Dystopian

Review: Fight For You

Cover of "Fight For You," featuring a sunny picture of the Roman Coliseum with a girl holding a sword in one of the archways
Image from Kayla Bain-Vrba

Title: Fight For You

Author: Kayla Bain-Vrba

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/violence, sexual assault, whorephobia, sexualization of female characters

Back Cover:

Sold off to pay her father’s debts, Cherry spends her nights dancing and her days longing for freedom. Determined to break free of her life, she transfers from the dance halls to the stadiums, where all the real money is made.

The only problem with her plan is that she’s not a fighter. In order to learn, Cherry approaches Berlin, one of the best fighters in the stadium. Berlin, however, wants nothing to do with her, and Cherry realizes the hardest fights do not take place in the arena …

Review:

I was really excited about this book. It even made my Top 5 Want to Reads for this year. I guess the joke’s on me for getting so excited about the concept and not reading the reviews. This is the most disappointing book I’ve read this year.

So you know how based on the back cover, it seems like a lot of the story is going to be about Cherry convincing Berlin to teach her to fight? Yeah, Berlin agrees to train her on page 2. Right after their first kiss. Berlin gives Cherry an aggressive kiss after tackling her as a “show of dominance.”

Which leads me to my next problem with this book – Cherry and Berlin are both overly sexualized. At once point, Cherry says “I want people to see me as more than tits and ass,” and yet the author describes both girls mostly in terms of tits, ass, and how horny they make each other. There’s a lot of nudity. There’s a lot of random nipple sucking. There’s a lot of sexual situations that don’t fit the fact that these girls hardly know each other. And most of it reads like amateur erotica.

I don’t want to be That FeministTM, but this novella reads like it is by and for the male gaze. Cherry and Berlin are described in terms of sex appeal, their relationship develops through mutual horniness, and the level of physical intimacy they have as strangers is straight out of a random encounters erotica story. If there had been actual on-page sex when the girls had sex, I would call this amateur erotica with a veneer of gladiators slapped on top.

The pacing was also very bad. It moved much too fast and didn’t focus enough on anything to give either of the girls real emotions. The conflicts between Berlin and Cherry feel contrived and both girls get over them within a few paragraphs with no emotional growth shown, and you get no sense of the world (other than this is some sort of dystopian society where people or their family members are sold to work in The Zone if they can’t pay their debts).

A short list of other problems that I want to mention but not spend an entire paragraph on:

  • Both girls act like sex work is awful/shameful/makes you less of a person.
  • Two unnecessary sexual assault scenes.
  • It’s not really clear how one actually makes money off the fights. Maybe betting on them?
  • It’s mentioned offhandedly that the fights are mostly about the sex appeal – which is just, what???
  • The line “You’re going to be turned on when you’re fighting.”

This could have easily been expanded into a novel – and I think with time to flesh out the world and the characters of Cherry and Berlin, this could have been at least good. Berlin has an interesting past, and Cherry at least has some family history that could have been explored. The world could have been interesting. And I still love stories about fighting in arenas for money. I’m mostly upset about this novella because it could have been good, and I wanted it to be – it just wasn’t.

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Did Not Finish, Fantasy

Review: Otherbound

Cover of "Otherbound," Featuring pink and purple text in front of two faces, mostly in darkness, facing opposite directions
Image from Corinne Duyvis

Title: Otherbound

Author: Corinne Duyvis

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Verbal abuse, physical abuse, blood/injury, character death

Back Cover:

Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Read To: Page 268

Review:

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The concept was awesome (person in our world is connected to someone in a fantasy world to the point where he literally sees through her eyes), lots of other people have good things to say about it, and the female lead is bisexual. I got about two thirds of the way through it because I wanted to love it. But I finally realized that I just didn’t care enough to finish it.

My main problem was Nolan. I didn’t like his parts of the story at all. He wasn’t a very active character – everything that happened to him seemed to happen by accident, and when he eventually discovers he can affect something in Amara’s world, he uses that power to have conversations with Amara – and compared to what was happening with Amara, his world was really boring. It was kind of hard to care about Nolan’s relationship with his sister when Amara is running for her life.

I was much more invested in Amara’s story. Amara was a solid character, with a lot of conflicting thoughts and feelings that gave her a lot of depth. She also had a crush on Cilla (the princess), which was a fun subplot and added some more complicated feelings to the mix. Her world was interesting – a pretty basic high fantasy world, but with interesting takes on mages and magic, and her situation was interesting. Difficult and seemingly hopeless, yes, but at least interesting.

Around where I stopped reading, though, even Amara’s world lost the plot a little bit. In the beginning, Amara and Cilla are running from their lives from mages who want to kill Cilla, but the man “protecting” them is also horribly abusive. It’s a life-or-death (or physical pain) high-stakes situation. But it kind of loses that – not that there isn’t danger, but it’s dialed down in exchange for some conspiracies. Which, to be fair, were interesting in their own right, but still felt like a step back from the danger of the previous parts.

If the story had been only about Amara, I might have finished it. Even though it lost the plot a bit, I might have pushed through to see how the conspiracies worked out. But I didn’t have the patience to read through Nolan’s parts, and I didn’t care enough about Amara’s story to push through his for hers.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. It just couldn’t make me care enough.

Fantasy

Review: Ice Massacre

Book cover trigger warning: Blood

Cover of "Ice Massacre," featuring an underwater image of a mermaid's tail with blood billowing off the fins.
Image from Tiana Warner

Title: Ice Massacre

Series: Mermaids of Eriana Kwai #1

Author: Tiana Warner

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, violence, character death

Back Cover:

A mermaid’s supernatural beauty serves one purpose: to lure a sailor to his death.

The Massacre is supposed to bring peace to Eriana Kwai. Every year, the island sends its warriors to battle these hostile sea demons. Every year, the warriors fail to return. Desperate for survival, the island must decide on a new strategy. Now, the fate of Eriana Kwai lies in the hands of twenty battle-trained girls and their resistance to a mermaid’s allure.

Eighteen-year-old Meela has already lost her brother to the Massacre, and she has lived with a secret that’s haunted her since childhood. For any hope of survival, she must overcome the demons of her past and become a ruthless mermaid killer.

For the first time, Eriana Kwai’s Massacre warriors are female, and Meela must fight for her people’s freedom on the Pacific Ocean’s deadliest battleground.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it was one of the most engaging books I’ve read in a while. On the other, it was kind of like a gory mess that I couldn’t look away from.

I got a free copy of Ice Massacre … somewhere. I don’t even remember where at this point. But I read it in three days, which is very fast for me lately. It’s definitely an engaging read, the kind that draws you in and makes you have to know how it ends.

Which is interesting, since I didn’t really get much of a feel for Meela, even though she was a narrator. There was an extended flashback at the beginning that gave some insight into her past and actually a pretty good understanding of her as a 10-year-old. But 18-year-old Meela is not a very robust character – character took a back seat to all the drama happening. That’s not to say I didn’t like her, because I did, and I was rooting for her. She just wasn’t a character with a lot of depth.

What really kept me so into the book was all the action and drama. The majority of the book takes place on the mermaid-hunting ship, so there’s a lot of mermaid attacks (which somehow managed to feel unique even though they were basically the same thing every time). There was also a remarkable amount of drama as mean girl/popular asshole Dani grows more and more unhinged.

Dani was actually my biggest problem with the book. And it’s not that she’s a bad character – on the contrary, she made a great antagonist. Characters like her, though – the one that’s absolutely horrible to the main character (and others) but always gets away with it – get under my skin. I hated her. Which, I suppose, is the point. But even though characters like her make for good reading, they bother me, and that was a strike against the book for me. You may have a different reaction.

Also, this is a very violent book. A lot of blood, a lot of gory injuries and gorier deaths. I normally don’t mind violent books, and this was almost too much for me (although to be fair, I haven’t read a super violent book in a while). So be warned – if you don’t have a stomach for gore and death, this is not the book for you.

Overall, this was a good book. Not fantastic, but definitely better than average, and an extremely engaging and absorbing read. I rooted for the protagonists and wanted to see how it ended. But I wasn’t really invested enough to read the rest of the series. If they fall into my lap like Ice Massacre did, I’ll definitely give them a shot, but I’m not going to go out of my way for book two.

The Mermaids of Eriana Kwai series:

  1. Ice Massacre
  2. Ice Crypt
  3. Ice Kingdom
Science Fiction

Review: Republic’s Chosen

Cover of "Republic's Chosen," featuring a multicolored feather curled inside a circle
Image from Goodreads

Title: Republic’s Chosen

Series: After the World Ends #1

Author: Rory I

Genre: Military Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: According to the book: Background and secondary character death, bullying, discrimination (macro and microaggressions), in-combat violence and cruelty, institutional bigotry, mentions of PTSD, mild sexual content, sexual assault, spousal neglect. I add: Blood/gore.

Back Cover:

The world had never seen utopias until the Latin Republic was established. Equality, respect, humane treatment – all of those drive the society’s philosophy after the Great Disaster.

Yet humanity has not learned to leave war behind. When the Republic sends summons to Liana, she knows it’s illegal. Her immigrant status forbids her from fighting in the army, but the country’s leaders want control over her and they won’t stop at anything to get it.

Under the pressure of a tough training regime, threatened by a complicated political plot she must quickly untangle, it is no surprise Liana’s marriage begins to crumble. Tossed in a training campus and immediately involved in its intrigue, Liana needs allies quickly, but all she wants to do is crush the system which holds her hostage. With each passing day, it’s becoming harder to reconcile the need to hide her real identity and the desire to protect her immigrant countryfolk from harm.

An old friend returns to her life just in time to give her the leverage she needs. There is no chance she’s ever coming back to her peaceful life in hiding.

A strong bisexual lead, a secret identity, Special Forces soldiers, true friendship, and a headstrong trauma survivor trying to accept her role in saving the world.

Review:

I was really excited to read this book. I got a free ebook copy through the Sapphic Book Club, so it promised to be pretty gay, and the description sounded right up my alley. (The description I read also included something about Liana being former special forces and totally showing up everyone else in the army, which is a trope I love, but I can’t for the life of me find the description I read.)

Overall, Republic’s Chosen was good, but disappointing.

I liked Liana, to a point. She was skilled way above the basic training camp she was sent to, which I really enjoyed. She was also insubordinate and a troublemaker, which sometimes I enjoyed and sometimes seemed just too much. Mostly she was just stifled by the strict rules of the military – which I understand, but I didn’t like. (Also I don’t recall it mentioned anywhere on-page that she’s bi.)

Liana’s husband Marcus was most definitely not my favorite character. At the beginning, I thought he was a kind of a dick. By the time I got to the end, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a dick, but he definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I just couldn’t put my finger on why.

A lot of the minor/less major characters were really good, though. Most of them were queer (and it’s a common practice in this world to state your pronouns when you introduce yourself), and they all had little things that defined them, even though they often didn’t get a lot of page time.

I feel like the world could have been good if there’d been more of it. You don’t get a whole lot about this world, other than there is a big conflict between the Latin Republic (which I think encompassed the Americas?) and the Slavic … countries? I don’t know, that wasn’t very clear. And you get little details about things in the Latin Republic (unimportant stuff, like the women wear eye makeup under the eyes instead of on the lids) from Liana’s perspective, but you don’t get anything about how it came to be the Latin Republic, what the Great Disaster was, or even what the society’s philosophy is. The book was stuck on the military base, and that made it difficult to explore the world.

This book was just far too military for me. It was too focused on the training camp and the military exercises and the recruits and the rules and the hierarchy. I’m not a fan of the military industrial complex, and I expected there to be less obedience and submission to the military’s rules and regulations than there was. The structure and hierarchy felt like it was suffocating the story (which I suppose was intentional, since it was restricting to Liana, too).

I also didn’t like the married couple aspect of it. I don’t know why, and it’s completely a personal preference, but the conflict in Liana’s marriage in addition to everything else just didn’t fit for me. It felt like it added just another layer of complicated on a book that already had too much going on.

This was a long book – 400+ pages. And even with all that page time, it felt like there was too much happening. Liana and Marcus had conflicts with almost everyone, it seemed, as well as with the military structure in general. Then there was their marriage under strain from the being in the military thing. And everywhere they turn running up against restricting military regulations. And did I mention conflicts with almost everyone, including friends from their special forces days?

Okay, this review is a little disjointed and I’m trying to say a lot in a small space. I’m not completely sure what I’m trying to say, though. I did not like this book, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Military scifi is definitely not my thing, but there was just too much going on and I didn’t like the characters enough to actually enjoy this. If you like military scifi, though, you’ll probably enjoy this much more.

The After the World Ends series:

  1. Republic’s Chosen
  2. Blacklight (After the World Ends 1.5)
  3. Republic’s Reach (not yet released)

 

Superhero

Review: Hero

Cover of "Hero," featuring a white male pulling open a white button-down shirt to reveal a tee shirt with the word "Hero" written on it.
Image from Lezbrarian

Title: Hero

Author: Perry Moore

Genre: Superhero

Trigger Warnings: Violence/blood, death, homophobia

Back Cover:

The last thing in the world Thom Creed wants is to add to his father’s pain, so he keeps secrets. Like that he has special powers. And that he’s been asked to join the League – the very organization of superheroes that spurned his dad. But the most painful secret of all is one Thom can barely face himself: he’s gay.

But becoming a member of the League opens up a new world to Thom. There, he connects with a misfit group of aspiring heroes, including Scarlett, who can control fire but not her anger; Typhoid Larry, who can make anyone sick with his touch; and Ruth, a wise old broad who can see the future. Like Thom, these heroes have things to hide; but they will have to learn to trust one another when they uncover a deadly conspiracy within the League.

To survive, Thom will face challenges he never imagined. To find happiness, he’ll have to come to terms with his father’s past and discover the kind of hero he really wants to be.

Review:

Part of me wanted my last review of 2017 to be more momentous than this, but this happened to be the book I took with me while I waited for my car to get repaired. So it is what it is, I guess. And Hero isn’t a bad book, really.

I don’t know what to say about Thom. He’s one of those characters that’s hard to review – he was a good, solid character who I related to and who developed throughout the course of the story. But at the same time, he was kind of unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t feel like that while reading, but now I’m trying to write about him and I’m drawing a blank.

(Also, he’s very awkward and does quite a bit of putting his foot in his mouth. It made him seem real, but if you suffer from secondhand embarrassment like I do, there are parts where you’ll just want to crawl in a hole.)

I also liked that there were disabled characters in this book – namely Thom and his dad (Thom has some sort of seizure disorder and his dad’s hand is crippled). It’s not something you see a lot and I liked the diversity.

The other characters were all great. They had interesting backstories, quirks, and flaws. Ruth was a fascinating lady and pushed Thom to be a better person. Scarlett started off as the I-hate-you-but-we-have-to-work-together trope but became a friend by the end. Larry … okay, Larry was minor. But you also get backstories and character journeys of Thom’s parents (well, at least his dad), which I thought was neat that the book managed to do that while still focusing on Thom.

That whole “deadly conspiracy within the League” thing? That doesn’t really come up until the climax. Well, there’s a little bit of “the League thinks this villain did this crime but Thom knows he didn’t so they’re looking for the actual culprit,” but that really takes a backseat to the characters. The story is really about Thom dealing with homophobia and the growth and dynamics of him and his team of aspiring superheroes. Sure, there was some action, but it was more emotional than anything.

The only thing I really had a problem with was the romance. I saw it coming (not a bad thing), but the love interest didn’t get a lot of page time. On one hand, I understand why and it would have been hard to work more scenes in with him, but on the other, it felt a little like it came out of the blue considering how little interaction Thom had with him before the end.

Overall, this was a good book. Not spectacular, but definitely better than “meh.” It has its flaws, and for a superhero book it’s more focused on character dynamics and the emotional aspect, but I enjoyed it. It was a solidly good book.

Next week I’ll be doing my 2017 in Books post, where I round up my top reads of 2017, plus a few more I’m excited for in 2018. Stay tuned!

Science Fantasy

Webcomic Spotlight: Lady of the Shard

Cover of "Lady of the Shard," featuring white text on a black background with white dots of varying sizes that look like stars in the night sky.

Title: Lady of the Shard

Author: Gigi D.G.

Genre: Science Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Manipulation in mildly sexual situations, mind control, mild body horror

Summary:

Lady of the Shard is a comic about an acolyte in love with the goddess she serves.

Review:

“Lady of the Shard” is short, but a whole lot happens! It starts off with a cute, overeager acolyte falling in love with the goddess she serves, and trying to deal with her complicated feelings about it. Things change when a monster (that’s actually not a monster) shows up … and that’s all that I can really say without spoilers, but there are several twists.

Also, the art is really cool and different – it’s very sketch-like, and white on a black (or occasionally pink) background.

Panel from "Lady of the Shard," with white lines on a black background. Two figures in hoods and long cloaks are next to a third, feminine figure; one holds a pillow and the other holds a bowl of food. The person in the middle looks surprised by the kindness. Text above them reads, "We followers of t he Goddess welcome all visitors with open arms. So we've really done our best to take care of the Phoenix."
And in my opinion, it looks really cool.

And did I mention this all takes place in space? The goddess saved humanity after the earth was destroyed, and so all the people living near the various stars bring tribute to her temple, which is a giant star-shaped thing floating in space. Despite that, though, it has a definite fantasy feeling.

“Lady of the Shard” is a great story with more action than you’d expect, an amazing antagonist, and a completely adorable protagonist. It’s a quick read, and in my opinion, totally worth it.

You can read it online for free here! (May not work well with mobile devices.)

Fantasy

Review: Eelgrass

Cover of "Eelgrass," featuring a thin white girl in a white dress with the wind blowing her hair and dress. There is water that looks like the ocean in the background.
Image from Tori Curtis

Title: Eelgrass

Author: Tori Curtis

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Kidnapping, forced marriage, blood/gore

Back Cover:

In Irish folklore, a selkie is a seal who can take off her sealskin like a coat and become a woman, seducing fishermen anywhere she goes. If he steals her sealskin, she is bound to his home, marrying him and mothering his children – unless she can find it and escape, leaving her family on shore forever.

In this lesbian reimagining of tales about women and the sea, Efa is having too much fun to worry about stories. Too young to have earned respect in her village, she spends her days roving with her beautiful and vivacious best friend, Bettan — until the night Bettan disappears into a rainstorm, and Efa can’t shake the certainty that she’s been taken.

Desperate to rescue her friend, Efa seeks out the fishwives, half-human fish who dwell under the tides and kill sailors with their sharp teeth and alluring songs. She doesn’t expect to find Ninka, an outrageous young woman who makes her feel giddy and who might be the key to unlocking her own courage.

Review:

I wasn’t honestly super excited about this book, but I got a free ebook copy through the Sapphic Book Club and had it on my phone so I could read it in waiting rooms and stuff. And overall, I was underwhelmed.

Let’s start with one of the two major positives in the book: Efa. She wasn’t one of the kick-ass leader-type characters that I usually like to read about, but I liked her because I related to her. Like her, I’m usually the quiet sidekick to a more energetic, boisterous, sociable friend; like her, I get overwhelmed and my emotions get mixed up when I need to do something important but don’t know how to go about it. She was one of the most relatable characters I’ve read in a while, to be honest.

Now, probably the biggest negative in the book: the romance. It fell flat for me. Part of this is because Ninka doesn’t have a lot of personality. It’s heavily emphasized that she does what she wants when she wants … and that’s about it. Which was disappointing, because I think with some development she could have been an awesome character.

Another reason the romance fell flat was there wasn’t a lot of feeling about it from Efa. I understand most of her emotional bandwidth was taken up by worry about Bettan, but there was next to nothing about romantic feelings towards Ninka. And the romance-hinting moments were few and far between (and they mostly consisted of Ninka kissing Efa and that’s it). So any time the romance angle came up it fell flat. Which was really disappointing, because this sort of opposites-attract romance between a fiercely independent fishwife and a restrained selkie homebody could have been amazing.

Which brings me to the other major positive thing in the book: the mythology. I’ve never read (or honestly heard of) a book about selkies before, and the fishwives were a cool take on siren/mermaid myths. I loved the idea of there being selkie villages that lived near human towns and selkies and humans interacted normally, and I liked how tight-knit the selkie community was and how it adapted to the people being sometimes seal and sometimes human. I wish you learned more of the community aspect with the fishwives.

The biggest problem with this book was that it needed more. It was too short. There wasn’t enough time to develop Efa’s feelings for Ninka, there wasn’t enough time to develop Ninka as a character or the fishwives as a species and a community – even though Efa spends about a month in the deep sea with Ninka, it’s glossed over in a handful of pages and not used to develop their relationship. The plot of rescuing Bettan was done really well, but the book wasn’t nearly long enough to cover the other subplots it tried to include.

Eelgrass was disappointing. I wanted to like it. I loved the concept. There just wasn’t enough of it to be as great as it could have been.

Superhero

Webcomic Spotlight: SuperCakes

Cover of SuperCakes chapter labeled "Pancakes," featuring a half-Japanese girl and a redheaded white girl sitting at a table in a kitchen eating pancakes

Title: SuperCakes

Author: Kat Leyh

Genre: Superhero

Trigger Warnings: Nonrealistic violence (e.g. against ice monsters), mild body horror (characters dissolving into liquid/smoke)

Summary:

This comic is a  series of vignettes about super-powered girlfriends, May Ai and Molly LaMarck.

Review:

I found this on a Tumblr list of queer webcomics (which is where I seem to be finding most of my webcomics these days). It’s about two superhero girlfriends and their adventures as superheros and girlfriends. There isn’t really an overarching plot, there’s just a series of short, mostly-unconnected snapshots of their lives – May bringing Molly home for the holidays, for example, and the two of them fighting ice monsters while complaining that the ice prevented their pizza from being delivered.

Like all the webcomics I do in my webcomic spotlights, it’s super short. (At least for now – according to the comments section Kat plans to add more in the future, but as of now it hasn’t been updated since 2014.) And it’s fun and unique. Yeah the girls are superheros and have super powers, but it’s also kind of a slice of life, seeing them interact with each other and other people and complain about forgetting to put away the pancakes when they have to go do superhero stuff.

And it’s neat because sometimes you get epic superhero stuff like this:

Image of a girl in green with a green mask crouched on a fire escape with a girl in red who is partially made of mist flying above her

And sometimes you get cute slice-of-life stuff like this:

Two panels of a comic. The first features two girls lounging on a couch, a reheaded girl we can see clearly and a black-haired girl with her back to you. The redhead says "Ugh, I miss everything!" and the black-haired girl responds, "What? Are you joking? Crazy stuff happens in your lab All. The. Time." The second panel shows the same scene from slightly farther away. The black-haired girl says "Remember the time those alien spores made your cactus a quadruped? And carnivorous?" and the redhead responds, "Haha oh yeah. Killer Cactus Carlos."

Overall, it’s adorable, unique, and fun to read. And I for one am hoping it gets updated soon.

You can read it for free here!

Dystopian

Review: Lizard Radio

Cover of "Lizard Radio," featuring a scale-like pattern of circles in varying shades of green with the silhouette of a large lizard and a short-haired person.
Image from Pat Schmatz

Title: Lizard Radio

Author: Pat Schmatz

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Gender-based violence, loss of a parent, death

Back Cover:

Fifteen-year-old Kivali has never fit in. As a girl in boys’ clothes, she is accepted by neither tribe, bullied by both. What are you? they ask. Abandoned as a baby wrapped in a T-shirt with an image of a lizard on the front, Kivali found a home with nonconformist artist Sheila. Is it true what Sheila says, that Kivali was left by a mysterious race of saurians and that she’ll one day save the world? Kivali doesn’t think so. But if it is true, why has Sheila sent her off to CropCamp, with its schedules and regs and what feels like indoctrination into a gov-controlled society Kivali isn’t sure has good intentions?

But life at CropCamp isn’t all bad. Kivali loves being outdoors and working in the fields. And for the first time, she has real friends: sweet, innocent Rasta; loyal Emmett; fierce, quiet Nona. And then there’s Sully. The feelings that explode inside Kivali whenever Sully is near—whenever they touch—are unlike anything she’s experienced, exhilarating and terrifying. But does Sully feel the same way?

Between mysterious disappearances, tough questions from camp director Ms. Mischetti, and weekly doses of kickshaw—the strange, druglike morsel that Kivali fears but has come to crave—things get more and more complicated. But Kivali has an escape: her unique ability to channel and explore the power of her animal self. She has Lizard Radio.

Will it be enough to save her?

Review:

I was going to wait to review this book until I had it sorted out in my head, but I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think I’m ever going to sort it out. So heads up for a somewhat confused review written by a somewhat confused reviewer.

After I finished reading this, I tried to explain it to my fiance, which involved me giving a tangent-filled, disorderly, and increasingly agitated account of the events of Lizard Radio that ended with him completely baffled and me not even sure what I was trying to say. This book is hard to describe and hard to even wrap my head around.

Let’s start with Kivali. She’s right in the gray area between bender (transgender) and not, but chose not to transition. (In this world, transgender people are fine as long as they choose to transition before age 10.) I think bigender would be the best way to describe her, but I’m not really sure since she never gives herself a gender label. But anyway. She grew up with her guardian, Sheila, telling her that she was left behind by the saurians, a race of lizard-like aliens (I think?), and she kinda believes it. At least, she identifies strongly with lizards, to the point where she believes she has a lizard skin protecting her and occasionally has trance-like states where she feels like she actually is a large lizard. She also has lizard radio, which is like a psychic/trance thing where she gets visions of lizards and they talk to her … okay, it’s really hard to explain in words. My fiance suggested she could be schizophrenic – on one hand, it would fit, but on the other, so much weird stuff happens that some sort of supernatural/alien explanation almost feels like it makes more sense.

I thought Sully was going to get more page time than she did. She got quite a bit in the beginning as Kivali was falling for her, but in the middle and end not so much. For most of it, the romance angle was more Kivali dealing with her feelings than actually interacting with Sully. But she also had a close friend in Rasta and grows a friendship with Emmett and Nona, so it’s not like she was alone.

Then there’s the world. It’s some variety of dystopian world where the government has a lot of power and the value of community and working together are heavily emphasized – to the point where children between 15 and 17 are sent off to camps (like the CropCamp Kivali gets sent to) to learn how to get rid of their own individuality to become a community while learning a trade that will benefit society. But you don’t actually get a lot of the world. The story starts when Kivali gets to CropCamp and ends when she leaves, so all you really get is a microcosm of the world, ruled over by Ms. Mischetti, governed by gongs that announce when you can do things, and subject to strict regulations.

This book leaves you with so many questions. Is Kivali human or actually a saurian? What is lizard radio? How does this world even work? Is there a supernatural/alien explanation or is Kivali just absolutely insane? What is actually going on here? The plot is slow to start, and in the beginning the questions are what keep you hooked – how does this work? What does that word mean? But there aren’t answers. There aren’t ever answers. The questions are just left hovering in the air like the tension between two people who love each other but know it’s better for both of them if they just walk away.

This book is weird. It’s strange and unsettling and doesn’t make any sense – but at the same time it’s fascinating and beautiful and makes perfect sense. It’s dystopian without any of the grit. It’s paranormal without any actual paranormal events. It’s nonsense, but it’s fascinating, engrossing, wonderful nonsense. It’s a dystopian novel and a fever dream and Alice in Wonderland if Alice was part lizard and Wonderland was an agricultural camp.

I don’t have the proper words for what this book is. It’s one of those books where if someone asked if you liked it, you’d answer with “Well, it was interesting.” But it’s also one you can’t stop thinking about. As I told my fiance after finishing it, “Sometimes you finish a book and you just have to lay on the floor about it.” And I don’t know what more to say about Lizard Radio than that.

Romance, Science Fiction

Review: Always Human

Title page for the first chapter of Always Human, featuring a futuristic cityscape in shades of blue

Title: Always Human

Author: Ari

Genre: Science Fiction/Romance

Trigger warnings: Dieting/diet talk

Summary:

This is a story about nanobots, genetic engineering, and two girls falling in love. No matter how technology changes us, we’ll always be human.

Review:

I found this on a list of webcomics on Tumblr, with nothing more about it than “scifi and very gay.” I started reading it because I got bored at work. And then I couldn’t stop.

The short description up there doesn’t tell you a lot about the story. The story is set in a futuristic world where people can live in space, virtual reality is a major thing, and everybody uses “mods” to change their bodies – including appearance, resistance to sickness, and even getting rid of cancer. It starts when Sunati, a recent college graduate and virtual reality engineer meets Austen, a college student with Egan’s Syndrome, an immune disorder that means her body rejects all mods.

And it’s adorable. The romance moves pretty quickly, but even though it’s very romance-oriented, it’s less about the romance and more about the characters.

First, there’s Sunati. She’s a recent college graduate and current virtual reality engineer with dreams of going into space (ideally to Mars), and she tries really, really hard to make everyone around her happy (or at least not be inconvenienced), which I could really relate to. A large part of the story towards the end is her learning that it’s okay to do things for herself sometimes.

Then there’s Austen. She’s in college for genetics – she hopes to cure Egan’s Syndrome so she and other people with the disease can use mods like everybody else – but school is really stressing her out a lot. She also diets (which gets addressed in a very healthy way) and spends a lot of time exercising and studying so she can keep up with people who use mods to help them with those things.

Though both girls have their own individual issues that they deal with, but the bulk of the story is them navigating their relationship, learning to communicate and take the other’s feelings into consideration while still being true to themselves, and building a strong and healthy relationship. It’s emotional and adorable.

It’s also set in an amazing scifi world that I really want to talk about, but also it’s just fun to learn about it as you go. The world itself is beautiful (the art is amazing) and the details – virtual reality games and conversations, lenses like contacts that provide a data interface, the classic visual-displays-hovering-in-front-of-your-face … it’s just great.

And have I mentioned it’s adorable? It’s one of the cutest romances I’ve read in a long time. (And I don’t usually like romance.)

Also, look at this artwork! It’s so cute and happy and gorgeous.

Art of a dark-haired girl and a redheaded girl tearing up with faces close to each other

Art in two boxes - the first box has a blue-haired girl looking into the distance like she's thinking of something happy; the second has a redheaded girl grinning with fuzzy edges like she's the one being thought about

I’m not usually into romance, but this one is great. You can read it online for free here!!!