Monday, September 5, 2022

A Taste of Gold and Iron - Alexandra Rowland

Title: A Taste of Gold and Iron
Author: Alexandra Rowland
Publisher: Tor, 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 500 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: September 3, 2022
Finished: September 5, 2022

From the inside cover:

Kadou, the shy prince of Arast, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court - the body-father of the queen's new child - in an altercation that results in his humiliation. 

To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arast, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom's financial standing and bring about its ruin. 

I heard a lot of good things about this book and pre-ordered it months ago. It was so good that I got through half of it in one sitting by staying up until 3am and would've kept right on reading but forced myself to get some semblance of decent sleep. 

A Taste of Gold and Iron takes place in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire (but with a stronger matriarchal influence) where certain people are able to "touch-taste" metals and know their composition and where they originated from just from touch alone. Prince Kadou (pronounced just like the French "cadeau") has just become an uncle, and he couldn't be happier; not just because the sultan"s (his sister's) child is beautiful, but because her birth places him farther down the line of succession to the throne the anxious prince does not want. When his missteps with the sultan's lover inadvertently lead to insult and several deaths, Kadou must atone by uncovering the mystery behind recent counterfeiting and a break-in, which he suspects are connected. He is appointed a new bodyguard, Evemer, who immediately dislikes the prince due to the deaths he was responsible for, and begrudges his new position serving someone so careless, flighty and negligent. 

Some people have criticized this novel saying it contains fanfiction tropes, but in my opinion not all fanfiction writing is inherently bad, and though there are indeed tropes, they're crafted exceptionally well and fits seamlessly into the story. This is definitely more of a book focused on character development and the relationship between Kadou and Evemer as opposed to a more plot-driven story, so if you enjoy those types of stories, this book is for you. 

The relationship between Kadou and Evemer is one of the better definitions of a slow-burn romance I've seen recently: Evemer needs to discover Kadou's true nature and be less judgemental, and Kadou needs to let himself want things at all. The romance is handled incredibly well and doesn't feel rushed or too slow at times. 

Aside from Kadou and Evemer, the secondary characters are great and add a lot of comic relief. Tadek had me laughing at all of his lines, Melek is adorable, and Tenzin, the truth-telling witch introduced towards the end of the story has probably one of the funniest lines in the whole book. 

I love the diversity of this novel. The world resembles the Ottoman Empire, so everything from the food to the clothes is respective to that area of the world. The level of detail the author goes into with just the clothing alone was beautiful (it made me jealous of Kadou's wardrobe). Gender is well-represented here, with non-binary characters existing with unique pronouns, and the fact that Zeliha is sultan at all and with the different levels of fatherhood described, it was welcome change from your typical fantasy. Also, Kadou's anxiety and panic attacks are handled sensitively and well, so that was appreciated too. 

If you're in the mood for a well-written fantasy set in a unique world with some good, well-written fanfiction nods, pick this one up. 

Thoughts on the cover:
So. Freaking. Gorgeous. The cover artist deserves an award for this one, it's so, so pretty. 

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Babel - R.F. Kuang

Title: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 525 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy/Historical Fiction
Started: August 26, 2022
Finished: September 2, 2022

From the inside cover:

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. 

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation - also known as Babel. 

Babel is the world's center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel's research in foreign languages serves the Empire's quest to colonize everything it encounters. 

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?

Babel - a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance and the use of translation as a tool of empire. 

This has been one of my most anticipated reads for 2022, and I was super excited to discover that my monthly book subscription box (Illumicrate) had chosen Babel for the August box (yay for pretty special editions, pictures below). Full disclosure, I did not adore the author's previous trilogy, The Poppy War, but I was a literature and languages student in university and had to take courses in the study of translation, so this book's premise was right up my alley. I know readers who aren't language geeks like me might find this book dull, but for those of you who are up for a challenge, you're in for a treat. 

As the sole survivor in his family after cholera sweeps through his dockside neighbourhood in Canton, Robin is given a choice by Professor Lovell: stay in Canton and live a life of poverty, or come to England to study. The professor's investment pays off over several years: Robin hones his already promising academic skills and becomes fluent in Latin and Greek in addition to his pre-existing Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, and is admitted to Babel for their four-year program of study. He meets the other students in his cohort who would otherwise never be allowed to study at Oxford if not for Babel: Ramy, a Muslim man from India, Victoire, a black woman born in Haiti and raised in France, and Letty, a white British woman. 

While Robin is delighted at the heaven that is Babel for a scholar like himself, he can't help but question the way he and his classmates are treated, and how unjust Britain's use of silver is towards the countries it colonizes. When he discovers the existence of the Hermes Society, he is invited to help upset the natural order of the colonial system and try to make things better for the homelands he and his classmates were torn from. 

This is a sprawling novel, covering years and a lot of detail, but the author works her magic and draws readers right in with Robin's story. The setting is both familiar and not, early Victorian England during the Industrial Revolution but a version of England that uses silver inlaid with words that in turn perform magic. The magic system was incredibly unique and fits in well with the context of the novel since only those fluent in multiple languages and who understand the intricacies of translation can make the silver work. There's so many passages where the characters go into the linguistic background of certain words and the nuance of them that it made my little nerdy heart sing. 

I love how the author gives a painfully honest analysis of the academic environment once the story pivots to Oxford: feeling that deep love for learning, but eventually becoming disillusioned due to dealing with the racism and sexism that is inherent in a lot of institutions. The author manages to call out traditional academic institutions as tools of colonialism, and how language and translation isn't usually studied for pure pursuit of knowledge, but for how knowing that language can further the expansion of the Empire. The main quote tagged in this book, "An act of translation is always an act of betrayal" is both a reference to this theme and also a common thought in the study of translation where no translation is perfect because the words simply don't exist to convey certain thoughts in some languages, and never quite does the original justice. 

Each of the four main characters are incredibly well developed and have distinct personalities that evolve over the course of the novel. Though readers see things mainly through Robin's point of view, the third person narration doesn't exclude the other three, and there are interludes from each of their perspectives (one for each) sprinkled throughout the narrative to fill in the gaps. 

This book is part of the dark academia genre, so the story is quite heavy and the ending isn't happy, so consider this fair warning. It will force you to have some uncomfortable conversations in your head about the themes presented, and though I very much enjoyed the book it definitely left me in a bit of a haze after reading. 

For anyone with an appreciation for languages, or those wanting a no-holds barred criticism of colonialism and academia in general, you've got to read this. 

Thoughts on the cover:
The standard cover is lovely, I love the black and white with the gold accents. Pictures of my Illumicrate special edition copy with the slipcase are below. I love the inclusion of the original cover art on the slipcase and the silver accents. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow - Gabrielle Zevin

Title: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House Canada), 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 397 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 30, 2022
Finished: August 1, 2022

From the inside cover:

In this exhilarating novel by the bestselling author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, two friends - often in love, but never lovers - come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality. 

On a bitter cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn't heard him, but then she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favours, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won't protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts. .

Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and, above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before. 


"The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people with only white European references in it. Swap African or Asian or Latin or whatever culture you want for European. A world where everyone is blind and deaf to any culture or experience that is not their own. I hate that world, don't you? I'm terrified of that world, and I don't want to live in that world, and as a mixed-race person, I literally don't exist in it...And as any mixed-race person will tell you - to be half of two things is to be whole of nothing" (Zevin, pg. 78).

"How do you get into making video games anyway?" 
Sadie hated answering this question, especially after a person had told her that he hadn't heard of Ichigo. "Well, I learned to program computers in middle school. I got an eight hundred on my math SAT, won a Westinghouse and a Leipzig. And then I went to MIT, which by the way is highly competitive, even for a lowly female like myself, and studied computer science. At MIT, I learned four or five more programming languages and studied psychology, with an emphasis on ludic techniques and persuasive designs, and English, including narrative structures, the classics, and the history of interactive storytelling. Got myself a great mentor. Regrettably made him my boyfriend. Suffice it to say, I was young. And then I dropped out of school for a time to make a game because my best frenemy wanted me to. That game became the game you never heard of, but yeah, it sold around two and a half million copies, just in the U.S., soooo..." (Zevin, pgs. 235-236).

"Sadie was not a natural mother, though this was not a confession one was allowed to make. She craved solitude and personal space too much. But she loved this girl nonetheless...Sadie did not feel that her daughter Naomi was altogether a person yet, which was another thing that one could not admit. So many of the mothers she knew said that their children were exactly themselves from the moment they appeared in the world. But Sadie disagreed. What was a person without language? Tastes? Preferences? Experiences? And on the other side of childhood, what grown-up wanted to believe that they had emerged from their parents fully formed? Sadie knew that she herself had not become a person until recently. It was unreasonable to expect a child to emerge whole cloth. Naomi was a sketch of a person, who, at some point, would be a fully 3D character" (Zevin pgs. 381-382).

There has been so much hype for this book lately. Thankfully my library hold on it arrived pretty early considering this was just published a few weeks ago, so I settled in and was utterly spellbound by this book to the point where I read for most of the day and stayed up until 3am finishing the bulk of it. It was so easy to get lost in this story and become invested in Sam and Sadie and wanting to find out what happened to them. 

The story opens in an LA hospital in 1986. Eleven-year-old Sadie is visiting her older sister Alice, who is a cancer patient there, and comes across twelve-year-old Sam in the games room playing Nintendo. They bond over their shared love of games and talk until the nurses discover them. Sadie is asked to return to the hospital again to play with Sam, since his interaction with her is the first time Sam has spoken in the past six weeks since he was in a brutal car accident that killed his mother and permanently disabled his left foot. Thus begins Sam and Sadie's friendship, which picks up again in the late 1990s when they are attending Harvard and MIT and Sam asks Sadie to make a video game with him. What follows is an at times enjoyable and other times heart-wrenching romp through the world of corporate video game design (you don't have to be knowledgeable about or enjoy video games to get this story, but in my opinion is definitely helps), that explores how the choices we make affect not only ourselves but the people around us. Sam and Sadie are incredibly well-developed characters; you know an author does character development right when you read a scene and you want to both slap the character upside the head for the choices they're making, but you also can't fault them completely either because you know exactly what makes them tick. 

The incorporation of video games into the narrative structure at some points is a unique choice that works incredibly well here. For those people who might bemoan a novel that revolves around video games, fear not, there are also a ton of literary and classical references to satisfy you as well. The book's title itself comes from the "Out, brief candle" soliloquy from Shakespeare's Macbeth, which pleased me to no end as an English teacher. 

The book has wonderful biracial representation in Sam (and the author herself is the same racial makeup as Sam so she speaks from experience), and they talk about what it's like to be a mixed kid. I was pleasantly surprised at the disability inclusion with Sam as well, it's well done and though it's not a huge focal point in the story, it's discussed how his disability has affected his self-esteem and how it impacts his life. The story also discusses the sexism Sadie faces as a female studying at MIT and later trying to navigate the male-centric world of video games and trying to be taken seriously by the industry. 

The themes of love and play are central to the story. Play (all play, not just video games) is how characters connect with each other and reach out after long absences or fights, it's just really sweet to see. Love is explored in an interesting way here. Sam and Sadie never become romantically involved, and when they're asked about it at multiple points in the book, they both say that they love each other, just not in that romantic way. They're creative partners, and I love how the book explores platonic friendships and establishes that people can love others in ways that go beyond the physical. Also, both our deuteragonists are bi/pan, so yay for queer rep as well. 

This is probably the best example of a coming-of-age story that I've read in a long time. It probably helps that it focuses on Gen-X experiences and feelings that I can relate to as an older Millennial. If you enjoy video games, stories with good examples of platonic friendship, great biracial and disability representation, or just a really good examination of how the choices we make affect ourselves and the people around us, give this story a go. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the inclusion of Hokusai's The Great Wave against the colourful title font, it works so well once you know how the two elements factor into the story. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster), 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 5, 2022
Finished: July 7, 2022

From the back cover:

Reclusive Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her story, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. 

Determined to use this opportunity to jump-start her career, Monique listens in fascination. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to leaving show business in the 80s - and, of course, the seven husbands along the way - Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. But as Evelyn's story nears its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique's own in tragic and irreversible ways. 

Written with Reid's signature talent for creating "complex, likeable characters" (Real Simple), this is a mesmerizing journey through the splendour of Old Hollywood into the sobering realities of the present day as two women struggle with what it means - and what it costs - to face the truth. 

Yes, I know I am very late to get around to finally reading this book. Yes, I only picked up this book because TikTok convinced me to do so. And yes, this book's absurd popularity is damn well deserved. 

This book has a very similar plot device to The Thirteenth Tale that I read years ago, except instead of an old writer telling her life story to a young bibliophile biographer, we have an elderly actress telling her life story to a young journalist. 

Just as newspapers are reporting that an elderly Evelyn Hugo is auctioning off her collection of dresses for charity, Monique Grant is contacted about meeting Evelyn for a tell-all interview, of which the esteemed actress has never before granted. When Monique's boss offers to send a more experienced person for the interview, Evelyn refuses; she will only talk to Monique. As she learns about Evelyn's early life and Hollywood career throughout the decades, Monique uncovers Evelyn's true character: that she is highly persistent and motivated, will readily use her body as a way to further her goals, and is fiercely protective of those she loves. Eventually Monique not only emulates Evelyn's spirit in dealing with her own personal problems, but discovers why Evelyn was so incredibly insistent about choosing her over anyone else. 

I flew through this book; the story was immediately engaging and I just felt compelled to finish it to find out the rest of Evelyn's story and how Monique fit into the picture. The author truly does have a gift of creating likeable characters. Though Evelyn herself is definitely portrayed as flawed, she is never unlikeable (at least in my opinion), and Monique functions as a reader stand-in whose background and struggles are something many people can identify with. 

Just read it, honestly, there's a reason why it's so popular, it's like an enchanting spell that you welcome with open arms. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included Evelyn in her signature green dress, but dislike the trend of headless women on book covers, it's objectifying. If they wanted to obscure her face they could've had her face in profile covered with a fashion scarf, or shown her from behind or something else. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance - Foz Meadows

Title: A Strange and Stubborn Endurance
Author: Foz Meadows
Publisher: Tor, 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 18, 2022
Finished: July 19 2022

From the inside cover:

"Stolen me? As well to say a caged bird can be stolen by the sky."

Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from nieghbouring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he's ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended's brother instead. 

Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.

With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love - as both will learn - is quite another.

Byzantine politics, lush sexual energy, and a queer love story that is by turns sweet and sultry, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an exploration of gender, identity, and self-worth. It is a book that will live in your heart long after you turn the last page. 

This book has been hyped by many fortunate enough to receive an ARC of it, and since the premise sounds right up my alley I preordered this baby weeks ago. I was ecstatic when I found out my copy would be shipped out a whole week ahead of the release date, which is supposed to be next Tuesday, July 26th (as of this writing). I devoured this novel over the course of a day, my partner and children can fully attest as to the neglect of my other responsibilities in favour of finishing this book, it was just that good. 

Granted though, trigger warnings abound here: sexual assault/rape, suicidal ideation, death, etc., so consider yourself warned.

Velasin, the third son of a minor lord, lives as a closeted gay man in Ralia, a country not-so-subtly coded as conservative. Just as he hears news of his father's decision to enter him into an arranged marriage in northern Tithena to smooth trade relations, Vel is sexually assaulted by his previous partner and the act is witnessed by the Tithenai envoy who has come to discuss the marriage. Disowned by his father, Vel is in crisis until the non-binary envoy gives Vel another choice: instead of being betrothed to the daughter of the Aeduria clan, he could marry the son instead. With no other options, Vel begrudgingly accepts, anticipating nothing but further victimization. Upon arrival in Tithena, Vel's travelling party is attacked by those wanting to cast doubt on the union and its political significance. When the attacks escalate in the city of Qi-Katai, Vel must learn to trust his new husband, Caethari, not only to uncover the identity of the attackers, but also to ensure his safety in unfamiliar territory. 

The author does a wonderful job of engaging the reader right from the first few pages, and I think it's purely because of their amazing characters (I genuinely love them all). Vel is smart, stubborn, and proudly different compared to most Ralians, and how knows how to survive in a socially cutthroat environment. Vel's friendship with Markel, who is mute and communicates through sign language, is an absolute joy to read. It's rare to see a well-written platonic friendship between two men portrayed nearly anywhere, so seeing it here really added to the development of both Vel and Markel as characters right from the beginning. Caethari is witty and wonderfully sweet and protective (the romance between him and Vel is adorable), and everyone in Cae's family and the Aida (castle/keep) are genuinely engaging characters as well. 

The author's writing style is elevated enough to suit the fantasy setting but not so much as to turn away readers, and they include quite a bit of titles and vocabulary that make your brain work towards deciphering (there's no glossary but it's all easily decoded through context). The world-building is also well done. 

If you're a fantasy reader who loves a story that not only includes it all (romance, world-building, magic, political intrigue) but actually does all those things well, you need to read this book (mind the trigger warnings, though).

Thoughts on the cover:
The leaf (and arrow, sword, and ring) details with the red and gold colour scheme are really pleasing to the eye, especially the gold embossing on the title font. I especially love the tiny little gold image of Cae (left) and Vel (right) on the spine, it's a great added touch. 


Saturday, June 18, 2022

Winter's Orbit - Everina Maxwell


Title: Winter's Orbit
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor, 2021 (Hardcover)
Length: 428 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: June 15, 2022
Finished: June 18, 2022

From the inside cover:

Prince Kiem, a famously disappointing minor royal and the Emperor's least favourite grandchild, has been called upon to be useful for once. He's been commanded to fulfill an obligation of marriage to the representative of the Empire's newest and most rebellious vassal planet. His future husband, Count Jainan, is a widower and murder suspect. 

Neither wants to be wed, but with a conspiracy unfolding around them and the fate of the Empire at stake, they will have to navigate the thorns and barbs of court intrigue, the machinations of war, and the long shadows of Jainan's past, and they'll have to do it together. 

So begins a legendary love story amid the stars. 

When this book was pitched to me as, "arranged gay marriage in space", I knew I had to read it. To elaborate a bit more, this book has: political intrigue, immersive world building, characters you can't help but love, a slow-burn romance, and a dash of fanfic tropes for those that like them, all amidst an engaging science fiction setting. 

Prince Kiem, who gives off lovely Golden Retriever vibes, is the least favourite grandchild of the Emperor, and he's constantly reminded of it. He's considered a failure at most things, but because he can socialize and look good for the cameras he's been called on to marry his deceased cousin's widower from the planet Thea in order to keep things smooth for the interplanetary treaty that's due to be renegotiated in a few weeks. Unfortunately the circumstances surrounding his cousin Taam's death were shady at best, so when his new husband Jainan uncovers details that implicate Taam and the military in smuggling and embezzling, both he and Jainan are targeted when they uncover a larger plot that could put the whole Empire at risk. 

Winter's Orbit pulls you in right at the beginning and weaves an engaging tale of politicians, socialites, and of course Kiem and Jainan. There were a few slow sections I trudged through, but for the most part the story was well done. Kiem and Jainan are well-written, you can't help but love them since both personalities are highlighted in the alternating points-of-view in each chapter. Kiem feels inadequate and wants to prove he's capable of following through on something without screwing up, and Jainan is quiet and reserved due to the trauma in his past relationship with Taam (trigger warnings abound for this part) and you just want to hug the poor man. While I wish there was a little bit more to work with regarding the romantic elements (it's a bit scant for my liking), it's not enough to detract from the overall package. 

If you would like an engaging science fiction story with a good queer romance added in, give this book a go. If you're going into this book thinking "I would like a dash of science fiction with my romance", you'll be disappointed, this story prioritizes plot and atmosphere first and the romance follows. 

Thoughts on the cover:
So stunning, but granted I am a bit of a sucker for galaxy-themed anything. Glad to see the continuation in cover theming for the author's second book, not a sequel but set in the same universe, due out in November:

Sunday, May 8, 2022

When Women Were Dragons - Kelly Barnhill

Title: When Women Were Dragons
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Doubleday (Penguin), 2022 (Hardcover)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult; Speculative Fiction
Started: May 6, 2022
Finished: May 8, 2022

From the inside cover:

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their paths, and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex's beloved aunt Marla transform but Alex's mother did not? No one knows. It's taboo to speak of it. 

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; their upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Beatrice become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden. 

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that keeps women small - their lives and their prospects - and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve. 

"I said that your mother was magic...this isn't new information, and your mother isn't alone. All women are magic. Literally all of us. It's in our nature. It's best you learn that now." (Barnhill, pg. 29-30)

"Anger is a funny thing. And it does funny things to us if we keep it inside...Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?" (Barnhill, pg. 208)

I've read this author's middle-grade novels Iron-Hearted VioletThe Witch's Boy, and her Newbery Award-winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon; so when I found out she'd written an adult novel after so many years I was excited to pick this up. To say I was impressed is an understatement, I couldn't put this down and think When Women Were Dragons is my new favourite out of everything she's written. 

Alex lives in suburban Wisconsin in the 1950s and because she's a good girl, there's many things she just doesn't speak about: menstruation, her mother's cancer, her growing attraction to her friend Sonja, the anger she feels when she's dismissed by the men around her, and the fact that some women turn into dragons. 

When Alex is eight in the spring of 1955, over half a million women across the country turn into dragons and leave their families behind. Alex's aunt, Marla, is one of those women, leaving behind a job she enjoys (though she's not often appreciated for her superior skills), a dead husband, and an orphaned baby daughter who quickly and irrefutably becomes Alex's sister instead of her cousin. Marla is soon erased from existence, and no one speaks of the dragons afterwards. When Alex's mother dies years later, and teenaged Alex is left to raise Beatrice by herself after being abandoned by her father, she slowly begins to question everything she's been taught: that dragoning is a conscious choice, that the women who dragoned were bad wives and mothers for making that choice, and that they're never coming back. 

This book is told from Alex's point of view as an adult looking back on her childhood. Interspersed with those chapters are letters, newspaper articles, redacted scientific studies and articles, and government documents that show just how much dragoning event itself and the aftermath is silenced by the government throughout the ages. 

This novel is indeed timely. Even though it takes place in 1950s white suburbia, the premise and theme that things kept hidden and shamed instead of openly discussing and welcoming is immensely relatable and applicable to more than meets the eye. The dragon metaphor itself appears at first to just represent female rage, but it can be an allegory for almost anything: sex/gender, race, queerness, disability, neurodiversity, it can be read under a number of lenses and works so well. 

Drop everything and go read this, just trust me, you won't be disappointed. I'll be buying a few of these as gifts for people this year for sure. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the dragon blends in with the plants and flowers, it reminds me of the scene where Alex's mom plants the garden in the summer. The purple and green colour scheme is nicely appealing too.