Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle Book 1) by C. L. Polk
(Spoiler-Free) Book Review
TW for Witchmark: violence, murder, mentions of suicide and drug/alcohol abuse
All right, I'll admit it: I judged the book by its cover.
In my defense, the info on the back cover of my copy is very different from what I just copied and pasted from Amazon. It led me to believe that this would be a charming British tale with whimsy and a cute heteronormative romance. A nice break from Black Leopard Red Wolf, and ultimately forgettable.
This book is officially on my Favorites page. We have a murder mystery, gay fae romance, in-depth themes of classism and mental health, and an adorable cinnamon roll of a protagonist who is also a badass. Five stars. Love it. Pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could.
The world is basically Victorian England ("Aeland") with magic. The only acceptable form of mage are the Storm-Singers, hiding in plain sight and exclusively upper class. They control the weather. Everyone else, that is, anyone whose magical ability is not in league with X-Men's Storm...well, if you're upper class, you get to be a Secondary, paired with a Storm-Singer as their personal battery pack. Any mage who isn't upper class is called a witch and sent off to an asylum because "witches" go crazy, but "mages" are totally fine.
(There's literally no difference. Except the difference in paycheck. I wasn't kidding when I said this book tackles classism like whoa.)
Unlike other books that pull this type of worldbuilding stunt, the copy-and-paste history is very limited. Our setting is the very British-like city of Kingston (London), in Aeland. There's a queen who bears a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria. Aeland is a new imperial power, just about to colonize Laneer. And...that's about it. There are strong elements of British history, but it's not cut straight from a textbook, especially since most of the focus is on magic and its impact on the country.
We're told the story through the first person POV of our protagonist, Dr. Miles Singer, who was born a mage into an upper class family. But, since his magical ability is healing rather than Storm-Singing, he is condemned to be a Secondary, basically slavery with golden chains. So, he ran away. We meet him after he's been "dead" for about a decade and acting as a psychiatrist in a veterans' hospital, trying to find out why so many vets suddenly snap and murder their whole families, then themselves. And since this is pseudo-Victorian England, he's not getting a whole lot of help.
Miles is a self-sacrificing, overly-polite gentleman whose biggest fear is being bound as a Secondary, a possibility that becomes more and more likely when he suddenly runs into his sister Grace, who is a Storm-Singer. Grace is an interesting character, because while she wants to help Miles and all the other Secondaries, she still wants Miles bound to her. She thinks the only way to help them is her way, that is having Miles bound to her but with a loose chain so he can continue being a doctor and living his own life.
Basically, Grace is toxic. But because she has good intentions and genuinely cares about Miles, nobody thinks she's toxic. She's just looking after her brother. What's wrong with that?
(Many things. There are many things wrong with it.)
There are several other characters--Miles's asshole father, the love interest Tristan, the patients and medical staff at the hospital--and they all feel real and distinct. The book itself is relatively short (300 pages) and very fast-paced. I finished the whole thing in about four days, and that was only because I had to work.
Overall, this is an excellent read, and I really hope the sequel lives up to it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
(mostly) Spoiler-free Review
Where to start.
You know when you read a book that you don't particularly like, but it's still a really good book that needs to be talked about and read? That's the category I would put Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
This story has been called "the African Game of Thrones," and since I love GoT (before HBO ruined the last season, anyway), I picked it up. What followed was a harsh yet engrossing read, and I think what's got me so put-off about this story is that it doesn't have a happy ending. Matter of fact, it gives our lead character--Tracker--a happy ending, and then takes it away so he can spend the last two chapters on a vengeance quest. Because Marlon James is a very talented asshole.
Since we're told at the very beginning that the boy he's searching for is dead, and that Tracker is in a prison cell (he's the narrator, telling the story to a priest), we know that something bad happens. I was expecting him to fail his quest and then get betrayed, but as Bruce Banner so wisely said, "No, this is much worse."
Sue me: I want my happy ending. Doesn't matter how dark the beginning or middle of a story is, there should at least be a bittersweet tone in the end. And believe me, the middle of the story is very dark. We're talking torture and gang rape of the main character, frequent cannibalism by a variety of terrifying monsters, and the death of children. There are about eighty trigger warnings that should be put on this thing.
The worldbuilding is absolutely incredible. Each city and landscape has its own distinct culture and dangers. I am sorely lacking in education when it comes to the hundreds of cultures, mythologies, and histories of Africa, so I don't know how much of it is pulled from real life, how much is mythology, and how much is just James messing around, but it works, and all fantasy authors should take note.
The characterization is on point. Tracker is our main character and narrator, so everything we see is seen through his eyes (first person POV), and that man is a hot gay mess. Matter of fact, all of the major characters are hot gay messes. The Leopard, Tracker, Tracker's first boyfriend, Tracker's second boyfriend, they've each got a bouquet of issues. Mossi is the only one with any sense of emotional stability, and he doesn't show up until halfway through the story.
The pacing is slow. Though it's an intense read from beginning to end, Tracker doesn't even hear about the boy he's supposed to find until over a hundred pages in. This works, because there's a lot of information that needs to be given and processed concerning the world and Tracker himself. There are also frequent time skips and flashbacks, which can get confusing, but it also presents the story in a way to maximize the tension.
One of the most unique aspects of the story is the prose. If you've ever read Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), it's similar to that, except with a lot more swearing. It's difficult to understand at some points, especially to a pasty-White reader like myself. But once you get the hang of it, it makes the story flow like melted butter.
So, yeah. African-based grimdark novel with excellent characterization and worldbuilding, with a ton of gay and a sharp, memorable story. It'd be one of my favorite books if James would just let Tracker have his happy ending, for fuck's sake.
I ask for so little, James. Christ.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Book Review (no spoilers)
Dealing in Dreams is a very unique, intimate dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA novel. Several tropes get turned on their head, and we get a good look at how beauty can be found in even the worst of circumstances.
Nalah--who usually goes by the name Chief Rocka--is born into the brutally violent matriarchal Mega City, where seven-year-old girls are recruited into military camps and teenagers being beaten to death is the norm. It's a TERF's* paradise, and Nalah has swallowed the lies fed to her hook, line and sinker.
We get a handful of very distinct, diverse characters. Each crew has a maximum of five members, and Nalah encounters maybe half a dozen more named characters in her journey. Several of these characters fall into the LGBTQ+ category, including a genderfluid singer who has several things to say about how Mega City is structured. Nalah interacts with all of them, getting more angry and confused as their lives directly contradict what she's been told by Mega City.
Everything is told through Nalah's points of first, in first person. This means she dominates the prose, and the whole novel is told in short, direct, punchy sentences. There's hardly any metaphors and no flowery prose because that's not how Nalah talks. She's direct and to the point.
Nalah herself is a contradictory character. She's a gang leader, which makes her violent and cut-throat. But she's also got a softer side as she tries to protect her crew and bring all of them to the Towers so they can all have a better life. She's shrewd and calculating, as she has to maneuver a couple of political situations on top of everything else, but her goals and dreams are plain for everyone to see.
Most dystopians have a problem in that they put their characters in only one or two types situations, thus limiting how many different sides of a character the reader gets to see. Rivera circumvents this problem by putting Nalah in several different situations: in a physical fight, negotiating a ransom, relaxing in a bathhouse/strip club, in the presence of her hero, in the presence of her blood relatives, winning, failing, everything.
Honestly, my only serious complaint about this novel is that the resolution was too long. After the climax, it needed only two chapters, max: immediate fall-out and recovery. But the story itself is a difficult one to end, so I'm not torn up about it. Rivera did not write a traditional dystopian novel where the spunky group of protagonists work to topple the evil overlord and put someone else in charge. That's not the central conflict, and it's not what we as readers are necessarily waiting to happen. The core of the story is entirely on Nalah: can she accept the reality of the world, and can she keep her crew safe?
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys YA dystopians, but is tired of all the whitewashing (everyone here is Latino), the unrealistically sudden end to all-powerful authoritarian regimes (doesn't happen), and/or tiring romantic subplots that take up too many pages (there is none where Nalah is concerned).
*TERF: stands for "Transgender-Exclusive Radical Feminist." Basically, they're transphobes who pretend to be feminists.
The Tyrant's Tomb: Book 4 of The Trials of Apollo
Note: while there are no spoilers for The Tyrant's Tomb in this post, there are spoilers for book three, The Burning Maze. You can read the spoiler-free review for book three here.
Is there really anything new I need to write? My love for Rick Riordan and The Trials of Apollo series is well-documented on this site. The Tyrant's Tomb came out a few months ago and once again, he nailed it.
It looks like Apollo's narrative arc and character development is almost complete. In Book One, he went from I am the most amazing thing in the cosmos to eh, I guess I have some work to do. In Book Two, he moves on to huh, looks like I've made some pretty big mistakes. And while his scope of compassion and empathy had gradually increased thanks in large part to his friendship with Meg, it exploded with the death of Jason Grace in Book Three.
This book, unsurprisingly, deals with the immediate aftermath. Apollo and Meg take Jason's body to New Rome for funerary rites and deal with the fallout. For Apollo specifically, it's a heaping dose of guilt and self-loathing. He blames himself for Jason's death. It gets worse as he explicitly runs into more demons from his past: a prophet he cursed, a minor god he bullied, and an ex-girlfriend he had killed. Whereas in previous books he brushed those events off as part of his I'm a god, they're mortals schtick, here he fully understands the scope of his actions and what a dick he really was.
What packs an emotional punch is that he's not a dick anymore, meaning he's essentially already learned his lesson but he still has to face consequences. And while he kind of deserves it, at this point the majority of his allies are thinking that he's been through enough and it'd be great if they could save the world without all this extra drama. Apollo has also been reflecting on why he acted the way he did, and a lot of it stems from Zeus's abusive parenting. While he never uses it as an excuse (especially not with Meg around), it's going to make for a very interesting confrontation in Book Five.
On top of that, there are several parts in The Tyrant's Tomb where he straight-up believes he's going to die, and he's okay with it so long as his friends are safe. So basically, his character arc is 90% complete, as no self-respecting YA hero can call themselves a protagonist without at least one heroic act of self-sacrifice.
There is one bone I have to pick with this particular book. When Riordan killed off Jason in The Burning Maze, he set the precedent that almost any character could die. Not Apollo, as he's the main character and also the narrator; probably not Meg since she has an unresolved arc; and not Percy because then his fans would straight-up murder him. But any of Apollo's allies could get a sword in the back just like Jason did, including the other Seven.
Several minors characters do die in the epic battle at the end of The Tyrant's Tomb, more than one delivering an emotional gut-punch on the way out, but none of the major characters die with them. There's one who should have died, but they turn out okay because magic. Not quick-thinking on their part, not because someone else saved them, not even because of sheer dumb luck. They're saved via ill-defined magic and the power of narrative theme.
As a writer, I understand. Riordan wants to give us a break after Jason, and this way we have the chance to get all the rest of the Seven--plus Reyna, the Hunters, and Nico--together in Book Five. But as a reader, I feel cheated. Fake-out deaths are hard to do right, especially since they're usually only there to emotionally manipulate the reader. While the whole reason we read books is to be emotionally manipulated, this one fell just a little short off the mark.
On top of that, it seems like Riordan forgot about Hazel's powers over the Mist. You know, those illusion-like abilities that she spent a good chunk of The Heroes of Olympus series learning and using? I can think of at least two major instances where she could have at least tried to use them. They wouldn't have had to work, even a quick throwaway line like "they have some sort of anti-Mist enchantment" would have sufficed. But it's never mentioned.
That said, it's still an amazing book, an amazing series, and I'm once again counting the days to Riordan's next release. Because I need to see Nero die, more demigods be awesome, and Apollo tell Zeus that while he's grateful for this experience, this whole thing was messed up.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
No Spoilers! (Promise)
Usually books that feature an author and/or historian tend to present a very romanticized, unrealistic version of it. They're all Indiana Jones tromping around in jungles and getting into fist fights, or effortlessly cranking out manuscript after manuscript and never even heard of writer's block. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they're washed-up alcoholics writing about how joy is fleeting and that death comes for us all.
Carrie McClelland is a bit of an ideal writer, in that she can afford to go bouncing around Europe without worrying about the hole in her finances. But otherwise, she's spot-on. She buries herself in books, letters, and articles in order to get every detail of her historical novel right. The first quarter of the book is her being unable to even start the damn manuscript because writer's block is a bitch. Her sleep schedule is a mess--in part because of the whole ancestral memory thing slowly driving her insane, but mostly because of the writing. She subsists almost entirely on coffee and ramen noodles. In short, I've rarely found myself more represented as a writer in any media, even if Carrie has much more of a pantser style than my planner style of writing.
But while I appreciate Carrie, her ancestor/fictional character Sophia is much more interesting, in part because her story is more interesting and the actual focus of the book. But don't worry, you'll never get confused. While Carrie and Sophia's stories echo each other in many ways, Kearsley uses both stylistic and POV differences to make it easy to tell when you're switching from one to the other. If it's first person POV and modern lingo, it's Carrie's story. If it's third person POV with long, antiquated sentences, we're dealing with Sophia.
The idea of ancestral memory is an interesting one, and its affects on Carrie have some unique story points. She goes from denial to acceptance quickly, thanks to the mountain of evidence put before her, but refuses to tell anyone else except on a need-to-know basis because she's very well aware of how insane it all sounds. While originally the memories affect her only as she's working on her book, they quickly consume the rest of her life, resulting in her almost falling off a cliff at one point because her Sophia-memory tells her the foot path leads one way when it actually goes another.
Despite what the back cover would have you believe, the politics and international drama is mostly background noise. And while it does have an impact on the story, the main focus of Carrie and Sophia's stories is very small scale and intimate. It is a romance novel, after all, so the primary focus is going to be Sophia's relationship with Moray and Carrie's with Graham. And while I personally think both relationships move a little too fast, they're both realistic, engaging, and natural. Sophia's is especially marked with hardship, given that she falls for a soldier in the middle of a war, and he, of course, gets sent out to fight.
Also, slight trigger warning: there is an attempted sexual assault about three quarters of the way through. It lasts about a page before she's rescued, but it does exist.
Here's how good this book is: it manages to cram in two--two!--love triangles and still keep me interested. It helps that everyone acts like adults about the whole thing, keeping the tropey ridiculousness to a minimum. And while Sophia's resolution is a little far fetched...it's romance, and by the time I got there I really wanted her to have a happy ending.
So if nothing else, the characterization, accurate-if-ideal portrayal of how an author works, and a surprisingly good plot twist are all good reasons to read The Winter Sea if you want to read a fantasy that doesn't scream fantasy. Or if you want a historical romance with a twist.
Oathbringer, Book 3 of The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
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Edgedancer, a novella by Brandon Sanderson
(Book 2.5 of The Stormlight Archive.
Book 1 is The Way of Kings.
Book 2 is Words of Radiance.)
Three years ago, Lift asked a goddess to stop her from growing older--a wish she believed was granted. Now, in Edgedancer, the barely teenage nascent Knight Radiant finds that time stands still for no one. Although the young Azish emperor granted her safe haven from an executioner she knows only as Darkness, court life is suffocating the free-spirited Lift, who can't help heading to Yeddaw when she hears the relentless Darkness is there hunting people like her with budding powers. The downtrodden in Yeddaw have no champion, and Lift knows she must seize this awesome responsibility.
No Spoilers (Promise!)
Unlike all the other books in The Stormlight Archive, Edgedancer is a huge departure from form in that it focuses exclusively on one character, with no detours or side-stories. It's actually kind of nice. Simple in a way this series isn't. And the character Sanderson chose--Lift--is phenomenal. She's extremely whacky, impulsive, and doesn't care about any kind of rules or structure. But she's also kind and compassionate, doing her best to keep people safe even as she goes to great lengths not to get attached to anything or anyone.
If you're reading The Stormlight Archive and are wondering who the hell this Lift character is, she's the thief who can turn Slick, has an obsession with food, and her spren Wyndle is the one that's made out of vines. If you're still drawing a blank, the short story that she first appeared in in Words of Radiance--where she helps a bunch of other thieves break into the Azish palace and ends up accidentally making one of them the new emperor--acts as the prologue to Edgedancer, so you get a nice refresher.
That's one of the things that's a downside to Sanderson's work. This series is incredible, the world-building is insane, and there's so much going on. Too much. More than once I've come across a name or place or concept that we've seen before, and it's supposed to be this big reveal, but I'll be drawing a complete blank because the thing was last seen a thousand pages ago and I have no idea what's going on. When book four comes out, I'm probably going to have to re-read the first three books to have half a chance of keeping everything straight.
Also in Edgedancer, Sanderson touches on mental health. Lift gets some food at an orphanage in the city of Yeddaw and befriends one of the other kids, who has a cognitive disability because of head trauma (i.e. head smacked bad, make brain sad). This is something I've noticed Sanderson doing more and more of, which is really good. Mostly. So far, every physical disability that's popped up--lack of limbs, paralysis, head trauma, etc.--has been fixed via magic. That's kind of a bummer, because we have people running on walls and flying and whatnot, and I would've loved to see a guy in a tricked-out wheelchair doing that, or a deaf bridgeman teaching everyone sign language so all the Windrunners can communicate in the sky, or someone with chronic pain calling the shots at a war meeting. Stuff like that. But no; magic glowing light fixes all that before it can become plot-relevant.
However, mental health has been handled better and more realistically; that is, it doesn't get a quick fix like a missing limb in this world. Kaladin still has seasonal depression, which is a pretty big deal considering the fact that he's one of the main characters. One of the men of Bridge Four is revealed to be an addict who keeps falling off the wagon. Shallan...probably should be more messed up than she is, but her development in light of her abusive family life is pretty true to form.
Anyway. Back to Edgedancer. According to Sanderson, this was more of a fun side-quest than anything else, as he loves the character of Lift and wanted to explore her more in depth. But in the main series, she barely pops up, and when she does it's after most of her character development. So basically, this was an author just having fun showing us the backstory of a minor character in a great series. And it shows. It's probably not critical to read this book to understand the series as a whole, but it's definitely worth the read.
The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People by Robyn Bennis
I met the devil at a Motel 6, poolside.
The devil—call her Dee—followed Jordan home, and decided to keep her. Now, while Dee claims to be helping get her life in order, Jordan has to live with a houseguest who complains constantly, eats all her pudding, and can incinerate her in a pillar of hellfire.
It’s super awkward.
No spoilers (Promise)
Of course, I've also only been getting published for the last handful of years, and none of my published works are novels. So, we're pretty much in the same boat, there.
The Signal Airship books are enjoyable for a variety of reasons, and they're hard sci-fi/steampunk military dramas. The Devil's Guide is a huge departure, with Bennis deciding to try her hand at paranormal comedy. Where Signal Airship is a drama with a thread of comedy, Devil's Guide is a comedy with a thread of drama. (Well, more like two or three threads, but you get the general idea.) But while some authors would be completely unable to pull it off, Bennis does a pretty damn good job. Despite the fact that the Devil gives absolutely no instructions on how to manage difficult people.
Jordan has basically lost her passion for life. She's kind of depressed, bored, honestly only looking forward to trying to date a guy that she's pretty sure is a spy (this suspicion is neither confirmed nor denied in the book, which I found kind of funny but also kind of disappointing, because that could have been a pretty good joke, like if he did work for a spy agency but was their accountant, or something). In short, she's leading a fairly unpleasant existence before Dee shows up. And Dee...kind of makes it worse.
Oh, who am I kidding. Dee makes her hide a body within twenty-four hours of meeting her.
In the name of making her life easier, of course.
Each character is unique and goofy in their own way: Jordan has a dark sense of humor to deal with past trauma, her friend Gabby has a soup lawyer (that is, a lawyer who specializes in cases revolving around soup), and Dee is Dee. And they each have their own conflicts. Jordan's is sorting out her conflicted feelings for her late, abusive mother, a task that she would prefer to reschedule for the month of never, which Dee is not having.
It's a page-turner, in part because it's such a fast pace, and in part because the situation gets so bad so quickly that you just have to know how it ends. It's like when a friend is telling a really funny story about the most embarrassing moment of their lives. You kind of don't want to know, but you have to.
Normally I don't read comedies. But I'm glad I read this one. It's not as good as Signal Airship; Bennis set herself a pretty high bar with that one, and if asked whether I wanted her to write another comedy or write a third Signal Airship book, the answer would be a very solid "option B, please." But if you're looking for lighter read, something that will make you laugh at every other page and put your life in perspective, then I do recommend The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People.
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
"There is a very old story, rarely told, of a wolf that runs into the ocean and becomes a whale."
Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect his people.
But the gods have stopped listening and Omat's family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When he meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter Omat's world...or save it.
No spoilers. (Promise)
I actually changed the description up there. The actual description uses female pronouns for Omat, which makes no sense because he spends the majority of the book using male pronouns. In modern culture he'd probably be considered FTM transgender, except that implies that he was assigned female at birth. But despite having a "woman's body," he was raised as a boy, because he inherited his father's soul. The whole thing boils down to "This baby is trans because magic."
This of course leads to excellent conflict and exploration of gender, gender roles, and sexuality. One of the villains is a cis woman who is very masculine. One of the good guys is a cis man who is very soft, gentle, and therefore somewhat feminine. Omat goes from strictly adhering to gender roles in order to claim and verify his manhood to "fuck the rules, I do what I want."
In terms of pacing, the book is a little slow. The first hundred pages are spent establishing Omat's world, the Inuit culture and mythology, and his magic and family dynamics. We don't even meet one of the main villains until page 103.
Once the book gets going, though, shit gets real. Omat has to overcome a tall order of villains and obstacles in order to achieve his goals, which vary from survive to rescue my brother to save my people. There are Inuit villains, Norse villains, godly villains, and nature itself is a bit of a villain at times.
One of the most interesting things about this book is its theme of sexual violence. Thanks to some transphobia and misogyny on the Inuit villain's part, Omat is raped. It's not graphically described, but it's still very upsetting. While it's the only time it happens to Omat, it's not the only time it's talked about in the book. It's also talked about from the other side: a rapist who is trying to seek forgiveness and redemption, and has to work for it. You rarely see that in fiction--or anywhere, really. Needless to say, even the "good guys" in this story are very grey.
The whole cast of characters are amazing. The Inuit are a tight-knit group and adore each other, but they're willing to sacrifice Omat if the alternative is death. The Norse are fierce warriors and mostly considered villains, but many of them are victims themselves. The gods are a mash-up of good and evil, created by humans and in turn affecting humans in both positive and negative ways. (This book adheres to the rules of American Gods to a T.)
I know shamefully little about Inuit culture and even Norse culture, but considering the fact that Harvard grad Brodsky goes ham on research by actually visiting the places she's writing about and (gasp! shock!) talking to people in those cultures, I think we can trust it. Maybe not the part about a vengeful god living on the moon and a massive snake wrapped around the world, but the more historical aspects.
Honestly, my only complaint about this book is that it's exhausting. In a good way, but still. The book hangover is not appreciated. While there is no gratuitous violence, the story itself is brutal. Rape, character deaths, animal deaths all get thrown at Omat like a never-ending parade of misery. The poor kid just can't catch a break, and neither do we. I need a nap.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems
No spoilers (promise)
The other reason I avoid historical fiction is because, as someone who has a bachelor's in history and continues to study it, I usually find half a dozen major problems with the historical setting within the first few chapters. The most common crime is that the time period is very idealized. We're seeing it through the thick lens of nostalgia (specifically, white and/or male nostalgia) rather than how it really was. Basically, the writer just doesn't do their research, which is extremely important even if you're doing an alternative history.
Justina Ireland side-steps these problems very neatly. Firstly she brings zombies into the equation, which is a surefire way to get my attention because I love zombie stories. It's rare that a story cannot be improved by adding a bit of the undead into the mix. Secondly, she definitely did her research on the Reconstruction Era. For those who are drawing a blank on what that is, the Reconstruction Era is that bit of time right after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to piece itself back together, fix up the destroyed South, end the slavery thing, and failed horribly on all accounts. Historians disagree on when, exactly, the Reconstruction Era ended--if indeed it's ended at all--and most agree that it could have gone a lot better, especially for the newly freed slaves, many of whom were forced to become indentured servants employed and abused by the very whites who owned them as property a few years ago.
Ireland takes that time period, adds a healthy dose of zombies, and goes to town. While it's definitely a YA novel--with the teenage protagonist, lightning-fast speed, critical view of authority and government--it's a story that readers of almost any age can enjoy and learn from. She's also got the language down perfectly. Several historical fiction authors have their characters and narrator talk either too contemporary or too blandly. Jane McKeene--who is both the main character and the narrator--talks exactly the way someone raised in 1870 Kentucky and educated in 1880 Maryland would talk.
Jane herself is an awesome character. She's a badass fighter, notorious troublemaker, and is one of those stupidly brave people who you respect for Doing The Thing, but at the same time you kind of want to strangle her because you're going to get yourself killed, you idiot! Kind of like Jon Snow, but more interesting.
Playing her foil and partner is Kate, her fellow classmate who is Jane's opposite in every way. Well, not every way, seeing as Kate isn't a horrible racist with dangerous delusions on how a society should overcome the zombies. That position goes to the villain, who we actually don't meet until halfway through the book. I won't go into detail because spoilers, but I will say that he's the perfectly crafted villain, in that I want to beat him over the head several times with a dictionary. He's the guy who just has to die. And I say that as an anti-death penalty advocate and pacifist.
The other characters are well-written, too: enemies, allies, the crush and ex-boyfriend who both cause an absolute minimum of tension, thank God. Actually, there's not much of a romantic subplot here, for which I'm glad. The ex--named Red Jack--is someone that Jane sees only as a mistake, refuses to get back together with despite his repeated advances, and while she still has some lingering feelings for him and gets jealous whenever someone else gives him goo-goo eyes, she ruthlessly squashes them down to concentrate on the task at hand. That is an attitude sorely lacking in many YA protagonists that I deeply appreciate, especially in a zombie story, where the most common mistake an author makes is focusing on the petty drama rather than the very real threat of imminent doom.
(We also find out about three-quarters of the way through the book that Jane is bisexual, or at least fluid and flexible enough to have made out with a pretty girl. Yay, diverse characters!)
My only complaint about this book is that there are a couple of loose ends, namely the fate of one of Jane's friends who goes missing. She spends a good amount of energy looking for him before she's forced to leave, so it's not like Ireland forgot he existed. She just refuses to tell us where he went off to, which is frustrating. Though I think she plans on bringing him back if she ever publishes a sequel, which is a distinct possibility. Watch me not complain about that.
So, yeah. Welcome to the Favorites page, Dread Nation! Please don't eat my brains.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!