#REVIEW: Queen of the Unwanted, by Jenna Glass

So, if you’re going to make a series switch from hardcover to softcover after the first book comes out, which already guarantees the books on my shelf aren’t going to match, and then you’re going to compound not-matchiness by making sure that the cover design changes radically from the hardcover to the softcover editions, the least you can do is make the softcover editions awesome. And I have to admit it: this has me considering buying the first book again in paperback just so that they match, since the new versions look so Goddamned good.

This is one of the tricky ones. If you look at Goodreads reviews for either this book or the first book in the series, called The Women’s War, you’ll notice that they’re … we’ll say messy. The basic premise of this series, boiled way down, is that a group of women, forced into prostitution when their husbands chose to divorce them or they were deemed unnecessary in other ways, manage to make a fundamental change to the way magic works in their world to give women more agency. To wit: among other things, sexual assault now causes little bursts of magic to be released that can kill the man performing the assault. Magic is explicitly gendered in this series, and without going too deep into the weeds there is women’s magic, men’s magic, and ungendered magic, and while women’s magic has historically been suppressed and devalued, this spell also kicks women’s magic into much higher gear, also creating a wellspring of feminine magic in the middle of what was formerly a wasteland that quickly becomes a feminist kingdom. The main characters are all royalty of some stripe or another, although several of them are former royalty who have been forced to be Abigails (their word for the prostitutes,) one way or another this book is not especially concerned with regular people.

It’s also not especially concerned with gay people, or trans people, or people of color (but more on that bit in a moment,) and two of the three most evil people in the series are the only fat person (we are reminded, Bomber-like, of his fatness every time he is mentioned) and a woman with a facial disfigurement. There is also a blind woman who is One of the Good Guys, but it’s made clear very quickly that she’s not only Not Really Blind, but she’s quickly offered a cure (which, to give some credit, she doesn’t take.)

You can probably imagine that this has caused some controversy, particularly for a book that is pretty explicit about being about high-fantasy feminism. Like, when you tell me that whether you’re male or female can not only affect what kind of magic you can perform but what kind of magic you can see (magic, in this world, is performed by combining “motes” of what are basically magical elements that float around in the world, and so certain kinds of magical motes are easier to find in some places or another, and part of what determines your skill as a mage is how many different kinds of motes you can perceive in the first place,) I’m going to immediately start wondering about how trans people fit into your world, and I’d almost rather you terf it out and go strictly biologically than completely ignore that trans people exist.

And even laying aside the identity and representation concerns, there’s a persistent feeling throughout reading this book that Jenna Glass really didn’t bother thinking super hard about the aspects of her worldbuilding that she wasn’t interested in. For a book that is all about shifting alliances between rival kingdoms, a book where the phrase trade agreements shows up on nearly every page, she doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how trade works, unless her various principalities and kingdoms are unimaginably small. One of her kingdoms is repeatedly described as the sole source of iron and gems for all the surrounding kingdoms, for example, and you get the feeling that the “trade agreements” between these countries are sometimes over a few pounds of metal. It’s surprisingly low-resolution compared to how well she brings in the political implications of, say, marriages between warring families. But trade? Just say “trade agreements” on every page or two and let the audience fill in the details. At one point after a book and a half you find out that two of the countries speak different languages, and I swear to you that she decided that on the spot so that she could have one character not quite understand what was going on around her. I’m not going to reread the first book to confirm that multiple languages hadn’t ever been mentioned, but they certainly hadn’t come up in the second until it was convenient. Stuff like that.

The thing is, though, IF you can get past all that– and I absolutely would not blame you for a single second if you declined to even try— the book that is here is pretty fucking compelling. What Jenna Glass does really well is write characters, and she’s done a good job over these two books of filling her pages with characters with competing and overlapping sets of interests and national cultures and setting them against each other. It took me forever to get the second book ordered and then to actually pick it up once I had it on the shelf, but now that I have, I feel dumb about taking so long and want to quickly order the final book of the trilogy, which is already out. So it turns out to be one of those books that I can’t really recommend, because of the various bits of sleeve and sloppiness, but I can accurately report my own reaction to the book and let y’all decide, right? So, yeah: I read this, and I enjoyed it, but it’s a mess, and it might be worth it for you to check it out and maybe it might not, so make your own call.

Let’s talk about the race thing for a second. It is interesting to me that the only characters in this book who the book takes care to describe physically are people from Nandel. Nandel is in the north– it’s the iron-and-gems country– and it’s the most openly misogynist of all the various cultures that exist in this book. Nandelites are also repeatedly described as being blonde, blue-eyed, and pale. Over and over again, in fact, and any time anyone else is referred to in terms of their skin color it’s always a shade of brown, although frequently Glass also tosses in a reference to working outside or something, so you never know just what anyone is supposed to look like. I’m going to point out real quick that a world where only whiteness is considered interesting enough to comment on might be a world where brown skin is the default, and then also point out that if everybody is brown except for these handful of characters (none of whom are primary POV characters) then Glass could certainly have been a hell of a lot clearer about it, as this is roughly akin to J.K. Rowling suddenly claiming that Hermione was always meant to be black because her hair is curly.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader whether that makes any meaningful difference. I suspect not, but YMMV, as always.

#REVIEW: Cemetery Boys, by AidEn Thomas

I’m kind of entertained that the first book review I wrote in 2020 and the first book review I’m writing in 2021 are both of YA books. And both of them are books that I came to because I’m trying to read widely in terms of the types of characters I read about and the types of authors I’m trying to read books from. To wit, Aiden Thomas is a queer Latinx transgender male, and Cemetery Boys is one of only a handful of books I’ve read with a trans male as the main character. (Also worth checking out: Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series.)

So, what’s it about? Also something I haven’t seen much of: the main character, Yadriel, is a 15-year-old trans boy who is a member of a community of brujx, people who follow traditional practices regarding communicating with and aiding the dead in passing on from this world to the next. The book takes place a couple of days before el Dia de los Muertos, and it begins with Yadriel completing a ritual on his own to confirm himself as a brujo. As it turns out, brujos and brujas have different abilities and focus on different things, and Yadriel’s family has resisted him becoming a brujo since he was assigned female at birth. Prejudice toward Yadriel isn’t a huge part of the book, but his mother was his main protector and she’s been dead for several months as the book starts, and it’s clear that his relationship toward his father is strained at best and moving toward broken at worst. Becoming a brujo requires a sort of confirmation or blessing from Lady Death, you see, and everyone basically thinks that it just won’t work, so they haven’t let him try.

So he does it on his own. And it works. And he summons a ghost, and the ghost is of a boy named Julian who has recently died– so recently, in fact, that no one seems to know he is gone and no one is looking for him. That same night, another member of Yadriel’s community dies (brujx can feel it when other brujx pass away) but despite lots of people looking for him, they can’t find him.

From here, the book moves into what is sort of a murder mystery– Julian remembers very little leading up to his death, and doesn’t want to pass on to the next world until he makes sure his friends are okay– and what is almost a slapsticky sort of thing as Yadriel tries to hide Julian from his family until he can help him pass on. All of whom can see dead people, remember.

I four-starred this; this is one of those books where the good things (the setting, the characters) are very very good and the overall actual plot is not as well executed. I thought the first 100 pages kind of dragged on a bit, and the book really doesn’t feel like a murder mystery until all the sudden at the end the villain is suddenly revealed, in a very Scooby-Doo sort of way. I wasn’t expecting there to even be a villain, to be honest; the search for Miguel, the missing person, is mostly handled off camera and the focus is on finding out how he died and where his body is, not searching for someone who killed him, and Julian’s death felt to me like random gang violence or something similar, and I wasn’t expecting them to pin it to one person and have a big Here Is My Evil Plan moment at the end.

(Like, remember the movie Stand By Me? They know they’re looking for a body the whole time. They know it’s a dead kid. They’re not really worried about how he died, they just want to find him. Imagine if that movie had ended with Ace and Eyeball explaining that they’d murdered Ray Brower in some sort of insurance scam or something. This has much the same feel.)

I can’t quite claim that I loved this book, but it’s still well worth recommending just because of the “I’ve never read anything like this” angle. The representation is great, and I can think of a couple of students I’ve had who I might try to get this book into the hands of. Where it’s strong, it’s very strong, it’s just that the story itself falls down a bit.

Some kind of random thoughts:

  • Never once is Yadriel’s deadname used in the book. There are two direct references to it; one when someone calls him by it and another when Julian sees it in a yearbook. Both times the name itself is not used in the text.
  • Thomas’ skill at writing characters who speak a lot of Spanish in a way that’s clear and understandable to non-Spanish readers is frankly phenomenal. My Spanish is good enough that I made it to page 304 before deciding to look something up– and it turned out to be an idiom, so I felt okay about it– but in general whenever someone says something in Spanish, or at least the first time something is said in Spanish, the word or phrase is used in English quickly afterward to make it very easy to infer the meaning of the word from context. Just as an example, Yadriel’s aunt says “Dame un beso” at one point, and the next sentence he kisses her on the cheek. That sort of thing. This could have felt really shoehorned in if Thomas wasn’t careful, but it always felt natural. Nicely done.
  • The words “Latinx” and “brujx” are used throughout the text, both as character dialogue and as narrative references. This did feel a little intrusive, as I’ve spent a lot of time teaching young people from Latinx backgrounds and have worked at a couple of schools where they were either a solid majority or virtually everyone, and I’ve never heard either of those words out of the mouth of a young person. I mean, okay, I wouldn’t expect “brujx,” but I think if I dropped “Latinx” in conversation with one of my Mexican or Puerto Rican students they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation; it’s entirely possible that the -x suffix is more widely used in other parts of the country and hasn’t made its way to the Midwest yet, but my (possibly erroneous) understanding was that it isn’t widely used yet and, in fact, was kind of controversial. It will be interesting to see if, ten years from now, the term dates the book at all.

In which today just goes away

Totally had plans to do all sorts of stuff tonight but it all got derailed by having to spend over two hours trying to put together a five minute video for class tomorrow, a project that should have taken no more than fifteen minutes but kept running into truly stupid tech-related delays. And now it’s 9:30 and I haven’t done shit since I got home and all I want to do is go to bed.

One plus side of today, though: got asked, by a pair of the kids, to sponsor a LGBTQ club at school. THAT was unexpected and interesting. I agreed, of course.

On the new newness

After several years where I was reliably getting a new phone every single year and basically coming to terms with the fact that I’d become That Guy, I waited three full cellphone generations– from the iPhone 7+ I’ve been carrying around forever to today– to upgrade my phone, and finally caved and came home with an iPhone 11 Pro Max in the Midnight Green color. I told myself I was going to wait until I could walk into the store and walk out with a phone, and that happened today. What ended up getting me to jump was the massive improvement in the cameras– I’m super psyched about getting to play with the new triple-camera setup, and the damn phone is gorgeous, to the point where for the first time I’m getting a clear case. It’s currently in my bedroom transferring all of my settings and apps and photos from the original phone, a process that was originally projected to take two hours, then 24 minutes, so I figured I had time to come out into the living room and write a blog post before going back and checking on it.

This was a long and interesting week; I was out of my classroom for two days at that rarest of beasts, a really interesting professional development opportunity, and I had parent-teacher conferences Wednesday night, which was the busiest I’ve ever been at PTCs– I had a line out my door for two hours and fifteen minutes– and then I had a parent-teacher conference for my own son on Thursday. Today most the kids actually had a recess as a little reward for surviving the first quarter, and a dozen or so of them organized an honest-to-God, flag-waving-and-chanting impromptu gay pride parade (!!!) on the soccer field. This is the first year of my career where I’ve had more than one or two kids who were conspicuously and un-selfconsciously out of the closet– there are a lot of 8th graders in my building who are somewhere on the QUILTBAG spectrum and don’t seem to give a damn who knows it.

A genuine oddity: they exist alongside the rather large contingent of more typical 8th-grade straight boys who enjoy nothing more than ceaselessly calling each other gay, and yet I have never once— and I’m watching, God damn it– seen any anti-gay bullying of any of the actual gay kids, and there are at least two boys in the 8th grade who are gay at twenty feet, if you know what I mean. I’ve never seen anyone call either of them names, even the kids who are quickest to toss “gay” at any of their straight friends.

So there may be several posts this weekend, is what I’m getting at, depending on whether I decide I want to talk about these things more. The training, at least, will probably get a post tomorrow or Sunday.

#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman

The headline for this piece is a lie– which would have been a clever reference to the events of The Outside, had I meant to do it when I started writing the sentence rather than realizing it halfway through. I actually have no intention of writing a full review of this book, which is really good and which I started reading last night and finished today. I’m tired and my thinkmeats are all askew and I’d rather just give you the basic genre of the book and then if you aren’t reaching for a credit card with one hand and navigating the interwebs to Amazon with the other we probably can’t be friends.

The genre, according to author Ada Hoffman, is “queer autistic cosmic horror space opera.” It may also be relevant to your interests to know that Hoffman is both queer and autistic.

That’s all. You may go now; I know you have more important things to do.