**spoiler alert** OK, I tried to write this review without spoilers, but I can’t. I have to talk about the fates of certain characters, because the mo**spoiler alert** OK, I tried to write this review without spoilers, but I can’t. I have to talk about the fates of certain characters, because the more I think about it the angrier I get. Trigger warning for violence against women used as a plot device. Buckle up.
Do you want to live forever? I’m not talking to you, Starship Trooper. I’m talking to you, disposable poor person from 1878. Would you like to be a test subject?
Eric Scott Fishl combines the moral and philosophical quandaries of alchemy’s quest for immortality with the setting of the post–Civil War era Old West United States. It’s a cool idea, and I suspect there is a lot in here for some readers. I don’t, as a general rule, read westerns. Their setting tends not to click with me. There are some exceptions—The Dead of Winter, another Angry Robot book, is one. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show comes close to being another; ultimately, in this case, it isn’t the setting so much as the characters and the writing that leave me unsatisfied.
The eponymous Dr. Potter is a sham. He’s a snake-oil salesman in a frankly underwhelming travelling circus/freak-show; and he isn’t even in charge. He’s the face of the show, but sinister ringmaster Lyman Rhoades is pulling the strings—and he’s just a minion for the big man back home, the brains of the operation. Dr. Potter is beholden to this benefactor, reliant upon him for the drug that will keep him alive. And so he plays a dark and dirty role in a Faustian bargain, even as Rhoades exercises his power over the people of the show with brutal and violent intensity.
I like a lot of the ideas that Fischl throws into this book. However, the end product doesn’t feel as smooth as it could be. There is a lot of telling rather than showing here. The first few chapters introduce the various groups of characters who will matter in the story, and the narrator spends most of their time describing these characters’ pasts and their current feelings to us. I much prefer it when authors let us piece these things together, let it come out through dialogue and the occasional tidbits of exposition. Big paragraphs might be satisfying to write, but they tank the pace of the story. And while this is a stylistic quibble at its heart, it’s one that stays with me throughout the whole book. Fischl never settles for a one-liner or an implication when a carefully-constructed paragraph, or even page, is possible. As a result, we get a lovely and holistic view of the world of Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show—but for me, this starts to eclipse the action and the actual characters behind these ideas.
And then we get into the problematic bits.
This book has a serious lack of women with agency. It irked me for the first part of the book, with the introduction of Mercy (heavy-handed symbolic name anyone?) as Rhoades’ wife and chew-toy. Literally her only purpose in this plot is to suffer and cry and be a symbol for the men to pity while they hand-wring over how weak they are for not taking Rhoades on. There is a particularly unsettling scene (middle of chapter 4, not going to quote from it here because it’s super disturbing) where Rhoades sexually assaults Mercy. Fischl describes Rhoades’ actions in grotesque detail. I can’t imagine how someone who might be triggered by these depictions would react to reading it; I have no such triggers and I felt viscerally disturbed by what happened. But it’s not even the level of detail—I get that the scene is meant to be unsettling in a book that is meant to disturb. It’s not the way the scene was written so much as its purpose for the plot. It’s the fact that the scene is entirely a gratuitous way of using violence against women to demonstrate that Rhoades is a Very Bad Guy, as if we hadn’t already had that confirmed in half a dozen other ways.
I soldiered on, hoping that Fischl would give us a more positive depiction of women, or maybe even give Mercy an arc that could redeem her beginning. Elizabeth McDaniel looked, briefly, like she might be that character—but nope! Both Mercy and Elizabeth are fridged (TVTropes), again, purely it seems for the effect this has on the audience and to demonstrate just how bad Rhoades is.
Look, I know that violence against women has a tried and true history in horror stories. That doesn’t make it right, or good, or acceptable. And it is possible for women to meet grisly ends in manners that are not sexualized. Finally, there are basically four named women in this book (the third is Annabelle, Dr. Hedwith’s wife, who thankfully is not raped or killed as far as I know—she just kind of disappears halfway through the book; the fourth, Mary McDaniel, is fridged and used as the motivation for a short-lived revenge plot before the the book even starts). None of them have any kind of existence, arc, or purpose independent of the male characters; this is fantastically sucky. I am not opposed to bad things happening to characters, of any gender, for the purposes of horrifying the audience (though, to be honest, it isn’t really my bag). But this is not the way to do it at all. So I’m calling it out, and you can like Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show but you also better be ready to acknowledge how problematic this representation of women is.
I also have some reservations about Oliver as a depiction of a Black man in post–Civil War America. Fischl makes some choices of diction, description, and behaviour and then lampshades them with explanations that feel faintly stereotypical to me. Moreover, while Oliver has a more active role in the plot, owing to his gender, it’s a role largely subservient to or in support of white men. This is an area I’m not as well-versed in, though, so I’ll leave my critiques there, and hopefully other (preferably Black) readers could weigh in either way.
It’s a shame, because the ending of this book is very exciting. I like it when good plans go to tatters and we end up in a Battlestar Galactica finale, everything-is-going-to-shit situation. For all my complaints about exposition and pacing earlier in the book, I really like the pacing and intensity of the ending. I just wish I didn’t have to wade through such poor representation to get there.
… the intimations of bigger and better story arcs continue here. Once again we have a direct reference to the face-shifting ghoul terrorizing Ian. (According to the Goodreads series list, the next book is The Ghoul Vendetta, so I’m guessing we’ll soon get some pay-off on that arc!)
I was going to criticize the covers and complain about how they’re all different poses of Mac and Ian waving weapons around …
Plus, it’s nice that the covers acknowledge Mac and Ian’s partnership. Ian has Mac’s back in this book—hopefully in The Ghoul Vendetta we’ll see a little more vulnerability in him and Mac will really have a chance to shine.
*fist pump* Called it.
Is this really the fourth book in this series? I can remember back when Lisa Shearin was turning out the second and third books in Raine’s series! It feels like just yesterday, but here we are … almost exactly one year since I rea dthe last book and well into the SPI Files and apparently a third series on the horizon. Coming upon Shearin when she was a new author and getting to read her books soon after their publication has been a delight, year after year, because she keeps delivering fun stories. The Ghoul Vendetta is no exception. Fans of the series will find what they want in this book, and newcomers won’t feel too lost (though I highly recommend picking up at least the first book!).
It’s June now, and Mac is on another date with Rake Danescu Dark Gobl—er, I mean, dark mage—er, I mean, he’s a goblin, OK? And he does dark magic, but he’s good, and he has the hots for Mac, and she has the hots for him, but things keep attacking them, and it’s just really inconvenient. And so they’re on a date, and things attack them! This turns out to be connected to a wider plot by Old Ones wanting to undo a curse by other Old Ones keeping them from dominating and terrorizing all other species on the planet. To make matters worse, Mac’s work partner, Ian, is intimately connected to this plot, which is masterminded by the face-shifting not-a-ghoul who has taunted Ian in various ways in the previous books.
The Ghoul Vendetta follows a pattern I’ve noticed (which may entirely be a product of my delusional, word-addled mind) of series arcs, at least for ongoing urban fantasy novels like this series, really picking up in the fourth book. That is to say, the first three books of a series might be good, even amazing, but they are often very contained. They lay the groundwork for future books, but they haven’t yet established enough of the characters’ baseline behaviour to really show them growing, changing, and responding to threats from their past or threats newfound. By the time book four comes round, enough pages have elapsed to make this possible. Shearin capitalizes on this opportunity. This book is all about Ian, his past, and it is definitely game-changing for him and his role in SPI.
There are so many good additions to the series lore here!
Vampires do not play a prominent role in the story per se, but they are on the periphery of everything, and Shearin gives us more information on how vampirism works in this world. The exposition is interesting but never overdone—it all relates the main plot. Moreover, Alain Moreau has a bigger role in this book, because he is subbing for Vivienne Sagadraco while she takes a vacation. I liked Moreau from previous books, but his smaller parts made it harder for me to get a read on him. He comes off as much more personable, less “creepy hypnotic vampire lawyer/line manager” than he has previously. Mac even gets to see him in jeans at one point!
With Ian out of commission for large swathes of the book, Mac’s dynamic changes significantly as well. The Ghoul Vendetta is much less about her and her powers/role as a seer. I like how Shearin puts Mac in physically dangerous situations and portrays her has a competent but not overly skilled fighter. Mac certainly seems to have more to do in this book, and although she isn’t necessarily the one who directly initiates something, she tends to be the driving force and instigator in most of the plot developments. Ian’s vulnerability here offers opportunities to affirm their mutual respect and trust for one another as partners.
The antagonists are also quite different from your average monster in an urban fantasy book. Shearin has really dug deep into a less popularly used mythology for some inspiration here, and it works extremely well. I love the way she presents the threat of these monsters: they are simultaneously brutish and overwhelming in their power yet constrained and cunning thanks to their leader (the face-shifting ghoul with a vendetta against Ian). They are also very different from the threats that SPI has dealt with up until this point. However, sometimes the “mystery” element felt flat. So many of the developments come from Ian and his investigation into his past. There are a few dead bodies, but there isn’t quite the same frenetic energy that the previous books have had with Mac and Ian racing around New York trying to stop the baddie. Even the field trip out to Bannerman’s Castle is relatively sedate.
Fortunately, the climax is pretty rewarding. Lots of fighting, an aerial sequence, and plenty of grandstanding from the villain—you know, the usual. I’m very pleased with the resolution and the way that Shearin deals with the immediate threat while letting other threads hang loose, ready to be picked up in later books. She could easily have had Ian just wipe away all the opposition with super-godlike powers or something, but her solution is much more nuanced. The book ends on a somewhat humorous note, reminding us that what might seem strange to mundanes like ourselves is actually just another day at the office for SPI agents. So it goes.
I apologize if this review is a bit vague; I wanted to avoid spoilers so that you can enjoy it as fresh as possible. The Ghoul Vendetta is exactly what I was hoping for from the next SPI Files book. I mean, at this point, I’d pretty much subscribe to Shearin’s series if that were an option.
Who doesn’t like a good controversy in their popular science books? What’s a philosophical theory about the nature of the universe if it doesn’t rufflWho doesn’t like a good controversy in their popular science books? What’s a philosophical theory about the nature of the universe if it doesn’t ruffle some feathers? No one wants to write a book and then have everyone turn around and shrug at you. That doesn’t sell! So it’s not really surprising that Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality is a controversial book by a somewhat controversial physicist. I received this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and that was the first I’ve heard of Max Tegmark. Since then he has popped up a few times here or there, and now I’ve finally made time to read this long and detailed treatise on the current state of physics and Tegmark’s personal conception of, well, reality.
I don’t actually find it all that controversial, per se—though I should clarify that I’m a mathematician by training, and not a physicist, so maybe the way Tegmark presents these ideas is more insulting or seems more radical when one is a physicist. That being said, I’m also not saying I agree with Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH), because, despite probably being a mathematical realist, Platonism itself strangely makes me uncomfortable….
Oh boy, I think I’ve already used too many strange terms! This review is probably going to get pretty heady and philosophical at some point, much like Our Mathematical Universe does. So let me spend the first part here just discussing the book, its structure and writing, etc., in a more general way, to give you an idea of whether or not it is of interest to you before you read my whole review. I’ll get to my thoughts about Tegmark’s specific claims later.
Firstly, regardless of any reservations I might have, I still recommend this book. This is a really well-written and approachable popular science work. Tegmark’s style is really accessible—despite going heavy on scientific and mathematical terminology, he is careful to proceed in a systematic way. This is not a book you want to be reading just before bed, maybe, or during a busy commute—it took me pretty much a week, albeit a busy week, to work my way through it. Nevertheless, I think it is a worthwhile use of one’s time.
Tegmark first impressed me with a table at the end of Chapter 1 called “How to read this book”. He lists every chapter of the book, along with three columns: Science-curious reader, hard-core reader of popular science, and physicist. Each column lists the chapters that reader would be best to read/skip—i.e., the science-curious reader should read the entire book; the hard-core reader can skip several of the earlier chapters because they presumably will have seen these explanations before; and the physicist can skip all but the controversial chapters (Tegmark also labels each chapter as “mainstream”, “controversial”, or “extremely controversial”). I love this approach and hope more popular science authors use it. Now, I, of course, ignored these suggestions and read the whole book anyway, because I wanted to see how Tegmark explained the Big Bang, inflation, etc. Yet I confess I skimmed some parts and felt better about it because I knew it was sanctioned.
One reason I’ll recommend this book is simply because Tegmark’s explanations for the origins of our universe, as currently understood by “mainstream” cosmology, are really lucid. He clarified several aspects of the Big Bang and inflation that, until now, I not only did not understand but didn’t realize I didn’t understand. He didn’t just improve my comprehension: he actually showed me parts of my comprehension of these theories that were inaccurate. I am not a physicist by training by any stretch of the imagination (I only took physics up to Grade 12 in high school, and they don’t even get into relativity by then, let alone QM); all of this knowledge is entirely autodidactic, and hence it isn’t surprising a lot if it is inaccurately understood. But I think I’ve plateaued a lot lately because I was having trouble finding explanations that were calibrated for my knowledge level: either the explanations get too technical and lose me, or else I just end up reading the same ground-floor “hey have you heard of this thing called the double-slit experiment?” stories over and over again, which isn’t fun either.
In particular, I really enjoyed Chapter 5, in which Tegmark explains inflation and why it is necessary to account for problems with the Big Bang theory. The idea of the Big Bang itself is now probably within the realm of general public knowledge, assuming a half-decent education (and regardless of whether one “accepts” the theory or prefers creationist nonsense). Yet there are probably as many misconceptions about this theory as there are explanations of it in popular science books, and once any two non-cosmologists start talking about it, we inevitably run into quasi-philosophical walls. Tegmark very clearly presents what the theory actually says; why it is compelling given the evidence; the problems with the theory without inflation and why inflation itself solves those problems.
Tegmark refers a lot to data gathered by several satellites and ground-based microwave telescopes that have observed the Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation (CBMR). He himself worked quite a bit on many of these projects, or with the data from these projects, to help sharpen and analyze this evidence. And this is another reason I enjoyed and recommend Our Mathematical Universe: Tegmark provides a great perspective on how science is done. From conferences to international projects poring over satellite data to writing and publishing papers, Tegmark shows us the act of physics research as much as the end result. He shows us how individual physicists’ opinions of theories will evolve over time. He shows us how people have different specializations, which in turn lead to different predilections and levels of knowledge about parts of physics. It’s really fascinating, and it’s an aspect to the discourse around science that I wish more media would cover.
So the first 6 or 7 chapters of this book are excellent, and I recommend reading at least those. After Chapter 8, Tegmark introduces the more “controversial” content. As I said above, I don’t see it as controversial so much as a bundle of claims that are either uninteresting because they are obvious or unappealing because they are largely unintelligible. Now we arrive at the part of the review that gets technical.
Let me refer you to Scott Aaronson’s review. He is a computer scientist and much more well-versed in this stuff than I am, so his review goes into more depth behind the mathematical/physics claims that Tegmark makes. I found myself largely nodding along and agreeing with most of Aaronson’s opinions there.
You might think that I, as a mathematically-inclined person, might seize upon the idea presented here. Tegmark’s MUH says not only that we can describe the universe using mathematics (a notion almost axiomatic to our physics) but that all of our physical reality itself is literally mathematical. That is, our entire subjective human experiences are simply the consequence of certain facets of a certain mathematical structure within a superset of structures, the entirety of which comprise the Level IV multiverse, i.e., the sum total of all existence and anything that could ever possibly exist.
It’s tempting. And yet….
Years ago I read The Grand Design. This was back in my university days, mind, when I was high on philosophy classes of all kinds and armed much more to purpose for these kinds of throw-downs. Nowadays, my memory of the differences between ontological and epistemological arguments requiring jogging from Wikipedia, I’m not so sure I’m up to the task. Yet one idea has stayed with me from Hawking and Mlodinow’s book: that of model-dependent realism. They proposed that the reason we are having so much trouble finding a “theory of everything” to unify the physics of the big (relativity) and the physics of the small (QM) is because no such theory exists. Rather, different theories are required depending on the situation one is trying to model. It is an intriguing idea, one I hadn’t really encountered in a science book before. And I really liked how it short-circuited many anti-realist objections to scientific realism.
Tegmark appears to move in the opposite direction. He backs the ToE horse (which is fine) by insisting that the ToE is reality. And then he kind of dodges the question of whether that means we will ever actually find a ToE (because if we did, wouldn’t that mean we just have … reality?).
That’s what I mean about the MUH being uninteresting and unintelligible. He starts off by talking about how the movement of time is an illusion, all very much standard stuff depending on how you define spacetime, etc. Yawn. When we get into the more “controversial” material, his argument just sort of breaks down. He starts making a whole bunch of probabilistic paradox arguments, like quantum suicide, the doomsday argument, etc.—the kind of thought experiments that are fun to put into a first-year philosophy textbook but that have little connection to, you know, reality. These thought experiments rely explicitly on making assumptions to make up for our near-total lack of knowledge about a situation. The whole point is that, as we acquire more certain knowledge, we are in a better position to see if we are indeed a representative sample or if, perhaps however improbably, we are not.
Tegmark’s MUH is also, despite his claims to the contrary, completely untestable/unfalsifiable. He insists that we will uncover evidence and create theories which logically imply the MUH, and that’s just silly. The MUH is untestable because we currently have no alternative to mathematics as a way of describing physical theories of reality. It is unfalsifiable, because even if we can get past the testing problem, how will we know if we’ve discovered a physical law or property that violates the MUH? Almost by definition, the MUH can take nearly any observational evidence and somehow fit into its framework. Tegmark claims that if the MUH is false, then we will one day run up against an insurmountable “wall” in physics beyond which our knowledge of reality can progress no further, since our mathematics will no longer be able to express reality. I disagree. I think model-dependent realism would be an effective way to counteract such a wall: maybe to progress, all we need do is abandon the search for a ToE and instead create theories of everything.
The last half of Our Mathematical Universe is a wild ride of philosophy of mathematics and science. I loved reading it. I found parts of it very convincing, but I don’t think those parts (combined with the other parts) necessarily add up to the whole that Tegmark calls the Level IV multiverse, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. I think he is incredibly enthusiastic about this idea and has clearly spent a lot of time thinking on it—which is great. I loved that I got a chance to read it. But I don’t think his arguments are as sound as he thinks they are. I say this not from a physicist’s position (because I’m not one) nor even a mathematician/logician (because, let’s face it, my memory of higher math dims with each passing day) but as the target demographic for this book, the hard-core popular science reader who is looking for a new hit to bring on that theoretical physics high. It’s a nice try, Tegmark, and you almost had me going.
My friend Julie’s review pretty much nails why #37: The Weakness is, coincidentally, so weak. I’m just going to pile on with a few more observations.
TMy friend Julie’s review pretty much nails why #37: The Weakness is, coincidentally, so weak. I’m just going to pile on with a few more observations.
This is Rachel’s chance to lead while Jake is away. She bungles it, but not as badly as the ghostwriter of this book (Elise Smith) bungles Rachel’s characterization. Her portrayal as an insecure megalomaniac gives me flashbacks, as it did Julie, to aggressive Rachel from #32: The Separation; Rachel’s whole narration just feels so off, such a caricature, that, plot holes aside, the entire book is just an uncomfortable reading experience. If this were a TV show, it would be as if Rachel’s normal actor were replaced by someone else, kind of how Dick York gets replaced by Dick Sargent in Bewitched and no one in the show acknowledges that Darrin is a completely different person (magic!).
Julie’s review goes on to critique the plot holes of this book with an unabashed and entirely justified rant. Reading this story is like reading someone’s really bad Animorph fanfic: all the characters are here; the essential story elements are here; but there are dumb contrivances and terrible story decisions. Why do the Garatrons need to physically resemble the Andalites if that is never relevant to the story (or subsequent stories) in any way? Is it just to drop in a mention of convergent evolution? And I agree that there is so much craziness happening in this book without any of it ever becoming an issue for the Animorphs. They trash a TV station, literally steal an airplane from a military base, and nothing bad comes of it. The level of action in this book is close to Megamorphs, Michael-Bay-style effects level—and it makes just as much sense as a Michael Bay film, i.e., zero.
It’s a shame, because The Weakness does have a few elements with potential. The whole “who would make a better leader” subplot does not interest me, mostly because it is something that this series has spent time on already. But this feels like a wasted opportunity to talk about strategy. Until now, the Animorphs have been very heavy on tactics: how they attack, when they attack, etc. Recent books have shifted this focus from tactics to strategy, with the Animorphs forced to temporarily work with Yeerks like Visser One in order to prevent a “worse” invasion of Earth. The question of whether or not the Animorphs are better off waging war against the Yeerks in secret or exposing them to prompt global resistance is a thorny one, and something that will come to the fore by the end of the series. The fraught, dangerous mission that the Animorphs undertake in this story, and the way they come up against the spectre of exposure, could have led to some interesting discussions among the team. Instead, we just get infighting. Because … conflict?
Every time I encounter a book like this, I have to remind myself that in 54 issues, they can’t all be winners. And young me probably didn’t mind as much. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out The Weakness as anything other than what it is: not just a hot mess, but a hot mess left behind by the guy who made you pay for the meal because he “forgot his wallet”.
Truthwitch was an essential palate cleanser. I needed something light, something that is not necessarily a romp but that would not allow me to get bogTruthwitch was an essential palate cleanser. I needed something light, something that is not necessarily a romp but that would not allow me to get bogged down. And that’s what this book is. Susan Dennard’s Witchlands remind me of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce saga and others of its ilk; by transitivity, they remind me of my younger days when I could curl up with a thick fantasy novel while it rains outside and just read the afternoon away. In many ways this is your typical Medieval European Fantasy story that could have been written any time in the last thirty years—except that instead of your standard, brooding young-to-middle-aged man, it has two stellar young women as its protagonists.
Safiya, the eponymous Truthwitch, is nobility but not all that interested in being noble. Her Threadsister—read, sidekick—Iseult is a Threadwich, and together they have the fighting training to kick all kinds of ass. We see this from the start, which opens in media res with Safi and Iseult fighting back-to-back while, presumably, cool electronic music plays in the background as they take down tens of well-trained redshirts. It’s the kind of well-choreographed John Woo style action you’d happily watch in a movie, and Dennard has a talent for putting it on the page without making it too confusing, especially to readers like myself who have trouble visualizing scenes. Also, the fact that Safi and Iseult are nascent con artists certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to endearing them to me. I love con artist characters.
The pacing of the book does not let up from that opening, and for the next three hundred pages our protagonists barely get time to breathe. Readers hoping for eye-blurring paragraphs of exposition will be disappointed, because Dennard often errs on the side of confusion for the sake of succinctness. Even with the handy map at the front of the book, I often found myself confused about which nation was which, who belonged or worked for which nation, and why I should care about these conflicts. Similarly, there are aspects of Truthwitch’s plot that are never well developed or dropped in out of left field—and not in a “ooh, what a delightful twist” sort of way. I’m thinking, namely, of Uncle Eron’s Xanatos gambit, or the identity of Aeduan’s father. In the case of the former, we never hear details about this plot to make us understand why Eron acts the way he does. In the case of the latter, the twist lacks much in the way of dramatic weight, because I neither know enough nor care enough about Aeduan’s father to be moved by the revelation.
Indeed, for all its impressive action sequences, Truthwitch has weird moments of telling when it could be showing. We’re told that Safi despises her uncle and really wants to escape from any association with him. But they are together so briefly on page we don’t really see this relationship. Same goes for Safi’s friendship with, say, Leopold. Minor characters to give us some sense of the main character’s background are great and all (I liked, for example, the way Dennard handles Iseult’s relationship with Gretchya and Alma), but when those characters stick around and figure in the larger plot, as Leopold does, I get the sense that I missed something.
Fortunately, Safi and Iseult’s friendship and the way this influences the plot makes up for a lot of these deficiencies. Safi is headstrong, impulsive, and needs Iseult to temper these qualities. In Safi, Iseult finds someone who supports her and stands with her against the discrimination she faces as a result of her ethnicity. Both are very strong characters, but their strengths work along complementary axes. As the title of the novel implies, Safi is the principal protagonist; for much of the novel, Iseult spends her time injured and in and out of consciousness. Nevertheless, I like how Dennard still develops Iseult as a character: we see tantalizing hints that her Threadwitch powers go deeper than they normally should. In fact, Iseult ends up in communication with a shady character, and this perhaps ends up endangering Safi and their other allies. So while Safi is facing external enemies, Iseult’s journal is slightly more personal and introspective.
I cannot stand the “romance” between Safi and Merik, if that’s what it is—belligerent sexual tension (TVTropes) is such a cliché, and Dennard brings nothing new to it here. I ship Safi and Iseult—platonically—instead. I will watch them stand back to back against haters and Bloodwitches and nincompoop Aetherwitches any day of the week!
Although Merik in general is not a great character for me, I have to concede one point: I did enjoy the shipboard scenes far more than I thought I would. Dennard doesn’t waste an opportunity to show us that Merik is, at heart, a sailor. He isn’t just some prince assigned command of a ship. He knows how sailing works; he knows the songs, the rhythm of the movement on the deck. When he issues orders and supervises movement, you really get the sense of the entire crew working as one to making the ship viable, and that’s not something I always feel when reading such scenes in other fantasy novels.
I’ll finish off with some remarks on the magic system in Witchlands. While the naming of the types of witches might be trite, I like the glimpses of codification Dennard provides in things like the tattoos on people’s hands to indicate their witchery and specializations, or the way Witchlands society has integrated certain magic into its practices, as is the case in the bewitched contracts. However, for such an intriguing system, I’d level the charge that it just isn’t used enough—at least, not in the case of Safiya! Being a Truthwitch is supposed to be a big deal, because she is so rare and valuable (or so we are told, again, rather than shown). Yet aside from an internal truth-o-meter pinging every time someone talks to her, we seldom see Safi actually exercise her truthiness powers in a meaningful or significant way. I think the most magic we see comes from Merik and Aeduan, neither of whom are the title characters of this book. And so that disappointed me a little.
You might wonder why, if I’m listing all these criticisms of Truthwitch, I’m claiming to have liked it so much. Because I did. Like it, that is. Indeed, I liked it so much I went out and bought Windwitch the day after finishing it (I thought I would need to pre-order Windwitch, but serendipity would have that it came out three days prior to me reading this one!). To be honest, the cover had a lot to do with that decision too. Normally I don’t remark much on the cover, good or bad—but isn’t this cover gorgeous? Scott Grimando depicts Safiya in an elegant power pose, with a great outfit that isn’t hypersexualized, cool swirly magic stuff around her, and I love the little detail of the sword crossing through the title like that. The Windwitch cover is just as nice, and I want to collect the whole series and have a matching set.
I guess I fall back on this idea that there is a big difference between a book’s quality and a reader’s enjoyment of that book. Truthwitch is a complex and messy book with so many moving parts that it’s fun to pick it apart on a structural level, just to see what makes it tick. Yet when you put those pieces back together and run the plot from start to finish, you end up with a story that, at least in my case, delivers exactly what is wanted: a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure with some great leads and action scenes. This is a summer blockbuster of fantasy novels: yeah, when you put the book down and look back on it, there are glaring problems—but in the moment of reading, there is nowhere else you would rather be and nothing else you could possibly need.
I might need to stop requesting non-fiction books from NetGalley, because it seems like I haven’t been very successful with them. In this case I don’tI might need to stop requesting non-fiction books from NetGalley, because it seems like I haven’t been very successful with them. In this case I don’t know if I just didn’t read the description properly or didn’t understand it, but I thought Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are was by a trans author and comprised longer-form interviews with transgender people. Instead, this inaccurately titled book is by a cisgender gay man who intersperses his medicalized, somewhat discomforting commentary with cherry-picked excerpts from interviews he conducted with trans people. (Also, the description itself is terrible and even worse than the book is.)
Trigger warning for possibly transphobic, medicalized language quoted in this review.
The structure of this book is great; Declan Henry doesn’t just address binary transgender people but specifically devotes a chapter to nonbinary people as well. He highlights issues of discrimination against transgender people, both overt—anything from slurs to physical and emotional violence—and more subtle—such as the way many countries do not fund/subsidize hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery. And throughout the book, Henry makes it clear that the trans community is not monolithic:
There is no single authentic expression of trans identity. Trans people have a wide diversity of appearances, personal characteristics, interests, experiences and viewpoints…. There are many degrees of transition and options available to trans people…. Surgical status is not a reliable indicator as to how a person identifies…. Trans people have many different opinions about terminology, with some preferring medicalised terms and others preferring community terms.
So, basically Henry is saying that different people prefer different labels; different people have differing opinions on how they want to perform their gender and how or whether they want to make a physical transition. This is all well and good, and it is a promising beginning to the book. I don’t have much doubt that Henry’s intentions are good here, that he just wants to share trans perspectives with others. But I don’t review a book on intentions. I review a book based on what I read and how it makes me feel, and Trans Voices made me (a cisgender man, for what it’s worth) very uncomfortable with Henry’s appropriation of trans voices.
I call it appropriation because instead of letting transgender people tell their story, he embeds quotations from interviews within a framework of his making. Some of these are mere paragraphs, a little bit of “authentic trans flavour” to whatever he has chosen to say at that point. Admittedly, others are longer (my electronic Kindle copy doesn’t do a great job of differentiating between quoted material and Henry’s words, with multi-paragraph quotes not having a quotation mark at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph like they should, and no other visual indicator) and hint at more developed narratives. Again, however, these “voices” are only used in service to Henry’s thesis, rather than the other way around. Hence, rather than a strong euphony of diverse trans experiences, we get a watered-down, overly academic and medically-fixated look at transgender-related phenomena through the eyes of Declan Henry.
As I mentioned earlier, Henry points out that surgery is not the be-all-end-all goal or metre-stick for understanding transition. Yet he certainly spends a lot of time talking about the details:
For trans women, the most commonly undergone genital surgery is vaginoplasty…. However there are also other vaginoplasty techniques, using different tissues, and also some trans women may decide to undergo orchidectomy without any vaginoplasty. As previously mentioned, some trans women do not undergo any genital surgery as they feel either it’s not appropriate or necessary for them to express their identity, or they are fearful of surgical experiences, or there are health reasons.
Trans people assigned female at birth may wear chest binders whilst awaiting chest surgery. The binders are sometimes tight and often result in tissue damage, as well as chest infections because they make breathing shallower.
These types of sentences are the rule rather than exception. This is what made me so uncomfortable with this book. This language is so clinical; it feels invasive, and it makes me feel like a voyeur. I know we aren’t talking about any one specific person here, and certainly, as a cisgender person, I could benefit to understand the surgeries that trans people might have or the other techniques they use to express their identity. But if I’m going to learn about these things, I’m better off hearing it from an actual trans person who isn’t going to reduce it to a matter of meat.
It’s just so dehumanizing. And in a book proposing to give a voice to trans people, of all things. Remember, Henry is writing this as a gay man who feels that it’s his responsibility to educate people about the misrepresented, unknown trans community. How would he feel if a straight person decided to write a book called Gay Voices like this one, and started talking in clinical detail about how gay men have sexual intercourse? That would be just as inappropriate as this book. (It probably exists, come to think of it.)
Also, what’s up with that cover?! I normally don’t care much about covers, but I don’t know what the artist/marketing people were thinking here. That the person appears androgynous I understand, but monochromatic with that splash of colour? Is that supposed to be symbolic for this book “shedding light” on the hidden stories of trans people? Then that positioning of the title so it covers the person’s mouth, figuratively saying, “Don’t worry, poor trans person! I, Declan Henry, will speak for you and give you a voice!”
I am reminded of the way settlers co-opt and colonize Indigenous issues all the while claiming to give Indigenous people a voice. At the time of writing this review, CanLit is embroiled in something of a controversy over Joseph Boyden. For a while, many Indigenous people have been questioning his claims of Indigenous heritage and pointing out inconsistencies in how he represents himself, and this news is finally bubbling to the surface of the mainstream press and wider Canadian consciousness (including my own). One of the reasons this is so upsetting, as far as I understand it, is because Boyden has been profiting off assuming a role that is not his; at the same time, he provides sanitized picture of Indigenous cultures and issues that cleaves to what settlers would like to see.
Henry would have you believe that transgender people do not have much of a voice, and so it is necessary for outsiders to step into their community, interview them, and talk over them. Henry, unlike Boyden, is at least clear about his identity. But by speaking over trans people, he is erasing them, exactly counter to his stated objective. Trans Voices ignores the fact that trans people already have a voice, have multiple voices, and they have been talking and shouting and making media about their experiences long before this book was a gleam in Henry’s eye.
I think the most dangerous thing about Trans Voices is that, on the surface, it seems so good. Like I said at the top of this review, I didn’t pay enough attention and thought this would be a very different book. I can only imagine that many cis people are going to pick this up, read it, and think they somehow “understand” trans people better now—or worse, they’ll start transplaining to trans people using the medical terminology they’ve gleaned from this. Reading a book about a marginalized community of which you are not a member does not suddenly give you the ability to speak for them, or of them, or about them. By this token, I can’t stand up and yell about how this book should anger trans people—that’s not my call to make. (At least two trans people, judging from the foreword and afterword, liked this book. That is their prerogative.) I’m yelling about how this book angers me and, as a cisgender person, I’m telling my fellow cis people not to read it.
Go read an #ownvoices book instead. By the time you’re reading this I’m going to have read If I Was Your Girl, so check back for my review of that. Also, Here We Are, which is out January 24, features some trans writers as well; I can’t recommend it enough.
I am officially whelmed by this book. Exoveterinary studies sounds like a cool field, and all the strange animal descriptions reminded me of AnimorphsI am officially whelmed by this book. Exoveterinary studies sounds like a cool field, and all the strange animal descriptions reminded me of Animorphs, which I guess is always a good thing. Zenn Scarlett is a very whelming book, however: it is competent in every technical respect, but it does not inspire me or grab me. Christian Schoon’s imagination is rich, but his rendering of it on the page leaves something to be desired.
Our eponymous heroine is taking the tests needed to become an exovet novice. For some reason, exoveterinarianism is a monastic kind of thing. She lives on Mars, at the cloister run by her uncle, and is pretty good with the animals. Too good, in fact—she has some kind of psychic rapport with them, except that should be impossible, because psychic stuff is fake. Oh, and mysterious sabotage keeps occurring, and Zenn keeps getting the blame. So we have all the ingredients for a good mystery, for something that would keep me engaged. I was ready for Zenn to get mixed up in some high-stakes, pulse-pounding action.
What we get instead is … hmm. I’m not sure if it’s just that this book aims at a younger target audience than I was expecting, or if it just doesn’t pitch its tone quite right, but Zenn Scarlett reads like an after-school TV show. The villains are all a little over the top. The conflicts are all very mundane. Most of this story is just small town shenanigans transplanted to Mars. Replace “aliens” with “outsiders” and the townies become your standard closed-minded rural folk who don’t want to see the city slickers around. The plot progression is eminently predictable—like, I had most of the plot figured out after the first few chapters, and even with the few twists that Schoon threw in here or there, none of it was very surprising. Zenn is the Encyclopedia Brown of exovet stories.
Unfortunately, the novelty that might be acquired from having a setting on Mars is belied by the utter waste of such an amazing planet. For the longest time, I was trying to figure out how everyone was living there—were they in domes, had the planet been terraformed? I was worried Schoon had just overlooked that one small niggling detail. To his credit, he eventually tosses in an explanation that some kind of force-field is keeping the atmosphere “pressurized” up to a certain altitude. (No mention of where the nitrogen/oxygen ratio required for human life is coming from.) Still, Mars is a special place. I kind of feel like you don’t use it in your science fiction unless you’re willing to deal with it in the right way, willing to accord it that gravitas it demands as our closest planet and most likely candidate for colonization. The way Schoon describes living on Mars, however, it might as well be any extraterrestrial planet. This is a waste of the Red Planet!
If these aspects of the story underwhelm, there are some redeeming moments that bump the book back up into whelming territory. There is some cool technology at work here to work with these large animals. The “in soma” pods and the regeneration tool (I can’t be bothered to find its name) are neat ideas. Similarly, Zenn herself is not a terrible protagonist, though I do find her a rather flat character. The cliffhanger at the end of the novel (yes, this is merely a set up for a larger story, surprise surprise) is genuinely interesting—though, again, I think I’ve kind of got it mostly figured out already.
If you are trapped in an airport, or at an insufferable relative’s house, or you’re waiting for the rain to stop before you dig up that body, this is a perfectly pleasant book to pick up and pass the time. The story is OK, the characters are OK, and the writing is … yeah, OK. And that is OK, I guess. But that’s about all I can say.
If you have read any Samuel R. Delany, you know he is a complex dude, and even his simplest stories are complex in some way. Tales of Nevèrÿon is no eIf you have read any Samuel R. Delany, you know he is a complex dude, and even his simplest stories are complex in some way. Tales of Nevèrÿon is no exception. Largely branded sword-and-sorcery, it’s actually an attempt to deconstruct this subgenre and provide commentary on the relationship between capitalism and slavery. And, for bonus points, if you read closely enough you start to see patterns and echoes from some of his other work, including Triton and Dhalgren.
I picked up what appear to be first editions, or near enough, of the first three Return to Nevèrÿon books from my used bookstore a year or so ago. This version of Tales of Nevèrÿon lacks the preface by Delany’s fictional K. Leslie Steiner, though I do get the afterword, “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S. L. Kermit” (love the play with the initials there). Apparently later editions/printings have corrected errors? So there’s that. But I love collecting old, used editions of classic SF&F like this, so I will suffer in satisfaction.
Longtime readers of my reviews will know I’m never quite satisfied by short story collections. That being said, Tales of Nevèrÿon fits into the loophole of one story deliberately structured as a series of related shorts. Indeed, the stories in this collection are even more related than most. Characters and settings overlap, with characters from one story reappearing, often older (but not necessarily wiser) and in different capacities than they once did. Each story tends to focus on a particular theme, which Delany might then rebut or reinforce in later stories. Overall, the stories form a kind of tapestry of tales that provide us with an understanding of Nevèrÿon, its cultures, and the changes underway in this empire.
This might be one of those rare situations where briefly looking at each story would genuinely be helpful!
“The Tale of Gorgik” is the first and pivotal story, since Gorgik goes on to play important roles in most of the subsequent stories (and, I am given to understand, later books in the series). Gorgik is a light-skinned man in a land ruled by darker-skinned people. He becomes a slave and works in the mines until a high-ranking government bureaucrat pulls him up out of that position to use as her sex buddy. He lives on her sufferance at the imperial residence for a while, then she gives him an army commission and sends him packing. Eventually, Gorgik strikes off on his own, becoming a kind of adventurer. Yet his experiences have left him with a taste for freedom and a distaste for slavery, and we’ll see that later. All in all, “The Tale of Gorgik” is mostly a reflection on how one’s fortunes are often out of one’s control and depend upon the will and power of other players.
“The Tale of Old Venn” takes us across the land to an archipelago off the coast of Nevèrÿon proper. The peoples of these islands trade with Nevèrÿon but otherwise exist outside its influence. That is changing, however, because money is making its way through the land. Although comprising several stories told by the eponymous Venn, the protagonist of the frame story is actually Norema, who will later emigrate to Nevèrÿon and one day meet Gorgik. Through Venn’s stories, Norema is exposed to the potential problems with the introduction of money, as well as different ideas about gender roles. This story might be one of the most confusing to follow, simply owing to its structure.
“The Tale of Small Sarg” concerns a young man, little more than a boy, who is kidnapped from his people and sold into slavery (are you sensing a theme yet?). Sarg was revered as a prince among his people, which seems to mean he wasn’t responsible for doing all that much, because in his society women had most of the responsibility. As a slave, Sarg gets sold to Gorgik. The relationship between these two forms the core of this story, as they navigate complicated matters of sexuality, kink, and the power dynamics of master/slave—which might not be what you would expect, not that I want to spoil it. Basically, if you are familiar with Delany you shouldn’t be surprised that so many of his characters are super queer, and this is book no exception. This story advances Gorgik’s character development, setting him on the path on which we encounter him in subsequent books.
“The Tale of Potters and Dragons” returns once more to this idea that money could be a saviour of society or the root of all evil. A potter educates his apprentice in the virtues of money before sending him to conclude a business deal. On the voyage, the apprentice meets Norema, also dispatched by her mistress to secure the same contract he is after. Unfortunately for both, they never reach their destination, falling victim instead to a much more massive and older deception. Norema meets Raven, a woman from the matriarchal society of the Western Crevasse, who tells her a very detailed myth about the creation of women (and then ’men). I really like this story for its plot, the craftiness of some of the characters we never meet, and because I get to see Norema again!
“The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” brings together Norema and Raven with Gorgik and Sarg. The best way I can describe this is that Sarg basically yells, “RAMPAGE!” and runs into a castle and kills as many guards as possible, kind of like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The scenes are literally kind of cinematic in that way. But anyway, this is the story that sees the culmination of the narratives on slavery, power, and economic revolutions. It’s a short but powerful tale amplified by the reader’s awareness of the previous narratives.
Lastly, we have “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three”. This is where I’ll state the controversial opinion that you could, indeed, just skip this entire part if you wanted. I think it’s possible to enjoy Tales of Nevèrÿon on the strength of the stories alone without worrying too much about what Delany is doing here. However, if you’re into considering the deeper implications of Delany’s work, then it is worthwhile reading and trying to parse this last entry. This is “part three” of these informal remarks; the first two are in Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (the main story is “part one” and an appendix to that story is “part two”).
So Delany is trying to link his works, trying to create a common thread throughout them. I don’t have the energy or memory to really compare Triton with these stories. But I can see some similarities between Dhalgren and these stories. In both cases, Delany makes much of the deconstruction and semiotic analysis as pioneered by Derrida. Language and symbols have huge significance in Tales of Nevèrÿon: in “The Tale of Gorgik”, Curly lectures Gorgik over the depth and significance of the few words the Child Empress utters to him; in “The Tale of Old Venn”, the rult that Venn describes from her time among the Rulvyn is a potent symbol, and this story also examines the utility of writing; in “The Tale of Small Sarg”, the slave collar that Sarg wears plays an important role in the relationship between Sarg and Gorgik beyond denotation of who is the slave … and so on.
And so, this is how Tales of Nevèrÿon transcends the sword and sorcery genre from which it takes its setting and inspiration. Delany transforms the setting into a meditation on the shape and scope of language, of writing, of money—the intersection of language and economics. It’s a slim volume that should not be underestimated; it reminds me a lot of the anthropological science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know if this is a good entry point to Delany’s writing, but I’d also argue it isn’t a bad one.
Is there a name for the situation where you keep thinking you like a certain genre, but you’re almost unfailingly critical of every book in that genreIs there a name for the situation where you keep thinking you like a certain genre, but you’re almost unfailingly critical of every book in that genre you read? That’s me and the superhero novel. I want to like superhero novels, desperately. Superheroes fascinate me. But most superhero novels I’ve read don’t quite capture whatever ineffable quality of superheroics that I’m looking for. (To be fair, I also don’t read superhero comics or watch much superhero television/movies, Supergirl aside, so maybe I’m just delusional.) So I end up reading superhero novels and then feeling let down, and it’s not entirely the fault of those books.
Turns out that Dreadnought, by April Daniels, is the superhero novel I’ve been waiting for.
Small disclaimer the first: I applied and was approved for this book through NetGalley, but by the time the approval came through my pre-order copy of the book showed up, so I read the hard copy anyway. If you would like to send me free copies of books I’ve pre-ordered in time for me to read the physical copy anyway, hit me with up with a private message. I swear, one day I’ll figure out how to NetGalley properly.
Small disclaimer the second: I am cisgender, so my opinions are biased from that perspective. Here are some reviews by trans, non-binary, and multigender writers for your consideration: Nicole Field, Polenth Blake, Cheryl Morgan, Morgan Doherty, and Avery (thanks to this blog post for the heads up). They’ve given me some good food-for-thought regarding the explanations behind Danny’s transformation, and some problematic ableist moments, but have also reaffirmed my conclusion that this is a kickass superhero novel with a fantastic sense of humour.
So Danny Tozer is a transgender girl who is hiding her identity from her family (and everyone else), barely surviving by expressing herself by painting her toenails in secret. Dreadnought, arguably the world’s most powerful superhero—superheroes are just a thing in this universe—dies in front of her, and she inherits his “mantle” of powers. In addition to giving Danny superpowers, the mantle also transforms her body so that it matches her internal gender identity. You can imagine that her family isn’t too thrilled about this, and while Danny is ecstatic by the change, it has numerous consequences she spends the rest of the novel learning to deal with.
I was looking forward to Dreadnought just from the description (which is what motivated me to pre-order the book just after finding out about it). I didn’t expect it to be so funny. It’s Daniels’ humour that first made me suspect I’d be giving this book five stars:
“Shove that up your butt.”
“It’s for science.”
“You are going to buy me pizza.”
“A lot of pizza.”
I don’t visualize things when I read, right? So long, florid descriptions of characters and scenes and battle sequences leave little impression on me. But snappy dialogue between Danny and Doc Impossible? Yes, please! I’ll take me some more of that.
The thing is, this humour is a necessary tonic to what might otherwise be interpreted as an often bleak, very difficult read for someone who has gone through experiences similar to Danny’s. On the one hand, you have Doc Impossible, who is supportive and intersectional as shit:
“I guess I just thought I was finally a real girl.”
“Hey! None of that!” She takes me by the shoulders. “You think it’s a uterus that makes a woman? Bullshit. You feel like you’re a girl, you live it, it’s part of you? Then you’re a girl. That’s the end of it, no quibbling. You’re as real a girl as anyone. An you really need to learn to express your anger better.”
On the other hand, there are numerous characters who represent that difficulty of existing as an openly trans person, even one who has superpowers. Danny constantly gets misgendered, from her family to her best friend to another superhero, Graywytch, who is a strident TERF from the get-go. Dreadnought comes about as close as I can possibly get to understanding how the constant microagression of misgendering can be wearing and debilitating for someone. And Daniels makes it clear that even though Danny lucked out and side-stepped the whole transition quandary and now also has superpowers, none of this solves the institutional transphobia of our society.
Indeed, Daniels portrays the whole “teenager suddenly finds herself with near-invincible superpowers” extremely … well, realistic is not the correct word—believably, I guess? In the world of Dreadnought, people with powers (metahumans, is the term) are actually fairly common, though only a small proportion of them have the juice and desire to become “capes”. Inheriting the Dreadnought mantle pretty much guarantees Danny a spot at the cape table—when she turns eighteen. Until then, she gets stuck in the kiddie zone—and she does not like that at all. So after being told not to go caping on the side, you better believe that’s exactly what she does. Teenagers, eh?
There are times when I groaned a little at the way Danny and Sarah handled their independent little investigation. Sometimes it seems like they make choices simply because it is better for the plot that way. Still, I very much enjoyed the relationship between Danny and Sarah. I can appreciate how Daniels characterizes Danny not just as trans but a lesbian, and that her feelings for Sarah are a complicated mixture of admiration, awe, and attraction—but I’m also glad that Daniels resists the urge to make this anywhere near a straightforward romance. Danny has enough going as it is to mix love into the equation.
Danny and Sarah are great, though. I love the backstory Daniels gives Sarah, and that Sarah (who is Black) calls Danny out on her white privilege even while being supportive of her trans identity. Sarah provides essential emotional support, rooting for Danny to take on the name as well as the mantle of Dreadnought—but she is also hotheaded, impulsive, too quick to action; Danny offers a great, more contemplative counterbalance. This dynamic works really well, and I can’t wait to see what happens with them in the next book.
Really, the relationships between Danny and most of the characters in this book are just so good. Take her parents, for instance. In addition to being transphobic, Danny’s father is just outright abusive. He promotes an unrealistic standard of macho/hyper-masculinity that Danny can’t conform to, even if she were a boy. Transgender issues aside, this is a household that is not a safe or nurturing environment for any kid. And Danny’s mom, while much less overt, is not any more supportive. I hit page 187, and my heart pretty much broke:
Mom leans back in her chair. "It wasn't so bad, was it? You were growing up so well."
"It was torture! You know what I was doing when Dreadnought--when that supervillain attacked me?" I don't believe it. It's like she's wilfully misunderstanding it. They never take my word for it; why can't they take my word for it? "I was painting my toenails behind the mall because that's the only way I could keep sane. Does that seem normal to you, Mom? Does that seem healthy?"
"I just ... I don't see you as a girl," she says. "Even now, even looking like that. You were going to be such a fine young--"
"I was going to die." The pencil snaps between my fingers, one end cartwheeling off across the table and onto the floor. "And I am a girl. Even if you don't see it."
There is so much to unpack here. The pain, and the anger, and the way once again Danny has to restrain herself from letting it break to the surface now that she has so much strength. This exchange really drives home something we cisgender people often forget about the experience of being transgender, namely, that the constant misgendering, erasure, and transphobia is literally killing transgender people. Moreover, this quote, and similar moments throughout the book, drive home the self-doubt and misplaced guilt that Danny herself feels about her gender identity. She has internalized a lot of her parents’ disappointment in her gender expression, and while she has no intention of reversing what the Dreadnought mantle has wrought, it doesn’t change her lived experience. I know that some people, both trans and cis, have pointed out the handwaving convenience of Danny’s transition into literally a Superhot Superwoman, and they have a point. That being said, Daniels doesn’t miss a chance to remind us that this doesn’t magically take away Danny’s pain.
So far I’ve just been talking about the characters in this book and not so much about the superhero plot. Keep in mind that Dreadnought is less than 300 pages—there is a lot of character development going on here for a slim book!
The superhero story is no less impressive than the characterization. As I alluded to above, Danny strikes out on her own while mulling over how much of a superhero she actually wants to be, and whether she can affiliate herself with the Legion Pacifica when they talk down to her and host a TERF. She and Sarah go after Utopia, murderer of the previous Dreadnought, together. The way Daniels works this plot in parallel to Danny’s adjustment to her changes in her plainclothes life is quite deft. There’s some good investigation here, combined with plenty of action. Daniels is careful not to make Danny too overpowered, and I love the descriptions of how Danny sees/uses Dreadnought’s abilities. The disagreements that Danny and Sarah have regarding the best ways to proceed are nice philosophical diversions, too.
And then we hit the climax, and the rest of this book is just explosive.
Danny takes on some challenging bad guys and engages in her first real, big Dreadnought-level challenge. And then she goes to the Legion Tower, and without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Daniels manages to utterly devastate us. I kind of predicted a few of the twists, thanks I’ll say to foreshadowing much earlier in the book, but some of them were new. And the level of … carnage … is impressive. If you’re thinking about reading this book but are holding off only because you want to know if it contains a nail-biting, race-against-the-clock, down-to-the-wire finale … then yes, yes it does.
So buckle up, because this book starts off strong and just keeps getting better. Seriously, after the intense climax, the last two pages still manage to beat that for pure emotional drama. Let’s just say that Danny pulls a Tony Stark in Iron Man, and it’s more of a Crowning Moment of Awesome than anything else she does in this entire book—and that includes saving an airplane single-handedly or, you know, saving the whole world from a cyborg supervillain with delusions of godhead.
Dreadnought is a debut novel. It’s not perfect. But it’s finally a superhero novel I can not only enjoy but adore. My major criticism is that it is too short, and that having read it so soon after its release I now have to wait far too long to read the sequel. I can’t wait to learn what Daniels has next in store for Danny, Sarah, the Doc, et al, both in terms of the threat of Nemesis and Danny’s newfound fame. Because this is not just a positive portrayal of a transgender lesbian superhero who saves the world, but it’s just the beginning. And I can only hope there are teens out there who read this and see that they, too, can be heroes.
Last year I picked up my first Holly Bourne book with Am I Normal Yet?. I had been hearing so much about Bourne and her Spinster Club trilogy from pLast year I picked up my first Holly Bourne book with Am I Normal Yet?. I had been hearing so much about Bourne and her Spinster Club trilogy from people I follow on Twitter and YouTube that I ordered all of her books—yes, all of them—on faith. I deliberately deferred her debut, Soulmates. Not only did I want to see what all the fuss around the Spinster Club was about, but I know that debut novels are often not representative of an author’s full talents. Nevertheless, I still wanted to tackle Soulmates before getting too deep into the rest of Bourne’s back catalogue, so this was the first book I started in 2017. It proved a good choice.
If you can’t guess what this book is about from its title, you’re trying to be too clever. It’s exactly what the title promises. Poppy Lawson is seventeen years old, and she thinks boys her age are stupid. Then she meets Noah, a “fit guitarist” and troubled child, and their connection is electric and panic-inducing. As Poppy and Noah circle one another and start dating, we learn that their status as soulmates is literally an existential crisis—that there is an entire secret society devoted to stopping soulmates from getting together, because natural disasters are the result. If Poppy and Noah don’t want to cause untold death and destruction, they can never be together. What’s a girl gotta—wait, sorry, wrong book….
Soulmates is strange fare. It walks that line between being science fiction and not, never quite deciding how far it wants go towards the tropes of that genre. It takes a very long time for the soulmate police subplot to intersect with the main narrative. Until about the last 50 pages of the book, one could theoretically excise the italicized scenes between the members of the soulmate police, remove this entire subplot, and the book could just be about a particularly charged romance between two teenagers. The weird weather would just be a footnote. And to be honest, I kind of did this, mentally, because Dr. Beaumont was the least satisfactory character for me. Everything from the descriptions of her to her behaviour felt quite one-dimensional.
In contrast, the main characters of Soulmates have the three-dimensional and vibrant personalities I would expect, having enjoyed Am I Normal Yet?’s dynamic cast. Poppy endeared herself to me at the end of chapter 3:
“Anyway, on that note, I’m going to go home now. Ruth, in the future, can you please refrain from using my illness as a pulling method?”
I turned on my heels and made for the door, forcing myself not to break into a run. In one last moment of courage or madness—whatever you want to call it—I turned back and examined the stunned looks on their faces.
“Oh, and watch out,” I added. “She’s had chlamydia twice.”
And I flicked my head round and walked out into the night.
Low blow, perhaps, a bit reminiscent of Mean Girls but so too was Ruth’s behaviour. And whereas in Mean Girls Cady was only pretending to befriend the Plastics, these girls are genuinely Poppy’s friend.
Bourne is really good at depicting the complicated, often messy, nuanced interactions that happen among adolescent girls. One moment, Ruth is using Poppy’s anxiety as a way to make herself look better in front of a boy—the next, Ruth is helping Poppy’s other friends super-glam her in preparation for a date (with same said boy, ironically). This is the kind of behaviour that is played for laughs and used by male writers to patronize women/girls or downplay female friendships—“them bitches be crazy” is a common refrain. Instead, Bourne pulls back the curtain ever so slightly to show what influences these relationships. Poppy herself is a very introspective character, reflecting on her own changing self—how she couldn’t care less about any of the boys her age, and now she is hot for Noah—as well as the personalities of her friends, from Lizzie’s buoyant and intrepid journalistic ambitions to Amanda’s surprising journey from shyness to assertiveness to Ruth’s overcompensation for her own insecurity.
As much as I liked Poppy’s forthright attitude, though, I confess Lizzie is my breakaway favourite. It’s just that every time she shows up, you know you’re going to have a good time with this scene. You know you’re going to laugh, because Lizzie cannot keep a secret, because she is so nosy, because despite these flaws, Lizzie is Poppy’s true best friend. And it is great that, in a novel that is essentially a YA romance, we are also getting all these positive depictions of female friendship.
OK, Ben, that’s all well and good, but what about that romance?
I suppose one benefit of the science-fictional angle in this plot is that, whether or not I believe in soulmates (I don’t), this story takes place in a world where soulmates exist. So we can set that aside and take it as read that Poppy and Noah are, indeed, meant for each other. Bourne tries to balance their expressed desire to “take it slow” with the hormones that continue to push them together and prod them into more and more physical moments of intimacy. As a result, the romance feels both very intense and not at all rushed—there is an inexorable, powerful development of Poppy’s understanding of herself, and herself in relation to this boy, that is quite compelling. While I can’t relate to this myself, I can only imagine that there will be some teenagers out there who can identify with the way Poppy expresses her hesitation, her mixed feelings about how quickly everything is moving, as well as how much she wants things to move so much faster.
And then there’s the ending. Sometimes I’m a sucker for happy endings, but I have to admit, tragedies do tend to be more my style. I’m not going to spoil the details, but let’s just say that Soulmates is not about two people living happily ever after. Bourne does not promise her audience that you’ll find The One and everything will work out OK. Rather, the theme here is that love—any kind of love, as I read it, be it romantic or otherwise—is a powerful influence on one’s character. Love changes you, sometimes in surprising ways. So whether a relationship is destined to be for a day, a year, or maybe forever, that person leaves a mark on you—and you on them. It rather reminds me of the song “For Good” from Wicked.
Soulmates is an admirable debut novel. It already contains precursors of things that Bourne goes on to explore more fully in her later books, such as mental health issues. Despite wrapping itself around an intriguing science-fictional premise, the narrative never really embraces that part of the story except in the final, feverish rush towards a climax near the end of the book. However, it mostly makes up for this by containing so many well-drafted characters. For a book that is, literally, about fated love, Soulmates is more remarkable for being so much more than romance.