On DEAR JUSTYCE, by Nic Stone

This is another of those posts that is sort of a review of the book, but as I’m currently planning on talking more about what the book isn’t than what it is, I’m not going to tag it that way, at least not in the headline. Here’s the review part: this is a good book, and an important book, and you should read it, and I think it’s probably better than Dear Martin, the book it’s a sequel to, but I’ve said before that Dear Martin suffered for me by being read nearly immediately after The Hate U Give and covering a lot of the same territory. Dear Justyce isn’t suffering from that, so it may just be that I was more able to review the book on its own merits.

Anyway, the story: Dear Justyce is, like Dear Martin, mostly an epistolary novel, or a story told through letters. In Dear Martin, the main character was basically writing journal entries that were framed as letters to Martin Luther King Jr. In Justyce, the main character, a Black teenager named Quan, is actually writing to Justyce, the main character of the first book. I’m pretty sure Quan made some appearances in the first book, but honestly it’s been a few years and I’m not a hundred percent certain, and Justyce is the POV character for occasional bits of this book as well.

And it’s the structure of the book that kind of has me frustrated with it. Justyce is in his first year at Yale as this book begins, and he’s pre-law. He was always presented as an academically oriented, really bright kid, so the notion that the story is being told through his letters is entirely believable. Quan is presented as a kid who could have been Justyce, had he been dealt a fairer hand by society. He could have been the Yale kid, and instead he’s been arrested multiple times (he is incarcerated through the entire novel, although portions are either flashback or him describing times when he was free) and he’s currently imprisoned because he’s accused of killing a cop. And I’m not going to get too far into spoiler territory, but we’re given plenty of other reasons to feel sympathetic toward the kid.

Here’s my thing: I’ve got perhaps half a dozen former students who I know are locked up, at least two for murder and one for aggravated assault and a few other things. And the two kids who are locked up for murder? At least one of them definitely did it. And my kids don’t have good friends who are conveniently in law school and have access to good lawyers, and– and this bit is important– none of them are remotely capable of writing the eight- and ten-page letters that Quan dashes off routinely throughout this book. A lot of the kids who get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline aren’t as academically talented (I am deliberately not saying “smart”) or as literate as Quan is portrayed in this book, and that’s sort of a problem when you’re trying to write an epistolary novel with a parallel structure to your first book.

This doesn’t make Dear Justyce a bad book, mind you. There are ways in which Nic Stone sets up Quan to be a sympathetic character, and you want your main character to be sympathetic. What I’m wondering is what Dear Rayterrion might have looked like– a book about a kid who might have been every bit as screwed by the system– he says he’s innocent, after all– and no doubt had a very similar upbringing as Quan did, but adds a ton of academic challenges as well and lacks his easy facility with the written word. Can you even write a book like this when the main character can barely read or write? Because I remember this kid from 8th grade, and I’m pretty sure nothing got better between 15 and 17. What’s that book look like?

(I also want a book about Martel Montgomery, who is simultaneously a mentor, a local gang leader, a college-educated social worker, and the reason Quan is in jail. He’s a fascinating character. But that’s a side conversation.)

Anyway, none of this is really Dear Justyce’s fault, it’s just where the book got my head going. I’d recommend you read both of them, if you haven’t, and I may well revisit Dear Martin— it’s short, after all– to see what I think of it after this book and with some distance from The Hate U Give.

#Review: LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn

Y’all. This book. This book.

I don’t even know where to start. I mean, the cover, obviously, because holy shit that cover, but after that?

This is Book 53 and Author 48 of the #52booksbywomenofcolor project I’m doing this year, and I know I’ve said this before, but this book, all by itself, justifies the existence of that project. Even if I hadn’t liked most of the 52 books I read prior to this one, this would have made it all worth it. Because if I hadn’t been prioritizing books by women of color this year, this one might not have made it onto my radar quite as effectively as I did, and I might have passed on it, and that would be a crime. This is the book that convinced me that my top 10 list at the end of the year is probably going to have to be a top 15 again, because this is about the tenth “Okay, this is gonna be top five at the end of the year” book and about the fifth “this is gonna be top three” that I’ve read so far this year.

(Writing the list in December will kill me.)

Another thing that I’ve done this year that’s different is I’m pretty sure I’ve been reading a lot more YA than I have in previous years. And this is very much a YA book, complete with many of the tropes of urban fantasy, right up to and including Hidden Demons and the need to Keep Special Powers Secret From Friends and Family.

And for a little while you’re rolling along with that, and you know where this is going, and yeah, I’ve read this book before, and that lasts, oh, I dunno, maybe 25 pages until Deonn starts subverting every single trope you’ve ever encountered in one of these damn books. This is an #ownvoices book in its bones, y’all, because there is simply no way anybody white could have written this book, from the little details about the way the main character gets ready for her classes in the morning to the conversations between her and her dad to the big twist at the end that knocked me flat on my ass and I really want to know if a Black reader would have been more likely to see coming.

It’s about a magical secret society involving the descendants of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table– there’s a lot of Welsh, be ready for that– right up until the part where it isn’t, and holy hell I just cannot recommend this highly enough. The characters are interesting, the representation is great, the magic system is intriguing and the way different entire systems are butting up against each other throughout the book is just putting a worldbuilding aficionado like myself into spasms because I love how Deonn is doing this so very, very much.

Like, I should talk about the plot, I suppose; here’s part of the synopsis:

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.

A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.

Goodreads

The problem is that that’s really a very pedestrian description of what sounds like a bog-standard book, and it doesn’t get across at all just how much gleeful fun Tracy Deonn is having stomping on your expectations throughout the book. I mean, yeah, demons, Merlin, smoky-eyed magical boys, blah blah blah blah.

This book isn’t great because of what it’s about. It’s great because of how it’s about what it’s about.

Go read it.

#Review: TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS, by Christopher Paolini

Gird your loins and adjust your expectations as necessary, because this is going to end up more as a review of Christopher Paolini than a review of his new book. I’ll start with something positive: take a look at that cover, and bask in its gorgeousness for a moment. Seriously, stare at it for a while; it’s probably the best thing about the book.

Now, understand this: Stars is eight hundred and twenty-five pages of story with another 53 pages of (utterly unnecessary) appendices, a glossary, a timeline, and author’s notes tacked onto the end. It is a massive book.

And the spine, which Amazon tells me is 1.74 inches wide, features the word PAOLINI on it in the largest font possible and nothing else other than the publisher’s mark.

I have thousands of books. Thousands. Books by people far more important and far more successful than Christopher Paolini. This is the only book I own that does not have the name of the book on the spine.

If I had bought the book from a bookstore, I very well might have put it back on the shelf, because this offends me to a degree that I’m honestly kind of surprised by. Before you even open the book, you know the main thing you need to know: Christopher Paolini is super fucking important.

This is, in case you don’t know, the guy behind the “Inheritance Cycle,” the series of books that started with Eragon and got longer and shittier with each successive book. I liked Eragon a lot when I read it the first time and by the end of the series I was completely done with it. And then Paolini didn’t release another book for, like, nine years until this one appeared on the shelves. I admit it; I bought it because I was morbidly curious about it.

Okay. I’m going to dial back a bit now. I three-starred this book on Goodreads. It’s not terrible. I’ve read a good number of objectively worse books this year. And I generally don’t write reviews of books I didn’t like. But To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is annoying in such a specific way that I couldn’t pass it up: this is the most arrogant book I’ve ever read, and the arrogance is so utterly unearned that it’s kind of shocking. A lot of Eragon’s sins got forgiven because Paolini was nineteen when the book came out and he’d started writing it at fifteen. That was, like, the guy’s entire hook— that he was super young and yet he’d written this big ol’ book. But I was convinced he was bored with the setting by the time that series ended, and the afterword to this book more or less completely confirms that suspicion. And by now, there’s no reason to cut him any slack any longer, as he’s a grown-ass man writing what is supposed to be a grown-ass book for grown-ass audiences.

Here’s the plot of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: It’s the future. Kira, a boring woman, accidentally becomes Venom, and then there are aliens. Paolini writes action and fight scenes fairly well, and the entire book feels like a video game, right down to a big boss fight at the end and level-ups and additions to her powers over the course of the story. Did you play either of the Prototype games? Because I bet Christopher Paolini did.

The whole first half of the book is spent in search of a magical MacGuffin, and then they find it– spoiler alert, I suppose– but it’s broken, and then they basically never mention it again.

The name of the book is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. Guess what the last seven words of the book are. Go ahead, guess. This is already the title you’d give to a fictional book if you wanted to get the idea across that the author was a bit of a wanker, and then the title is literally the last seven words of the book.

A bunch of the chapter names are in Latin, for no reason. The book is divided into six parts, and each part is also named in Latin, for no reason. Several chapter titles are repeated, for no reason. In the afterword, the author instructs you to look at the chapter titles for “some acrostic fun,” at which point I discovered that the titles of the chapters for some, but not all, of the sections are an acrostic for the first word of the first chapter’s name. Again, for no reason, and Paolini is proud enough of this bit of nonsense that he makes sure to point it out so that you notice how clever he is.

The aliens communicate through scent, which is actually kind of clever, and those scents contain markers for the name of the speaker, which is also kind of clever, because you can imagine the without such a thing being in a room with a bunch of aliens who were speaking would be … complicated. But it means that every bit of alien dialogue looks like this:

<Kira here: I am talking.>
<Alien here: I am talking too.>
<Kira here: I am replying to what you said.>
<There’s only two of us in this conversation, so this is the alien here again: I am replying to your reply.>

Every so often the human characters converse via text message. Every text message is signed.

<hello I would like to fuck. –Kira>
<I too would enjoy fucking. –Bill>
<When should we fuck? –Kira>
<Hey, a description of what happens when you try to masturbate might be cool. Also, use the phrase “inner parts” to refer to your vagina at some point. You’re being written by a man, it’s okay. –Bill>

There’s also the occasional rogue sentence that gets through that feels like it was written by a fifth-grader, or a weird parenthetical that any editor in the universe would have removed. Again, this dude hasn’t earned this. We all know Stephen King and George R.R. Martin aren’t getting edited all that damn much. The Inheritance books made a pretty good pile of money, and they had a painful flop of a movie made. But they weren’t so successful that, especially most of a decade later, this guy’s book should have been ignored by an editor like this.

It’s just … gah, it’s not terrible, I mean, I finished the damn thing, but it’s the Christopher Paoliniest thing Christopher Paolini could possibly have ever written, and I’m okay with being done with him now. There was a spark in Eragon that was extinguished by the time whatever the fourth book in the trilogy was came out. And there have definitely been examples– this year, even– of books I didn’t much like by authors whose future work I’m going to keep buying because of potential. But at this point I’ve got to be done with this guy.

RIP, Rachel Caine

Rachel Caine passed away last night. I have twenty-three books by her in the house, with one preordered (what I assume will be the final book in the excellent Stillhouse Lake series) and three more freshly ordered and on the way, as I decided to get off my ass about finishing the Great Library books. That’s without having read anything from what’s probably her best-known work, the fifteen-book Morganville Vampires series. And once those incoming four are all in the house I might have half of her books; the total is approaching sixty, many of them bestsellers.

She is, by any measure, one of my favorite authors– I probably have more books by Stephen King and I might have more books by Seanan McGuire, who is similarly prolific– but that’s it.(*) Rachel had already survived a battle with breast cancer earlier in her life and was diagnosed … last year? Earlier this year? Fairly recently, one way or another, with an aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma that finally took her away from us last night. She’d been open on her various social media feeds about the cancer and the toll it was taking but was writing until very close to the end; recent tweets from her still refer to the forthcoming Stillhouse book as the “newest” in the series and not the “last.” Hell, for all I know she’s written three more of them and they’re just waiting to be published. She was fast enough; it wouldn’t really be a surprise. Various surgeries and chemotherapy didn’t work, and I suspect by the end she was going through something very similarly to what my mom had to endure for the last months of her life, where the wounds from ostensibly lifesaving surgery simply wouldn’t close up and heal. Her assistant more or less officially took over her Twitter feed on Friday, letting us all know that it wouldn’t be long, and the official notice that she was gone came this morning.

I never met Rachel; she was reasonably active on the con circuit so if she hadn’t gotten sick it probably would have happened eventually, but you can’t read eight thousand pages of someone’s work and not feel like you know them on at least some level. I think we would have gotten along pretty well, and one way or another, she will be missed.

Fuck cancer.

(*) It is literally hours later, and because this is exactly the type of nerd I am I eventually found myself unable to not determine this for sure. Total number of Seanan McGuire books: eighteen. First count of Stephen King books: at least 38, but his are spread throughout the house and are in a bunch of different types of editions and there are a few titles that we have more than one copy of because before marrying me my wife occasionally bought books on her own. I would not be surprised to discover that I missed as many as half a dozen, but that would probably be cancelled out by the ones we have duplicates of, so let’s say “around 40,” call it a day, and hope that my brain doesn’t demand further clarification at 4:00 in the morning.

Monthly Reads: October 2020

Book of the Month: BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. That said, this was a pretty solid month.