History, Memoir/Autobiography

Review: The Men with the Pink Triangle

Cover of "The Men with the Pink Triangle," featuring an out-of-focus black-and-white image of concentration camp prisoners in a line with a pink triangle superimposed on top of them.Title: The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps

Author: Heinz Heger

Genre: Autobiography/History

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, torture, rape, coerced sex, homophobia

Back Cover:

It has only been since the mid-1970s that any attention has been paid to the persecution and interment of gay men by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Since that time, books such as Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle (and Martin Sherman’s play Bent) have illuminated this nearly lost history. Heinz Heger’s first-person account, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was one of the first books on the topic and remains one of the most important.

In 1939, Heger, a Viennese university student, was arrested and sentenced to prison for being a “degenerate.” Within weeks he was transported to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in East Germany, and forced to wear a pink triangle to show that his crime was homosexuality. He remained there, under horrific conditions, until the end of the war in 1945. The power of The Men with the Pink Triangle comes from Heger’s sparse prose and his ability to recall–and communicate–the smallest resonant details. The pain and squalor of everyday camp life–the constant filth, the continuous presence of death, and the unimaginable cruelty of those in command–are all here. But Heger’s story would be unbearable were it not for the simple courage he and others used to survive and, having survived, that he bore witness. This book is harrowing but necessary reading for everyone concerned about gay history, human rights, or social justice.

Review:

This is an absoutely horrifying book. It goes into detail about all the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In learning about concentration camps, you hear about what was done to Jewish people, but gloss over the fact that criminals, Romani people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals were there, too. Homosexuals were especially singled out for hatred, harassment, and torture, although the German ones were treated slightly better than Jewish people by virtue of being German, even if they were “filthy degenerates.”

All the homosexuals in the camps were gay men, but the book actually explains why – lesbians were considered still useful because they could be bred regardless of how they felt about it. That’s its own kind of horrifying.

This book also goes into a lot of detail about how concentration camps were run, which is something I don’t remember hearing from other accounts – their power structures, the delegation of work and the kind of work they did, and the pecking order between the different “triangles” (inmates were color-coded by offense – yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, green for criminals, red for political prisoners, etc.). One thing that the narrator focused on was how prisoners with more power would take “lovers” – other men that they would have sex with in exchange for favors like easier work and more food – despite being straight, and they still viewed men who loved other men as degenerates. Several times, the narrator presents situations like that and then points out how sex with other men was fine if it was to satisfy your urges, but degenerate if you genuinely loved the other man.

This book is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. I learned a lot, but about the depths of Nazi cruelty and the realities of suffering in the death camps. But it’s really a story that needs to be told. Homosexuals were denied reparations after being freed because homosexuality was a crime and criminals were not considered innocents who deserved reparations. This is part of history I never learned about in history class, and it’s important to know – even if reading about it is heartwrenching.

Religion

Review: The Gospel of Judas

Cover of "The Gospel of Judas," featuring an image of a scrap of papyrus with Coptic characters written on it.Title: The Gospel of Judas

Authors: Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin W. Meyer, and Gregor Wurst

Genre: Religion

Trigger Warnings: Death (mention)

Back Cover:

For 1600 years its message lay hidden. When the bound papyrus pages of this lost gospel finally reached scholars who could unlock its meaning, they were astounded. Here was a gospel that had not been seen since the early days of Christianity, and which few experts had even thought existed–a gospel told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, history’s ultimate traitor. Far from being a villain, the Judas that emerges in its pages is a hero. In this radical reinterpretation, Jesus asks Judas to betray him. In contrast to the New Testament Gospels, Judas is presented as a role model for all those who wish to be disciples of Jesus. He’s the one apostle who truly understands Jesus.

This volume is the 1st publication of the remarkable gospel since it was condemned as heresy by early Church leaders, most notably by Irenaeus, in 180. Hidden away in a cavern in Middle Egypt, the codex containing the gospel was discovered by farmers in the 1970s. In the intervening years the papyrus codex was bought & sold by antiquities traders, hidden away & carried across three continents, all the while suffering damage that reduced much of it to fragments. In 2001, it finally found its way into the hands of a team of experts who would painstakingly reassemble and restore it. The Gospel of Judas has been translated from its original Coptic into clear prose. It’s accompanied by commentary that explains its history in the context of the early Church, offering a new way of understanding the message of Jesus.

Review:

There’s three parts to this book, though they’re not labeled as such. First is an introduction with the history of the codex the Gospel of Judas was found it – how it was discovered, bought, sold, and damaged until it came into the hands of scholars who preserved and translated it. Second is a translation of the Gospel of Judas itself. Third is a series of essays about the gospel and its contents – what it could mean and what it likely did mean in the context of early Christian Gnosticism.

This was a really fascinating book. The gospel itself was interesting, but was also difficult to understand in parts. There are chunks of the text that are just missing due to the damage to the codex, ranging a few words to several lines. Having the essays there to interpret it helped a lot.

I learned a lot about gnosticism from this book, which really helped put the Gospel of Judas text in context. The explanations of what this gospel likely meant to the people who wrote and read it when it was first written were fascinating, as were the responses to it by proto-orthodox Christian thinkers who thought it was heretical. I learned a lot, and even though it was in pretty dense acacemic language, I enjoyed it. This is really a niche interest book, but I’m super interested in religion in general so I found it fascinating and an overall great read.

Contemporary, Romance

Review: Colorblind

Cover of "Colorblind," featuring a white person with long blond hair with a forest behind her. The image is rotated so the trees seem to be growing horizontally.Title: Colorblind

Author: Siera Maley

Genre: Contemporary

Trigger Warnings: Discussion of death/dying/morbidity, blood (mention), car crashes (mention), near-drowning, f/f sex (implied), fatphobia

Back Cover:

Harper has a secret … and it’s not that she likes girls. She has a rare and special gift: she can see how old other people will be when they pass away. Nothing she does changes this number, and that becomes especially clear when her mother dies in a car crash. With only one other person in the world who knows about and shares her gift, Harper is determined to keep her distance from everyone. Then she falls for Chloe … whose number is 16.

That means that Chloe doesn’t have twelve months to live. She doesn’t even have six.

She is going to be dead by the end of the summer, unless Harper can find a way to stop it.

Review:

Considering Harper’s supernatural gift, this is probably technically a paranormal book, but it has such a contemporary romance feel that I think that’s a more accurate genre. Which makes it kind of funny that I enjoyed it, because I’m not normally a huge fan of contemporary.

The heart of this book is emotions, and it does emotions really, really well. This is one of the few books where I’ve read the narrator’s feelings and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what that feels like.” Harper was a little too withdrawn and pessimistic to be someone I would connect with in real life, but her emotions came across so vividly on the page that I couldn’t help but like her – and feel for/with her.

Chloe is exactly the kind of person I would like (and probably fall for just like Harper). She’s outgoing, bright, optimistic, funny, warm, and friendly – the opposite of Harper but still such a wonderful, sweet character. It makes it all the more tragic that you know she’s going to die young.

And you never forget that fact. Harper doesn’t forget, so you don’t forget, and even though all the sweet romantic bits there’s still that underlying current of tension that Chloe is going to die before the end of the summer. There isn’t much of a plot besides their growing romance, but that tension keeps it from getting boring. Every word asks the question, “Will Harper be able to save Chloe?”

I want to be able to say “It has a happy ending” or “It has a sad ending” but that’s a spoiler, considering the whole tension of the book is the question of if Chloe will survive. But in case you’re one of those people who will decide to read this or not based on whether or not the love interest dies, here’s the spoiler: (she survives)

I was surprised that I actually enjoyed this book as much as I did, considering how much it felt like a contemporary romance. But the tension was well-done, the romance was cute, and the emotions were very, very real. And even though it wasn’t really my thing, I thought it was good anyway.

Relationships

Review: Boundaries

Cover of "Boundaries," featuring the title in black text on a white background.Review: Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin: How to Recognize and Set Healthy Boundaries

Author: Anne Katherine

Genre: Relationships

Trigger Warnings: Incest, pedophilia, child abuse, child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, fatphobia

Back Cover:

Boundaries separate us from others physically and emotionally. In fact, they are essential for our mental and physical health as well as for developing healthy relationships. Yet every day, people’s boundaries are violated by friends, family, or coworkers. Despite the importance of personal boundaries many people are unaware of how or when these very important lines are crossed.

Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, Anne Katherine explains what healthy boundaries are, how to recognize if your personal boundaries are being violated, and what you can do to protect yourself.

For anyone who has walked away from a conversation, a meeting, or a visit with others feeling violated and not understanding why, this is a book that can help.

Review:

This book is actually pretty terrible.

I picked it up because I was hoping for a good alternative to Cloud and Townsend’s famous book on boundaries, which was so aggressively Christian that I couldn’t get past the introduction. I had hoped it would do what it says it would: Explain what healthy boundaries are, how to recognize if your boundaries are being violated, and how to protect yourself.

I read this entire book and I’m still not sure how to set a boundary, let alone what a boundary actually is. But I can tell you when a boundary is being grossly violated, because 75% of this book is extended examples of boundary violations – which include many uncomfortable and unnecessarily-descriptive stories of incest and child sexual abuse. Anne constantly harps on the fact that boundary violations are bad, childhood trauma is bad, and you should probably go to therapy, but as for teaching me how to set or enforce one … I think there was a paragraph under that heading in the book? Maybe?

But in order to avoid boundary violations, here are some people Anne says you should not be friends with:

  • Anyone who does anything for you (one example she gives is that you should never hire your lawyer friend to write your will because they are a friend and it will result in boundary violations)
  • Leaders at your church – pastors, you should not be friends with any of your congregants
  • Anyone you look up to
  • People in authority over you, like bosses and landlords (although to be fair, I agree with this one – though more for relationship reasons than “boundary violation” reasons)

What boundaries that violates, though, I’m not sure, because she never actually explained what boundaries are in the first place, let alone what boundaries being friends with someone you look up to violates.

I think the general point Anne is trying to make is that everyone needs to go to therapy. Which, I think therapy can be a very good thing. But I wanted a book that explained boundaries – what they are, how to set them, how to enforce them, how to adjust them, how to notice when they are being violated – and not a 150-page description of various traumas and an ad for therapy.

Contemporary, Contemporary

Review: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Cover of "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit," featuring an old-style drawing of the top half of a naked woman who is holding a snake to cover her breasts.Title: Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Author: Jeanette Winterson

Genre: Contemporary

Trigger Warnings: Homophobia, child abuse, exorcism, lesbian sex (implied), religious indoctrination

Back Cover:

This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts.

At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.

Review:

This book is a semiautobiographical novel about a fundamentalist girl who falls in love with another girl and eventually leaves fundamentalism over it. It’s not written like a traditional novel, with distinct characters and a structured plot. It’s poetic, lyrical, short but evocative. It opens when Jeanette, our narrator, is seven years old, and takes a journey through her life and how her love of other girls clashes with the extremes of religion she’s always known.

The story is set in England in the 60s, but it was still relatable to me, who also grew up in a fundamentalist household. The trappings were different, but the emotions were the same. But unlike my experience reading Girl at the End of the World, this book wasn’t a traumatic experience to read. The story and the feelings are raw, but the lyricism of the writing gave it an important feeling of distance that let me relate without reliving.

I only have a couple of problems with it. One is that it’s confusing at times. There are tangents, and whole random fairytale segments that don’t really relate to anything. Many of the tangents I could handle, but the fairytale parts threw me off. The other was that though the description makes it sound like Jeanette leaving her family, church, and home for a girl would advance the plot, it ended up being the climax more than anything. This story is about her childhood and her realization that maybe it’s not a demon, maybe her church is wrong.

There’s a distinct Literary feeling to this book – that feeling that there’s some sort of Deeper Meaning or Grand Message (or maybe some Important Motifs or Literary Techniques) hiding just behind the worlds that your high school English teacher would want three pages on. It just has an aura of Grand Literary Importance. Perhaps I liked it because stories about people leaving fundamentalist Christianity are inherently hopeful to me. Perhaps I liked that for once I could read a story about fundamentalism without getting trauma feels. But all the same, I liked it and I’m glad I read it.

Historical Fantasy

Review: The Gilded Wolves

Cover of "The Gilded Wolves," featuring twists of ornate gold curls laid over dark green leaves.Title: The Gilded Wolves

Series: The Gilded Wolves #1

Author: Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, antisemitism (mention), racism, colorism, colonialism

Back Cover:

No one believes in them. But soon no one will forget them.

It’s 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood.

Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history–but only if they can stay alive.

Review:

I didn’t find myself checking the page numbers hardly at all while reading this book, and that means it’s great because I check page numbers obsessively even on books I’m enjoying.

This book is set in Paris during La Belle Epoque, but there’s also magic, and it was so beautifuly atmospheric. From hotels to museums to lavish Order of Babel parties, it’s a beautiful backdrop to what really makes this story amazing: the characters.

There are six major characters in this story: Séverin, Laila, Zofia, Enrique, and Tristan, who make up our heisting team, and Hypnos, the Order of Babel member who makes them do the heist in the first place and keeps showing up to help even though the team doesn’t like him. Séverin, Laila, Zofia, and Enrique are all point-of-view characters (although the narrative is third-person, so the “point of view” is minimal). I adore their dynamics. They’re not the friendly-banter type (except for Enrique), but they’re all close to each other and you can tell and sometimes there’s tension between some of them but it’s always so fantastic to see them together and yes. I love them. I especially have a soft spot for Zofia, who is not explicitly stated to be autistic but I totally headcannon her as autistic.

This is a heist book. Séverin got cheated out of his membership in the Order of Babel years ago, and Hypnos promises to get it back for him if he will steal an artifact … from another Order of Babel member. So the team works on that heist and inadvertently gets mixed up in a much bigger fate-of-society-type problem. Saying any more would be spoilers, but the climax had me blitzing through pages hoping for a happy ending for our team.

There were also some themes of colonialism – not heavy-handed, but just there, both in metaphor and because this is France in the 1890s and there was colonialism and racism there. I think every single one of our main crew is a person of color or mixed-race (I’m not completely sure about Zofia, but she is Jewish, so she has prejudice to deal with, too). The main plot hinges on the fact that two of the Order of Babel houses have taken over and erased the legacies of the other two houses, which is obviously a metaphor for colonialism, but the book doesn’t try to shove it down your throat and just lets it be there.

(It’s also technically queer, with two cannonically bi main characters, but that’s not a big part of the story.)

I only had two complaints about the book. First, the magic system was extremely confusing. Magic objects were Forged, and the Forging process was done by people who had that power, but that power came through something called a Babel Fragment (maybe?), which the Order of Babel is supposed to protect, and also there rings that the matriarchs/patriarchs of Order of Babel houses might be Babel Fragments? It surprisingly didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story, but I’m still not really sure how it all works. The other thing I didn’t like was a character’s death after the climax, seemingly for no other reason than “you didn’t expect that, did you?” To be fair, the character who died was probably my least favorite, but I still liked them and it seemed really unnecessary.

This was an atmospheric book with fantastic character dyamics and only a few small flaws. This is the fantasy heist book I wanted and didn’t get out of Six of Crows. I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequels – I’m worried that character death might throw off the group dynamics, which was the best part of this book – but I might just be hopeful and give them a try anyway. This book was great enough that book two deserves a chance.

The Gilded Wolves series:

  1. The Gilded Wolves
  2. The Silvered Serpents (September 22, 2020)
  3. Currently Untitled (2021)
Current Issues/Society

Review: No Logo

Cover of "No Logo," featuring the title in bold text on a solid black background.Title: No Logo

Author: Naomi Klein

Genre: Current Issues/Society

Trigger Warnings: Death (mentions), sweatshop labor conditions, miscarriage (mention)

Back Cover:

As global corporations compete for the hearts and wallets of consumers who not only buy their products but willingly advertise them from head to toe—witness today’s schoolbooks, superstores, sporting arenas, and brand-name synergy—a new generation has begun to battle consumerism with its own best weapons. In this provocative, well-written study, a front-line report on that battle, we learn how the Nike swoosh has changed from an athletic status-symbol to a metaphor for sweatshop labor, how teenaged McDonald’s workers are risking their jobs to join the Teamsters, and how “culture jammers” utilize spray paint, computer-hacking acumen, and anti-propagandist wordplay to undercut the slogans and meanings of billboard ads (as in “Joe Chemo” for “Joe Camel”).

No Logo will challenge and enlighten students of sociology, economics, popular culture, international affairs, and marketing.

Review:

This book is broken into four sections: “No Space,” “No Choice,” “No Jobs,” and “No Logo.” Each section goes over a different aspect of the capitalism/consumerism/everything-is-branded phenomenon that this book is about.

“No Space” talks about brands’ invasion of the public sphere and how the idea of the “commons” has disappeared. We don’t have public squares to hang out in, we have shopping malls. Events are put on by corporate sponsors. Advertising pushes itself on us in public spaces. Brands have gone from selling products to selling a “brand image” and idea about themselves, and it’s hurting us as a society. It’s basically the reasons I left a marketing career, but with citations and examples.

“No Choice” talks about franchising, monopolies, and how Ronald Reagan’s destruction of anti-trust laws eliminated any meaningful personal choice when purchasing anything. This section was three chapters long and the least memorable for me.

“No Jobs” is about the outsourcing of production from the brands themselves to contractors overseas. It touches briefly on how Americans get screwed over when factory jobs leave, but mostly focuses on the atrocious sweatshop conditions of the overseas workers who make branded goods. A horrifying read, but not really new information for me. I have been aware of sweatshops and such for a while, though, so if you don’t know a lot about the inner workings of the garment industry, you might learn more than I did.

“No Logo” is about the “current” work being done to combat all the bad stuff mentioned in the prevous three chapters. I put “current” in quotes because the book came out in 2000 and all the work talked about are movements from the 90s. It was interesting to read about what was happening in the 90s, but considering that none of the horribleness mentioned in the first three sections has really changed, it’s not really relevant.

The book’s biggest drawback is that it’s two decades old. In the first three sections, there are only a few reminders of that – Borders being mentioned frequently despite closing in 2011, for example, or the conspicious lack of anything to do with Amazon – because nothing’s really changed since then. So you get to the last section, which promises to tell you what’s being done and what you can do, only to have it be a discussion of activism in the 90s.

There was one thing that stood out to me in that section: Naomi recounts meeting activists fighting against sweatshop conditions in Southeast Asia wearing Nike, Adidas, and products from other brands that are causing the conditions they’re fighting against. They didn’t even consider “consumer activism” and “voting with their dollar” – what they bought didn’t factor into their fight at all. As long as they were doing actual tangible actions, who cared what they bought or didn’t buy?

I really wish there was an updated version of No Logo. To the best of my knowledge, the most recent edition was published in 2011, although I don’t know if it’s been updated or it was just a 2011 reprint. We need a No Logo for the 2020s – with a section full of activism happening now and what we can do today to take action.

High Fantasy

Review: The Forbidden Wish

Cover of "The Forbidden Wish," featuring a feminine face at the bottom looking up into a swirl of blue and purple smoke.Title: The Forbidden Wish

Author: Jessica Khoury

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, vomit, death (mention), decapitation

Back Cover:

She is the most powerful Jinni of all. He is a boy from the streets. Their love will shake the world…

When Aladdin discovers Zahra’s jinni lamp, Zahra is thrust back into a world she hasn’t seen in hundreds of years—a world where magic is forbidden and Zahra’s very existence is illegal. She must disguise herself to stay alive, using ancient shape-shifting magic, until her new master has selected his three wishes.

But when the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to be free of her lamp forever, she seizes the opportunity—only to discover she is falling in love with Aladdin. When saving herself means betraying him, Zahra must decide once and for all: is winning her freedom worth losing her heart?

As time unravels and her enemies close in, Zahra finds herself suspended between danger and desire in this dazzling retelling of Aladdin from acclaimed author Jessica Khoury.

Review:

This is a retelling of the story of Aladdin, more of Disney’s version than the original Arabian Nights tale, and it’s mostly a story about how stupid people will be when they’re in love. I’m not a fan of romances, but I liked it anyway.

Aisha is the narrator, the jinn of the lamp who is found by Aladdin. The whole story is written as if it’s a letter to someone she calls Habiba, who you eventually learn is a previous master of the lamp and someone Aisha cared about. She is forbidden by jinn rule from falling in love with a human, but throughout the story she finds herself falling for Aladdin and not particularly happy about that fact. She’s powerful and badass, with a lot of hurt deep down, and I enjoyed her and her narration.

Aladdin was … okay. He wasn’t bad character-wise – a clever theif with a good backstory – but I have absolutely no idea what Aisha saw in him. Maybe it was her magical jinn-bond-with-lamp-holder that made her like him so much. He wasn’t a bad character, but not my idea of a romance interest.

There are bits from Disney’s version of Aladdin that are easily recognizable – the evil vizier trying to marry off the princess (in this case to his asshole son) to gain control of the kingdom and poisioning the king (in this case literally) to get control until he can secure it with a marriage alliance. The princess’s characterization was really good, though – Princess Caspida is badass and absolutely going to be a great queen, and she also has a troup of badass girl warriors as her “serving girls”/guards. Honestly if the romance had been between Zahra and Caspida I would have loved this book a lot more than I did.

Plot was pretty solid. Aladdin wants revenge, Zahra wants freedom from the lamp, Zahra’s trying to use Aladdin’s desire for revenge to get her freedom while working within the constrains of the lamp. Mostly it’s a love story, though, with Zahra and Aladdin falling in love and discovering the depths of stupidity a person in love will go to. Not that it was bad, mind you. It had a great world, an action-packed climax, and a happy ending. But romances are not my thing, and despite the awesome Middle Eastern setting, the interesting details about jinn, and Zahra’s quest for her freedom, this is first and foremost a romance.

Despite some threats of death and a bit of violence, this is a very light read. It’s not here for analysis or metaphor or anything deep. It’s a retelling of Aladdin and a love story, and that’s it. This is very much an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation – my final verdict is “better than okay, but not great,” but romances are not my thing. If you like romances, you’ll enjoy this a lot more than I did.

Science Fiction

Review: Hullmetal Girls

Cover of "Hullmetal Girls," featuring two girls in metal mech suits, one wearing a helmet and one with helmet off and staring at the viewer.Title: Hullmetal Girls

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Body horror, death, death of children, suffocation, illness, sex (mention), needles

Back Cover:

Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor’s salary isn’t enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.

Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she’s from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.

In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha’s and Key’s paths collide, and the two must learn to work together–a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.

With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

Review:

I figured it was true after reading and adoring The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss, but now I can confirm: Emily Skrutskie is an excellent writer. So let’s talk about this book.

Aisha and Key are both narrators in alternating chapters, and both were strongly motivated to be the best Scela possible – Aisha so their squad could get a well-paying assignment and she could send money to her younger siblings, and Key mainly because she feels like she’s supposed to be the best. Key’s motivation is weaker, but she also has the mystery of her missing memories to make her interesting. The two girls’ dynamic was an enemies-to-friends one, and it was great.

The other characters in the squad – Woojin and Praava – are good characters, too. They don’t have a point of view so you don’t get to know them quite as well, but they were still enjoyable. They also made for some great group dynamics. There’s no romance in this book – the relationship core of the story is friendships and group dynamics, and it’s excellent.

Plot-wise, this book has a standard “government is hiding things and there’s a rebellion to fix it.” The difference between this and every other book like that is that the main characters are on the government’s side and have no choice in the matter. There’s also a lot more to it, but I can’t say more about spoilers.

The main theme of this story is bodily autonomy and what it’s like to lose that. Part of becoming a Scela is signing a contract to give up your bodily autonomy – the leaders are 100% capable of taking over your physical body and forcing it to comply if they want. Not even your mind is your own – Scela have a sort of mind-meld thing that puts their thoughts, feelings, and everything into a collective, like a mental chat-room that everything you think goes into. The leaders can turn it off, and it is possible to use concentration to hide things, but it’s difficult.

So, technically this book has queer rep. Aisha is on-page aroace, one of the girls’ squad is a trans girl, and the other is pansexual. But it’s not really handled that well. The trans girl is outed during their squad’s mind-meld thing, and the same mind-meld thing shares the experience of heterosexual sex with the squad – Aisha doesn’t seem overly bothered by it, but I know that can be traumatizing for some aroace people. And then after everybody tells the squad their orientations, it never comes up again. It felt like Emily was trying to write something with casual queer representation and then it ended up being so casual that it’s not even mentioned again.

It does have some minor issues, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s very character-driven and dives really deep into the fear of losing bodily autonomy, and gets intense at times. It has great characters, themes, twists, and even gets wrapped up solidly without any annoying cliffhangers – what more can you ask for?

Science Fiction

Review: Mirage

Cover of "Mirage," featuring a gold mandala-like symetrical design on a purple background.Title: Mirage

Series: Mirage #1

Author: Somaiya Daud

Genre: Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Death (mentions and threat of), blood, genocide, bird attack

Back Cover:

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

Review:

I picked up this book for the concept of a princess’s body double, but ended up pleasantly surprised with an interesting culture and a discusson of colonialism that pulls no punches.

Amani wasn’t a bad character. She was a little bland, I thought, but kind and compassionate and proud of her culture, even though the Vath are doing their best to wipe it out. That’s initially how she connects with Idris – they’re both Andalaan – a culture that has a distinct Arabic feeling, which I loved. Idris himself doesn’t have much of a personality or characterization besides “he’s Andalaan and his family was killed by the Vath.”

Interestingly enough, the other stand-out character in the story was Maram. She’s unfriendly and cruel, but being her body double means Amani interacts with her a fair bit and there was actually a bit of character growth.

The beautiful Arabic-ness of Amani’s culture is one of the two things I liked most about the book. The other thing was the discussion of colonialism through the eyes of the colonized. Because what the Vath are doing to the Andalaans is overtly colonialism – outlawing their culture and traditions, destroying their sacred sites, genociding and oppressing their people. Somaiya is not playing around with metaphors, and it made for a stark and heartrending story.

There’s not really a lot of plot. There is a rebellion, but it doesn’t really do much and Amani isn’t involved until over halfway through the book. Most of it is taken up with Amani trying to adjust to Vathek culture while noticing its differences from her own, colonized culture; learning to act like Maram; and falling in love with Idris. The colonialism aspect is hugely unsubtle – I wouldn’t, but I could see why some would call it heavy-handed.

My biggest disappointment with this book is that it’s first of a series, something I didn’t know until I got to the end and there were too many loose threads. I liked this book, but not enough to read two sequels. I’d unhesitantly say Mirage was good, but the characters and plot aren’t compelling enough for me to continue.

The Mirage series:

  1. Mirage
  2. Court of Lions (May 5, 2020)
  3. Currently untitled (no release date yet)