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.

#REVIEW: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

I am a big fan of Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, was the second-best book I read in 2018 and the follow-up to that, A Storm of Locusts, didn’t blow me away quite as much it was still on the Honorable mention list for next year.

Her novel Black Sun, which just came out last week, is the only thing so far in 2020 seriously competing with Scarlet Odyssey for my favorite book of the year. This is the first book of a new trilogy and not part of the Sixth World series, so it’s unrelated to her previous books. (She has also written a Star Wars novel and a YA book, neither of which I have read yet. I will probably get around to the YA book eventually but I have kind of soured on Star Wars novels at the moment.)

(EDIT: Since I wrote those two paragraphs, I’ve spent half an hour helping a now-college-aged former student with her stats homework, which meant I needed to quickly reteach myself the relevant material, and had a lengthy conversation with my brother regarding a wide variety of topics, none of which I really care to get into. Also, another former student died today and my head is suddenly not in this any longer. This book is good. It is second-world Mesoamerica in the same way that, say, Game of Thrones is second-world Europe, and that in and of itself is a reason to read it because there just isn’t enough of that on the shelf. And I like this more than her previous work because in general I prefer second-world fantasy to urban fantasy, even when the urban fantasy is rural fantasy, and I’m a big fan of good worldbuilding, and once again I want to know everything about this world she’s set up. But this post was going to be longer before my brain fell apart, and it is well and truly fallen right now. Go read, plz. Kthxbai.)

#REVIEW: The Boys, Season 2

Before I get into the post itself, I just want to point out that I find it kind of funny that I made a point of mentioning the other day that I hadn’t missed a post since April, and then bloody went and forgot to post yesterday until almost 11:30, at which point my inner fuck it, nobody is paying me for this kicked in and I didn’t bother throwing something onto the site just to check off the day. In my defense, yesterday was a deeply weird, schedule-murdering sort of day, the kind of day where you wake up with a certain set of expectations on how the day is going to go and then those expectations are rather rudely tossed onto their ear before you’ve finished your coffee.

What we did manage to do was finish the second season of The Boys. And while I watched the first season by myself, my wife was along for the ride for the entire season this time, thus the “we” and the slightly longer amount of time elapsing before its release and me managing to watch it all. The first season of The Boys was … messy. Real messy. To the point where I felt kind of squicky about recommending people watch it.

The second season was phenomenal.

Now, let’s not misrepresent things: The Boys is still hyper-violent (exploding heads make up more of the season’s plot points than you might typically see in a TV show, and there’s a thing that happens with a whale that is, like, wow) and profane and a lot of other stuff, but while the first season followed the comic books into leaning way too hard into sexual violence and rape than anything really needs to be, the second season has none of that. In general, the female characters are treated much better this season; there’s no fridging at all, and most of the new characters introduced are women.

This show does a couple of things that I really like. First, the acting remains absolutely top-tier across the damn board. Antony Starr as Homelander is Goddamned amazing. This is the role of Karl Urban’s life. The relationship between Jack Quaid and Erin Moriarty’s Hughie and Starlight is sweet and awkward in all sorts of adorable ways. And Giancarlo Esposito is in this show and I praised four other actors before I got around to mentioning him. I mean, come on. And while I wasn’t happy with the semi-redemption arc Chace Crawford’s The Deep got last season, his role this season is far more interesting than last year’s. And his character is responsible for what might be the single greatest cameo in the history of television. You wouldn’t think that the acting and the character work would be the highlight of a show that spends fully three-fourths of a season making you think a head might literally explode at any given moment, but it absolutely is.

(Also, I want every shirt that Mother’s Milk wears during the series. Every single one.)

The second thing that I love about the show is how it has handled adapting the comic book, and it’s kind of fascinating to me that my other example of an outstanding adaptation, The Walking Dead, is also an adaptation to TV of a comic book series. This is the right way to adapt things, guys: take what you think works from the original material and then twist it and fuck with it however you want so that the people who know the source material don’t necessarily know what’s coming next. Something happens at the end that manages to recast the entire first two seasons as a prequel, at least of sorts, to the place where the entire comic series starts. And while at least part of this season is taken, broadly, from the comic book, a huge chunk of it isn’t, and there’s no smug “I know what’s going to happen at the Red Wedding!” sort of scenes for people who have read the comics. I knew one reveal was coming about one character, and one major reveal from the end of the comic series appears to not be the case in the TV series, based on about four seconds of footage in the second-to-last episode. So they’re definitely going their own way here.

The last time I talked about this show, I ended with “If you think this is something you might like, and you’ve already got Amazon Prime, maybe check it out.” I’m still not telling you to get Amazon Prime just for the show, but it’s definitely a reason to get Prime now, as opposed to an ancillary side benefit, and if you already have the service you should strongly consider checking it out if the ultraviolence isn’t going to push you away.