#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.

Creepy Children’s Programming Reviews: #SHERA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER


I had He-Man toys as a kid.  I grew up in the eighties; it was inevitable.  I didn’t really pay a hell of a lot of attention to She-Ra because … well, I was a boy.  And She-Ra was for girls.  I also watched the He-Man cartoon, and I have very detailed memories of being very angry with WGN because at some point or another they chose to commit the cardinal sin of pre-empting an episode of He-Man with a Cubs game.  

I don’t think I ever watched the She-Ra cartoon.  I remember that she said “For the honor of Greyskull” instead of “By the power of Greyskull,” but I think that’s cultural osmosis and not an actual memory.  I could not have told you the names of a single member of her supporting cast prior to this week.

Honestly, I only decided to watch the show because it seemed to be pissing off a bunch of whiny manbaby manchildren, and I like it when those people’s feelings are hurt.  If that makes me a bad person, I can live with it.  

I probably shouldn’t even make this part of the CCPR series, y’all, because I loved every second of this show.  The three of us watched the first two episodes together and we had to force our son to go to bed at his bedtime because he wanted to stay up and watch more.  We watched the other eleven episodes in two big gulps over the next couple of days.  This is absolutely 100% unequivocally the best show I’ve ever done one of these pieces on, and I’m only not calling it my favorite animated series of all time because I feel like the second I hit Publish on this piece I’ll remember what my favorite animated series really is and I’ll feel dumb.

I’m not gonna lie: a large portion of my affection for this show is somewhat political.  I love what this show is as much as how it is what it is.  But before I get into that, I want to be super clear about something: the show is hilarious and touching and action-packed and the voice acting is superb and even before we get into any of the representation issues it’s a great show.  My son loved it so much that he’s created his own characters inspired by the show and he’s been drawing comic books about them and creating statues of them in Minecraft all day.  My son does not love the show because of politics.  My son loves the show because it’s awesome.

To wit: when She-Ra first turns Swift Wind, her horse, into a … pegacorn?  Unisus?  Rainbow horned wing-beast thing, the horse’s reaction to its new wings and horn had all three of us laughing so hard we could barely breathe.  Sea Hawk’s insistence on setting his ships on fire was a running joke that never got any less funny.  The relationship between She-Ra and Catra– an invention of the new series, from my understanding– is complex and heartbreaking, especially for a show where friendship is such an important theme, and it feels real.  Adora’s fish-out-of-water reaction to … well, virtually everything after leaving the Horde is great.  I love even the minor characters, with Mermista, Entrapta and Scorpia being particular favorites. The animation style, which got a lot of unnecessary abuse, is exactly appropriate for the show, and the facial expressions are worthy of The Amazing World of Gumball.  It’s phenomenal, all the way through.

But yeah.  Let’s talk about the cast.  This is what She-Ra’s cast of characters used to look like:

I mean, the two on the outside are both purple…

This is what the cast of the new show looks like:

So straight off the jump we’re in a better place here.  The cast of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is deliberately and intentionally diverse, both in the appearances of the characters and the actual voice cast.  Glimmer is actually kinda chubby, and Spinnerella is flat-out fat,and it’s never once remarked upon by any of the characters.  That’s just what they look like.  It’s heavy on women characters, as a show with the words Princesses of Power might be expected to be, but it’s not just a palette swap with typical cartoons, where the women have less agency and less characterization.  Bow may be the only male of the three principals with Adora and Glimmer, but he’s a solid character on his own right and his relationship with Sea Hawk is hilarious.

(A moment, please, to just appreciate the He-Man style of naming characters.  This show features a sorceress character called Castaspella, mercifully called “Casta” most of the time, and a character who throws nets whose name is Netossa.  And in case “Netossa” is too subtle for you, she actually explains it onscreen.  The character named Perfuma is once represented by some random object while the group is making a plan and she insists on being represented by a perfume bottle.  The names are ridiculous.)

And, oh, guys, it’s so gay.  So very very very very very very very gay.

This show is so gay it makes Queer Eye look like 19 Kids and Counting.

Bow wears a midriff with a heart on it.  At one point he needs to wear a tuxedo for a ball.  His tuxedo has a cummerbund on it.  He tears off the cummerbund so he can continue to rock his abs in his formalwear at the ball.  Which he attends with a girl, but oh my God his reaction when he realizes Sea Hawk is there.

The bad guys are literally wiped away by a giant rainbow wave of love in the final episode.

Spoiler alert, I guess.  I mean, if you didn’t know the good guys win at the end of the season.  You probably coulda guessed.  

Oh, and the goddamn horse ends up being a socialist.

You need to watch this show.  If that means you need to get Netflix, do it.  It’s great.  I can’t wait for the second season.  Neither can my seven-year-old son.  If my recommendation doesn’t work for you, take his.

While I’m lecturing all the white people…

Had this conversation on Facebook yesterday, regarding this story, in my Bruce Banner alter ego, which is why it’s all censored to hell.  I’m in blue and she, a former student, is in black.  This is why representation is important, guys.  This is why #weneeddiversebooks is important.  Right here:


Just sayin’.  And now I gotta find a way for Jayashree to survive that fight.  🙂