I started Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree today, which is the 57th book and 52nd individual author on the list. Still in the plans for this year are two books each by R.F. Kuang and S.L. Huang as well as one more YA book by Tiffany D. Jackson, so depending on how much reading I’m able to get done by the end of the year I might be up to 62 books. But the initial promised 52 are done, and so is the expansion to 52 authors. Should I just post ’em all? Sure, why not:
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.
Let’s take a moment and appreciate this outstanding cover. I’m told that early editions of the book featured painted page edges; I would perform unnatural acts to acquire one. Just gorgeous.
This is one of those books that was really hard to boil down to just a star rating– because I loved it, but it’s definitely got some flaws. Star Daughter is Shveta Thakrar’s first book, and it’s the story of Sheetal, a sixteen-year-old girl who is half human and half star.
It may be that you blinked at that sentence. Roll with it. Her father is human, her mother is a star, and she is their biological child. Stars in this book are both the actual real flaming balls of gas and thermonuclear physics that they are in the real world and immortal– or functionally so, at least– personified beings. And as Sheetal gets closer to her 17th birthday, her star side begins to overtake her human side, and she accidentally injures her father during an argument. She discovers that star blood (yes, they bleed) is a healing agent, so she and one of her friends pop off to what may as well be Heaven to convince her long-absent mother to give them some blood so that she can heal her father’s wounds.
And then things get complicated.
Star Daughter‘s greatest strength is Shveta Thakrar’s skill as a sentence-by-sentence wordsmith. This book is beautifully written, and engaging enough that I was up way too late last night reading it and basically woke up this morning, grabbed a large mug of coffee, and sat down and finished it. For the first half of the book, I was comparing Thakrar’s writing to Salman Rushdie’s. That good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end as well as it begins, and ultimately it’s one of those books that I wasn’t able to like as much as I wanted to but if I had a way to buy Thakrar’s second book right now I would be handing money over just out of the pure potential I see here.
Also fascinating is the worldbuilding– Sheetal, and every other human character in the book, is a Desi Hindu, and if you don’t know what I mean when I say that, hold it in the back of your brain for a moment. This book is absolutely steeped in Hindu cosmology– Shiva himself makes a brief appearance– and Thakrar has no interest whatsoever in moderating her language or the way her characters talk to make things easier for a non-Hindu audience. If you don’t know what a “Desi” is, for example, there’s a real good chance that you’re going to have a hard time. I know very little about Hinduism, but I’m reasonably certain my “very little” still counts as above average for an American reader, and there were definitely places where either context failed me or I wanted more detail and I had to look words up.
(There’s an interesting conversation to be had here– not by me, I don’t know enough to have it, but I want to be nearby to listen to it– about whether this genuinely counts as a work of fantasy or is religious fiction. To an American, non-Hindu audience, it’s going to be shelved correctly, but I’d love to know how much of the worldbuilding is made up out of whole cloth and how much of it is based in preexisting Hindu stories.)
Where the book falls down, unfortunately, is the story itself. Sheetal really doesn’t know what’s going on around her for most of the story, and it’s clear from the moment she arrives in the celestial realm that she’s a pawn in the plans of a bunch of other people who don’t necessarily have her goals in mind and who have preexisting and very old gripes with one another– but the pawn isn’t always really the person you want to read about. The big climax and the ending are too abrupt and, truth be told, a bit silly. There is a very YA-inflected romance with a boy that starts off sweet and fun and then somehow he ends up in Heaven too, but not on the same side as her, and come on. Sheetal herself is a bit more of a cipher than she ought to be as well– in a lot of ways I was more interested in her friend Minai, who, no shit, casually hooks up with one of the stars during the trip, than I was about the main character, and that’s a problem.
But: I couldn’t put it down. And that, to me, is the most important thing. If I can’t put your book down, it gets five stars and a review, even if it’s got some mess here and there. Calibrate your expectations accordingly, but definitely give this one a look.
I got curious the other day about how much geographical diversity my “52 books by women of color” project was representing. If I play a little fast and loose with immigrants (I have arbitrarily decided second-generation American immigrants count, especially if the author’s books reflect the culture of her home country*) the countries represented by authors I’ve either already read or have ordered books from are represented above. I was a little surprised to discover I hit four countries in Africa before Australia joined the list, and the lack of representation in Europe outside of the UK is at least a little surprising, but there it is. Since it’s still September and I’ll finish book 45 on the list today or tomorrow, I’m probably going to expand it to 52 different authors rather than 52 books, and I’m going to see how many different countries I can hit with the rest of those authors.
Next year’s project, I think, is going to see how many books I can read from authors from different countries– no target number, necessarily, but trying to fill in that map as much as I can. It’ll be interesting to see how much I can fill the map in.
That said, if anybody wants to call out some authors who I might be interested in to round out this current project, please feel free– in particular, female-identifying authors of color from mainland Europe, China, Brazil, Afghanistan or the Middle East would be great.
(*) This sort of boiled down to how they chose to identify themselves in biographies, and I’m not digging very hard. Nghi Vo, for example, was born in Peoria and doesn’t say anything about her family or ancestry in any of her bios that I looked at, so she’s American, despite her books having a very strong Southeast Asian flavor to them. If her bio had referred to her as, say, “Chinese-American” (and I have no idea where her people are from, to be clear) I’d have counted her for China. Or, for another example, Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia, so that counts even though she lives in America now.
I’m 3/4 of the way to my goal with only 2/3 of the year gone, so it’s possible I may be able to convert this from 52 books to 52 authors by the end; school starting and eye surgery have slowed me down a bit, but that should still be doable. At any rate, here’s the most recent batch, some of which I reviewed and some I didn’t; feel free to ask questions if you have them.