and it felt akin to the style of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  I think this book would work really well as an audio book.  I know that most books are audio books now, but it would be like being told a bedtime story, granted a rather spooky one. 

The characters are all wonderful: Jaqe, Laurie and their daughter Kate.  Jaqe is a young and naïve college student.  Laurie her lover, is a few years older and the more worldly president of the campus Lesbian Student Union.  When they meet, they fall immediately in love.  The time frame is earlier than now, so their relationship is difficult, especially because of their parents.  The first half of the book follows Jaqe and Laurie through their relationship and pregnancy.  The second half follows Kate as she grows from a colicky baby to a child to a tweener to an adult.  Kate lives with death her whole life, even becoming something of a death midwife, helping people cope with death and occasionally helping them avoid death if the circumstances are right.  I loved each of the characters as I got to know them and was devasted whenever tragedy struck their lives.  And being a book about the personification of death, it happened a lot.

Even Mother Night is wonderful.  I pictured her being like an older friend of mine who always wore interesting dresses and hats.  I can’t go into too much detail about her, though, because it would give away too much.

This book won the World Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Tiptree and Lambda Literary Awards.  I give it five stars because it made me cry and I had to ground myself back into reality when I was done reading it.  A friend of mine only gives five stars to books he can’t put down, which is rare for him.  I found this to be quite the page turner as well, forcing myself to breath at the end of each chapter.  I read this over a weekend, finding I just couldn’t put it down.  It’s one of the most exciting and occasionally exhilarating books I’ve read in a long time.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Kushiel’s Dart

Jacqueline Carey
Completed 6/13/2018, Reviewed 6/14/2018
4 stars

I read this book because it is on the LGBTQ Resource Reading List at Worlds Without End.  It features gay and lesbian relationships, but it is not very heavily emphasized.  The book is really a sprawling tale of the politics and intrigue of an alternate middle ages predominantly set in a France-like country, told from the point of view of a high class courtesan who is the first in several generations to find pleasure in pain.  At first, I didn’t care for the politics.  There were way to many names and families.  In fact, the book begins with a listing of all the characters from all the houses.  That overwhelmed me for about the first three hundred or so pages.  Then the adventures began, which cut down on the politics and focused more on plot.  With over nine hundred pages, I thought I’d eventually be bored with it, but the intrigue kept me, well, intrigued.

The story revolves around Phedre, born with a red mote in her eye (Kushiel’s Dart of the title), abandoned at an early age to the Night Court to be trained in the ways of pleasure.  At a certain age, she discovers she equates pain with pleasure.  She is the first “anguissette” in a few generations and is sold to the House Delaunay, where she grows into her trade as well as being classically educated.  When Anafiel Delaunay decides she’s old enough to let her begin plying her trade, he commissions her to report back on any gossip of the kingdom.  She sort of becomes a spy as well as a courtesan, learning the ins and outs of the court of their land, Terre D’Ange (Land of the Angel).  One of court captures her and sells her into slavery to the “barbarians” of the north.  There she learns the truth about the person who betrayed her and the havoc that will be wreaked on the kingdom.  This is just the beginning of a journey that will test her courage and prove she is more than just courtesan. 

This is the first real sprawling book I’ve read in many an age.  At first, I was put off by the length and the politics.  I was afraid it was going to be a fantasy opera.  And it sort of is.  But the Phedre’s journey is quite thrilling.  Once she is captured, we learn more of her smarts and stamina.  One can say that this is the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold.  But it is much more than that.  It is phenomenal world building, complete with a continent’s worth of kingdoms and a well-constructed religion.  Their god, Elua, is an angel born of the blood of Jesus on the cross and Mary Magdelene’s tears.  Kushiel and others are Elua’s companions.  It is the basis for the whole of the society of Terre D’Ange. 

The character development is quite good.  It being such a long story, we get to know Phedre and quite a few other characters quite well.  Phedre is the narrator, so we learn of all the characters based on her relationships with them, sexual or not.  And yes, she uses sex as a weapon.  Though there were so many characters, you get to know many of them really well.  Although by the end of the book, my head was swimming a bit as some of them from the beginning of the book reappear. 

The prose is also quite lovely.  At first, I didn’t care for it, being of a rather old fashioned literary style.  Carey uses the phrases “of a sudden” and “of a surety” a few times, which normally grates on me like nails on a chalkboard.  As the book progressed, I found myself getting into the rhythm of the language and found it quite enjoyable.

As I mentioned earlier, the gay, lesbian, and bisexual elements are positive, though not in the forefront, just as sex is there and somewhat explicit at times.  The book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive representation of LGBT characters and issues.  But it is more about Phedre’s relationships than with sex itself, despite her being a courtesan. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  It is extremely well written, if not a little on the heavy-handed side with its literary style.  I found it intriguing and exciting and it held together despite its length.  The ending is a little long.  Not quite a cliffhanger, it is the setup for the next book in the series.  Though I won’t be reading the sequels, I do recommend this book. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller
Completed 6/2/2018, Reviewed 6/2/2018
4 stars

I tried to read the Iliad on my own in high school but was bogged down by its heaviness.  I never saw the movie Troy.  However, I am familiar with some of the Greek Myths surrounding Troy and Achilles.  This book opened my eyes to how dramatic this particular story could be, despite it being a retelling.  It is primarily a book about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion.  It assumes it was a gay relationship, which was only hinted at in the Iliad, with Patroclus being a secondary character.  Here, Patroclus is the narrator, telling the heartbreaking tale of the relationship between himself and Achilles. 

Patroclus is a Greek prince who is exiled from his kingdom for accidently killing another noble’s son.  He goes to Phthia to be fostered by Achilles father.  Through a strange bit of circumstance, Achilles and Patroclus meet and become friends.  This turns to love, though it is not consummated until both are sixteen.  At this time however, the Trojan War begins.  Both boys go to war even though Patroclus is not a warrior and Achilles death there is foretold by his sea goddess mother. 

Miller builds the story mostly from the Iliad.  She tells how Achilles and Patroclus are tutored by Chiron the satyr.  She also tells of how Achilles is whisked away by his mother to a distant isle and hidden as a girl to keep him from going to Troy.  She does not tell the Achilles’ heel story since that is a later addition to the mythology.  Instead Achilles is simply the greatest warrior, the Best of the Greeks. 

The prose is glorious.  It flowed brilliantly with excellent but modest word choices.  There was nothing self-conscious or show-offish in its presentation.  It was a joy to read.  Sometimes I have a hard time reading dialogue that’s interrupted by prose, but I did not have that problem here. 

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was beautiful.  They were in love, but they also had their problems.  Achilles mother Thetis hated Patroclus and that was a source of endless grief.  She even tricked her son into having sex with a girl who would become pregnant with his only heir.  Needless to say, this caused some problems, though none as great as the Trojan War itself.  Still, their love remained true to the end. 

Speaking of the end, most people know that the ending is tragic.  I won’t give it away, but it is both devastating and beautiful.

I give the book four out of five stars.  It’s an excellent read and very powerful.  There are lots of reviews where people said they cried at the end.  While I did find it profound, I wasn’t moved to tears.  I think that basically knowing how it was going to end kept me emotionally on guard.  That’s the only thing that kept me from awarding it five stars.