The reviews and recommendations continue! This time round we have two different flavours of fantastical political intrigue and a gorgeously Gothic exploration of identity and freedom.
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 enchanted mirrors
Rainbow rep: an f/f romantic subplot among multi-generational political intrigue
Premise: Snow White and her Evil Stepmother are destined to despise and destroy each other in every telling of their tale, right? Well, what if they were instead explored as two women caught in an unforgiving political framework, complete with a magic system that quite literally attempts to objectify them? What if they were, in reality, each other’s closest ally? And also what if the princess had a cute doctor girlfriend, just for fun? Why not, eh?
There are some wonderful parts in this book, but overall I feel like I wanted to like it more than I did. This had some components that really hooked me: the relationship between stepmother Mina and young princess Lynet was far and away the heart of the novel, and was emotionally rich and satisfying enough to carry some of the clunkier bits of the plot. It fleshed out the archetype of “the wicked stepmother” into a character in her own right, showing her growing up at court and struggling to carve a place for herself out, convinced by her abusive father and the general laws of society that she can only ever be valued for her beauty, becoming a cold tactician out of the assumption that no one could ever just like her for herself. It was a neat attempt at deepening the cackling portrait of a traditional villain without relying too much on the old “oh, they actually had a sad childhood, don’t you feel bad for them now?” method, and, thank goodness, without relying on said character being brutalised or assaulted to garner that sympathy.
Fairy tale retellings have been done to death, which is not to say that the genre is by nature boring, it just means you have to do something a little bit special and out-there to stand out. Snow and Glass did, I believe, bring some new things to the table (for one thing, none of the characters are white, which was neat) but had I not been so invested in the maternal relationship between Mina and Lynet I might not have stuck with it. The prose can be a little dry and clunky, and most characters who aren’t the focus pair of queens-to-be feel a little two-dimensional, and the magic was perhaps not explained as well as it could have been to make it feel organic. This is not to say that you have to fit magic into the laws of your reality, in fact there’s something mystifying and fun about a magic that just is… but the delivery didn’t quite pull this sense of matter-of-fact wonder off, either, and left it lying somewhere in the middle.
All that said, Lynet and her doctor girlfriend are very cute, so if you’re coming to the book looking for endearing and varied relationships between women, it has that covered. Add it to your collection of fairy tale retellings, if you fancy them, and see how it stacks up!
The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 music boxes that used to be people
Rainbow rep: two genderfluid main characters in a romance
Premise: Teodora has never quite fit in, for two major reasons at the heart of her identity. Firstly, she is a daughter in a powerful family, which means no matter how much she helps her father out he will never make her his heir. Secondly, she is a strega, wielding the ability to transform people into objects and animals, the sort of magical powers that make for a great assassination tool but would also get her locked up by the church should someone catch her. Her world turns upside down when she meets fellow strega Cielo, who is sometimes a boy and sometimes a girl and sometimes a gust of wind; and when her father is poisoned in a political power play. Cielo tutors Teo in shapeshifting magic and the two of them venture to the capital city in disguise to find out what’s going on in this den of magic and murder and deep machinations.
This is a fantasy world inspired by 19th century Italy, a land hesitantly unified but populated by mafia families squinting suspiciously at each other over the walls of their respective castles. Political intrigue, rivalries, and nefarious plots to use magic to fight off the country’s enemies are all woven together in a glimmering tapestry. The prose is at times chaotic in terms of pacing, but I was willing to forgive it for the gorgeous turns of phrase it would throw at me on almost every page. The world Capetta builds is rich with detail both sensory, historical, and emotional, easy to visualise and slip into alongside Teo and Cielo as they wander through it.
The setting as it’s described by Teo is a highlight of the novel, for me, with Teo herself coming a close second. The shapeshifting magic is used to explore her own non-binary gender identity (“I’d often felt as though I didn’t quite fit inside the boundaries of the word girl. It reminded me of a country I knew I could happily visit, but the longer I stayed, the more I knew I couldn’t live there all the time […] It helped when the magic arrived. It wasn’t male or female. It simply was.”) as well as, of course, gender roles. Whole, vastly different worlds of possibility open for Teo whether she is presenting as masculine or feminine, something that both fills her with frustration and gives her a variety of methods to utilise when investigating the various schemes and plots in the capital.
Cielo, who switches between “he” and “she” depending on the form they’re in at the time, provides a mentor figure but also a mirror for Teo, two people with the same identity struggle, filtered here through magic but I think very resonant with the real world (helped along by the fact that the author identifies as NB herself, so this exploration is happening through a lens of someone who “gets it”, in the spirit of #OwnVoices). Their romance is fun and spicy and empathetic, and I’m interested to see what becomes of them in the future, given that this is a Book One, and they are essentially together by the end. Political machinations aren’t always for me, but I’m generally willing to stick with them if I have a set of strong personal plots to hang onto instead, and Teo delivers.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 windswept gothic landscapes
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance (with a tragic conclusion)
Premise: Mr. and Mrs. Wolcott set out to have a baby as a status symbol, and are delighted to find out they’re having twins. They’re disappointed to discover that both of them are girls. Ah, but no matter: they set about cramming their kids into prescriptive gendered roles that superficially give them the son and daughter they need to look good in the world, with little regard to how the children themselves really feel. The sisters’ only escape from the identity-smothering hell world of their family home is a mysterious staircase at the bottom of an old trunk, which leads them down to a Gothic fantasy world full of danger and adventure and magic-science…
This is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, telling the origin story, as it were, of Jill and Jack. I debated for a while whether or not to give it its own review since I haven’t included series continuations in these posts before, but because this can function as a standalone novel, and because it gave me sufficient Feelings, I’m going to add it in. The prose is just as gorgeous and dreamy as the first book, making the ‘real world’ feel stifling and stale before drawing you into the glorious spooky bizarreness of The Moors, where all manner of dark and terrible things roam, and where the two protagonists find a sense of welcome they never did in their home lives.
Jill gets to embrace the femineity she was denied as she becomes the frill-wearing protégée to a vampire lord, and Jack gets to throw off the femineity forced on her as she becomes the apprentice to a Frankenstein-esque scientist. We knew this from the first book, but it’s gone into in greater detail here, including exploring Jack’s romance with a girl called Alexis. They’re very sweet, but unfortunately, in a world where monsters (and girls desperately trying to be monsters in an effort to cling to the first sense of familial validation they’ve ever received) run amok, happy endings can’t always be expected, and Alexis is killed towards the end of the book. Even though it fits the tone, and makes a lot of sense if you know Jill from Doorway, it still stings—though obviously this sting is lessened, and walked further away from its ‘Tragic Dead Gay’ potential, by Alexis being far from the only queer character in the series.
The exploration of kids finding a sense of home in places that defy the societal norm, and thus give them a chance to be themselves, continues on from Doorway and is dipped into with more personal depth, and continues to be so, so interesting from all sorts of different perspectives. Jack and Jill are fascinating characters, as tangled, complicated individuals with a tangled, complication relationship. I wasn’t sure if I needed a prequel dealing exclusively with them, but now that I’ve read it I’m so glad it exists. Dare I say I want more. The world of the Wayward Children proves to be an intriguing and enthralling one to come back to again and again.