Women’s Book March: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

One of the goals of this challenge is to introduce my followers to more books written by women and femme people. I’ve also been trying to showcase literature written by women of multiple identities: women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, etc. Ada Hoffmann is the first author for the challenge who fits this last category (as far as I’m aware): her author bio says that she is autistic, as well as queer and genderfluid, and her debut novel The Outside is an #ownvoices autistic and queer story.

#Ownvoices literature, or stories about people of a certain identity or multiple identities, written by authors who share those identities, has gained prominence as a hashtag on Twitter and other platforms. The #ownvoices movement calls for better representation of non-white, non-cis, non-hetero, and yes, non-neurotypical identities, written by authors whose stories are informed by their lived experiences as people with these identities.

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Outside for a long time. As an autistic femme myself, I’m frequently looking for good autistic and neurodivergent representation in media, but I rarely find it. Often we are simply not represented at all, or when we are, it’s as magical savants or socially inept proto-adults. The Outside succeeds beautifully both as a piece of good #ownvoices autistic representation and as a gripping, imaginative space opera.

Dr. Yasira Shien, the protagonist of the The Outside, is an autistic queer woman whose research on the cutting edge of physics, alongside her also neurodivergent mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr, promises to unlock an infinitely renewable source of power for a human-built space station. But when disaster strikes at the Talirr-Shien reactor’s activation, tearing a hole in reality into the unreal spaces of the Outside, Yasira is tasked by the machine Gods that rule human civilization to find her missing mentor before more people die.

Hoffmann has created a rich, unique space opera universe in which human-built AI attained sentience and then Godhood centuries in the nvoel’s past. In exchange for providing humans with protection, advanced technologies such as warp drives and stargates, and figures of worship, the Gods absorb the souls–the personalities and memories–of mortals after death to sustain their own cognitive processes. The system has worked for hundreds of years, but it’s more of a stable dystopia than a utopia: for people like Yasira who aren’t particularly devout, it can uncomfortable; for heretics, those who question the basis of reality, it can be deadly.

The Outside is a reality parallel to our own, one whose physical rules don’t follow those of our world. Contacting Outside creatures can destabilize our reality. While the Outside is inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which populated space and other dimensions with incomprehensible monsters, Hoffmann puts her own spin on it throughout the book, suggesting that communication even with things as different as Outside beings is possible if we learn to listen.

Yasira Shien is a wonderful protagonist: a smart lateral thinker (yet not a savant), empathetic, with a strong sense of justice. Realistically, her autism sometimes helps and sometimes hinders her, and it’s inextricable from who she is without ever being all she is. It also gives her valuable perspective into her mentor, Dr. Talirr. Their relationship in particular is very richly drawn: by the end, both the reader and Yasira understand that Dr. Talirr was damaged by being forced into a box that wasn’t made for her, yet we can sympathize without ever wanting her to succeed.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. Seriously, stop reading this blog post and go pick up The Outside. And when you’re finished, check out Ada Hoffmann’s blog, where she keeps a frequently updated roundup of the best (and worst) representations of autistic people in books and other media.

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Women’s Book March: Negative Return by Jessie Kwak

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Jessie Kwak’s Durga System series is fast becoming one of my favorite indie reads. The first novella, Starfall, introduced us to the infamous Bulari crime lord Willem Jaantzen and his devoted crew; Negative Return zeroes in on the story of how one of those crew members, Manu Juric, first joined up with Jaantzen, and it’s a wild ride.

Manu Juric is a street smart, independent hitman who doesn’t want to be anyone’s underling. But when he takes on a contract to assassinate Jaantzen on behalf of another crime boss and is captured by him instead, Jaantzen offers him a simple choice: join his crew for an upcoming heist, or die. Manu is pragmatic. He’ll join Jaantzen’s crew, play along, and wait for his chance to take the boss out and fulfill his contract. But of course things are never that simple in Bulari!

I loved getting to know Manu as a character: at first he comes off as brash, flirtatious and charming, and he is all those things, yet as the story progresses we also see his hidden depths. He is highly skilled at reading people and situations and can manipulate them to his advantage; yet often as not, he uses his powers for good to protect the people around him. His role in Starfall was relatively small, so it’s great to see his backstory and learn more about the other crew we met in the first novella.

Negative Return is a fast-paced heist story in Jessie Kwak’s signature style, with a surprising depth of characterization alongside the explosions. Space opera fans owe it to themselves to check out this series.

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Women’s Book March: The Unseen World by Liz Moore

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Though it’s shelved as literary fiction, The Unseen World really makes me want to claim Liz Moore as a science fiction writer. The last 5% of the book makes a solid case for the story being at least technically sci-fi (I’ll get to that), although the majority of this engaging, heartfelt novel is set against the recent historical background of early computing and artificial intelligence research taking place in the 1980’s.

Ada Sibelius (yes, she’s named after that Ada) is a thirteen-year-old prodigy being raised by her eccentric father, David, who runs the Boston Institute of Technology’s computing lab. When David begins succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, Ada faces the prospect of losing not just the person who means the most to her in the world, but also the life they’ve built together. And when evidence starts coming to light that suggests David isn’t who he says he is, Ada must grapple with a legacy that threatens to cast her family history in an entirely new light.

I loved this book. I was caught off guard at first by Moore’s plain, straightforward prose–more straightforward than what I’ve been conditioned to expect from a literary novel. The rich complexity of the characters and the unfolding of the book’s central mystery snuck up on me until, without realizing how I’d gotten there, I was devouring chapters to see what happened next while simultaneously not wanting the book to end.

We discover the story of David’s life right alongside Ada, watching as she deals with each piece of the puzzle. What is revealed transforms not just her understanding of her father’s past, but also the direction of her own life.

Now, for that last 5% I mentioned: Both David and Ada research and develop software, including an early prototype chatbot, ELIXIR, based on the AI “therapist” ELIZA developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. Weizenbaum developed ELIZA to show the superficiality of communication between humans and machines. However, he became disturbed when many of his human volunteers attributed human feelings to ELIZA, despite knowing it was just a program. Some people even wanted to be alone to talk to it.

ELIXIR plays a similar role as emotional support, confessional, and diary for both David and Ada in The Unseen World. The last 5% of the book provides an intriguing glimpse of a possible future direction for chatbots such as ELIXIR and ELIZA. I can’t be more specific than that without getting into spoilers, and if any of the above interests you, you deserve to discover this deep, textured novel for yourself.

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Women’s Book March: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

The Tea Master and the Detective is a tautly focused murder mystery in space starring one of the oddest odd couples I’ve read about in quite some time.

The Shadow’s Child is a shipmind who once flew military troops through the mind-bending unreality of deep spaces. After a traumatic accident left her terrified of accessing deep spaces, she scrapes by blending teas for human passengers to help them tailor their neurochemistry for various tasks.

She is approached by Long Chau, a mysterious woman doing business under a nomme de guerre (Long Chau apparently means Dragon Pearl and is, to The Shadow’s Child‘s sensibilities, obviously a fake name). Long Chau wants a blend that will maintain her sanity in deep spaces–no small task when she’s already riding on several custom drug blends of her own. But when the two of them discover a body in deep spaces who may have been murdered, some hard questions arise–including about Long Chau’s own mysterious past.

I will always be down for a story with a living ship as a protagonist, and de Bodard does an amazing job creating The Shadow’s Child as an individual with a past, a family, hopes, fears and dreams. In a genre that often treats AIs and cyborgs as singular creations, it was especially nice to see references to The Shadow’s Child’s mother and younger siblings, as well as the society of shipminds she participates in. Her developing relationship with the prickly Long Chau is also fascinating to watch, and suggests, to me at least, that this isn’t the last adventure these two will have. I sincerely hope it isn’t.

This novella was my introduction both to Aliette de Bodard as an author and also to her Vietnamese space opera Xuya Universe, a series mostly of short stories and novellas as well as one novel, On a Red Station Drifting. However, you don’t have to have read the other stories to enjoy this satisfying standalone novella.

Already read The Tea Master and the Detective? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

If John Woo had directed Goodfellas instead of Martin Scorsese, and added a generous portion of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style martial arts, he might have come up with something like Jade City. This book is a crime drama, a generational epic, and a martial arts fantasy rolled into one, and it is so much fun.

Ever since the island nation of Kekon won its freedom from a colonial power, two clans have ruled over the capital city of Janloon, and by extension most of the island. The clans maintain power through a complex network of tribute-paying businesses, council ties, and investments, but on the street, that rule is enforced by jaded warriors called Green Bones. And by jaded, I don’t mean world-weary: in this universe, jade can endow people with superhuman strength, speed, and godlike senses, but only after years of rigorous training can they control these powers.

The story centers on the Kaul family, the ruling family of the No Peak clan. The book had a bit of a slow start for me as it introduced the three main Kaul siblings–Lan, the Pillar of the clan; Hilo, his brother and military right hand; and Shae, their estranged sister, who has sworn off wearing jade after living abroad, much to the chagrin of the family. However, once Lee finishes grounding us in the world and the characters, the story dug its teeth into me and didn’t let go.

Jade City is a masterful illustration of the adage, “What is plot but action and character? What is character but plot personified?”. As the three Kaul siblings are drawn into a struggle with the opposing Mountain clan, first for control of Janloon, and then to preserve the heart of No Peak, every event and its consequences are driven by the characters’ motivations, actions, and the effects that stem from them in a way that feels both inevitable and surprising.

Like both the gangster and martial arts films it takes inspiration from, Jade City doesn’t have a totally happy resolution in the end: not all the characters are left standing, and those that survive are battered both emotionally and physically by the preceding events in ways that will definitely have repercussions in the sequel, Jade War.

My edition of Jade City also contained an author interview with Fonda Lee where she goes into some of the inspirations behind the book. She wanted to create an explanation for the seemingly supernatural abilities of martial artists in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and found a natural (or supernatural?) source in jade, a gem already culturally significant in China and other parts of East Asia.

By having jade confer literal magical abilities in her universe, Lee has created a fresh-feeling take on martial arts fantasy set in a notably modern world one step removed from our own. Highly recommended to martial arts and crime drama aficionados in particular.

Already read Jade City? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

For my first Women’s Book March pick of May, I read Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly! Amnesty is the third and final volume in Donnelly’s debut Amberlough Dossier trilogy, a taut blend of film noir and espionage novel that creates a vivid depiction of the rise of fascism in a world much like ours.

The first novel, Amberlough, introduces the book’s eponymous city on the eve of the rise to power of the One State Party, colloquially called the Ospies. The OSP is a political organization eerily (and deliberately) reminiscent of the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis. Donnelly has said that she based the setting of Amberlough heavily on Germany’s Weimar republic, because she wanted to show the vibrant culture that was lost to the Nazi crackdown, and which isn’t often talked about today.

Without giving too much away since it’s the last volume, I will say that Amnesty takes place after the One State Party has come and gone and the country of Gedda is rebuilding democracy. But it’s not enough to rebuild: politics demands that someone be punished for the tyranny of the past few years. Cyril DePaul, former spy and unwilling collaborator with the Ospies, may very well become that sacrifice–unless his estranged sister and former lover can work together to save him from the public’s wrath.

Donnelly’s characterizations are as excellent as ever in Amnesty: she deftly yet clearly shows Cyril’s struggle with PTSD and sketches the hardships he’s been through over his years in exile, without loading the book down with pages of backstory.

His former lover Aristide had a softer exile, waiting out the Ospies as a movie producer in a foreign country, yet even that has left him depressed and in thrall to an unnamed but clear-on-the-page alcohol addiction.

Aristide is sick, and Cyril is broken, and both of them have given up on life at the start of the book … which makes it all the more powerful to see them rediscover purpose in each other, and in the chance to do something more than live or die as a symbol of a past now gone. This is a story not just of living with trauma, but of living through it toward hope and healing, both as a country and as individuals. For fans of film noir, spy thrillers, or just a ripping good story, I cannot recommend this series enough.

Already read Amnesty? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Updraft by Fran Wilde

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Delequerriat: The act of concealment, in plain sight, may only be used to turn wrong to right.

This time I read Updraft by Fran Wilde! Wilde has created a unique secondary world for this fantasy coming-of-age story. Many elements of Updraft will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Hero’s Journey, but it’s set in a universe that bears no resemblance to our own.

Wilde’s Bone Universe is aptly named: everyone who lives in the city–which, as far as we know, houses all of humanity in this world–lives in huge towers of living bone that rise above an ever-present cloudbase. No one knows what’s under the clouds; things that are thrown down below the cloud layer (including, in some cases, people) tend not to return. An origin myth tells how the Singers, a mysterious caste who enforce Laws within the city, helped the bone towers grow above the chaos of the clouds, an event recorded in song as the Rise.

In the city, people get around on connecting bridges made of sinew, or, more commonly, on artificial wings of spider silk and wood. Updraft introduces us to Kirit, a young woman excited to pass her wingtest and become a trader like her mother. But when she breaks a Law and exposes her tower to the depredations of an aerial monster called a skymouth, the Singers give her a choice: become a Singer or be marked as a Lawsbreaker and demoted “downtower”, a harsh punishment that includes the possibility of being selected as a human sacrifice to appease the city.

Updraft employs an interesting structure: we meet Kirit on the cusp of fulfilling her rite of passage into adulthood as a tower resident, only for her to be thrust into a totally new set of circumstances as a novice Singer, which almost amounts to a second childhood. The stakes are all too adult, though, as Kirit faces the constant threat of being found unworthy as a Singer, even as she develops skills with them that account for their unique status within the city.

It is in large part Kirit’s unfamiliarity with Singer tradition and her unconventional route to them that leads her to question The Way Things Are Done, with consequences that shudder through the city and lead to revelations of secrets long hidden.

Updraft asks incisive questions about power, secrecy, and transparency of government, including if it’s ever right for governments to hide things from their citizens for their own protection. If that sounds dry, fear not! The themes are gracefully embedded in a rich, moving story with plenty of action, engaging characters, and worldbuilding that manages to be both sweeping and subtle.

Already read Updraft? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

The next entry in my Women’s Book March is The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander! I seem to be reading a lot of alternate history lately (see Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which kicked off this challenge). It could be my response to current events, a heightened desire to seek out alternatives to the way history seems to be proceeding, although it’s not out of any escapist impulse–indeed, if anything, the alternate history Bolander sketches in this powerful novella somehow paints an even darker portrait of a certain shameful period in American history.

The back cover copy relates, as it says, the facts:

In the early days of the twentieth century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island. These are the facts.

Bolander weaves these two events together to create a poignantly angry tale of injustices great and small that asks, Are there some histories that should be indelible, never to be forgotten lest we perpetuate the same mistakes? Or is the truth of history always destined to be twisted out of shape in the retelling?

This was not an easy story to read. The lyrical language is immersive and beautiful, but requires close attention to follow sometimes. And often Bolander is using that beautiful language to describe horrible things: her description of what it’s like to slowly die of oral cancer (acquired from ingesting radium) is completely horrifying.

Yet at the same time I found this story difficult to put down: in less than 100 pages, Bolander creates a fully fleshed out elephant culture, with an origin story, kinship system, and social structure. Her characters are deftly drawn and so real-seeming that it makes the injustices they suffer all the more infuriating. And yet the ending suggests a kind of justice may still be possible even at the cost of one’s own life — the small but essential justice of having one’s voice heard after living in silence.

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Women’s Book March: Monstress Vols. 2 & 3 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

I’m kicking off April with Monstress Vol 2: The Blood and Monstress Vol. 3: Haven, a graphic novel dark fantasy penned by Marjorie Liu and illustrated gorgeously by Sana Takeda.

Okay, so I cheated a bit in that these are technically two books by an author-artist combo I know, but they are part of one continuous story, so I’m counting them as one. I’d be tempted to binge the series if Volume 3 weren’t the last trade paperback currently available.

Set in a sprawling world filled with fantastical technology and nonhuman beings, the Monstress series tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, a young arcanic woman whose body is being slowly taken over by Zinn, a many eyed, many tentacled monster with the powers of one of the old gods.

If that paragraph was a lot to absorb, you’re not alone — while I enjoyed the first volume of Monstress, I often found myself grappling with a bevy of unfamiliar terminology around the peoples and history of this world. At first, the story has a serious case of fantasy name terminology that made it hard to grasp what was going on at times.

Here’s the quick and dirty if you haven’t read the series:

Ancients are a race of animal people that existed in the world before humans and were once worshiped by them.

Arcanics (like Maika) are the hybrid descendants of Ancients and humans.

– The old gods are a race of giant beings that came to this world from Somewhere Else. Long thought to have gone extinct, leaving only their ghosts floating in the sky, there are hints the old gods are merely imprisoned and waiting for a chance to break free.

-There are also talking cats (hm, I’m sensing a theme!) who are considered the children of the goddess Ubasti.

Got all that? Great, on to the story!

In Volume Two: The Blood, Maika and her companions Ren the cat and the arcanic fox girl Kippa take passage on a pirate ship to the mysterious Isle of Bones, in search of answers to Maika’s past. In the process, they learn more about the archaeological research her mother was doing into the Shaman Empress, a legendary magician and inventor from ancient times.

While Moriko Halfwolf, Maika’s mother, was a bit of a mysterious figure in Volume One, we learn more about Maika’s relationship with her here: Moriko is portrayed as a driven, abusive parent whose relationship with Maika was based more on shaping her daughter into a weapon than loving her as a person.

It’s heartbreaking and realistic despite the fantasy setting, even more so because Liu makes sure to show how the attitudes Maika absorbed color her relationship with Kippa. She’s hard on Kippa when she doesn’t need to be, and doesn’t seem to see that the harsh life lessons she imparts to Kippa were handed down by her mother earlier in the same cycle of abuse.

It’s character notes like these that really made me bond with the characters in this volume compared to the first. Monstress: Volume One confirmed Maika as a badass, but in Volume Two we see her be vulnerable, and I love that.

Volume Three: Haven kicks the action up a notch: Maika and her companions take refuge in the neutral city of Pontus from the war brewing between the human Federation and the arcanics. The Pontians’ price for letting them stay is that Maika repair their shield, an ancient piece of tech that only someone with her bloodline can activate. It doesn’t help that a witch of the Cumaea is coming to Pontus hellbent on freeing one of the old gods to wreak havoc on earth.

Haven is my favorite volume of the series so far: the baroque worldbuilding, which at times felt overwhelming in earlier volumes, seems more fluid and cohesive and plot-relevant in this volume. We get some very interesting hints about the titular monster, Zinn, and their connection to Maika’s bloodline, which I am excited to see play out in later books. The volume ends on a truly epic battle sequence whose aftermath delivers one of the crueler cliffhangers I’ve read recently – but in that good way that makes me yearn for the next volume, even as I’m still absorbing and thinking about this one.

Finally, I’d be remiss if this review didn’t give a shout-out to Sana Takeda’s artwork. I’ve rarely read a graphic novel that was this richly illustrated. Takeda’s lush, meticulously detailed style meshes extraordinarily well with the fantasy setting. The two covers above are a taste of what’s inside, so if you like what you see, check it out!

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Women’s Book March: Night’s Gift by Camilla Ochlan and Carol E. Leever

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Next up in the Women’s Book March is Night’s Gift, an indie-published novel by Camilla Ochlan and Carol E. Leever! Leever also apparently painted the delightfully old-school cover, which I’m not ashamed to admit is a big part of what made me add the book to my tottering TBR pile in the first place. I can just see finding this book in the sci-fi and fantasy section of Waldenbooks in the late nineties alongside the Tad Williamses and L.E. Modestitt Jr.’s.

As for the book itself, I quite enjoyed it. Ochlan and Leever weave a swashbuckling fantasy adventure in a land brimming with strange creatures, powerful magic, rich lore… and did I mention talking cats?

Young Omen Daenoth is visiting the city of Hex when his bracelet is stolen. That’s more than an inconvenience, as the bracelet keeps his psionic powers from raging out of control. In trying to get it back, he falls in with the hotheaded Prince Templar, and the two of them make a deal with an undead alchemist who purchased the bracelet. He’ll return it if they just retrieve some property for him. It’s too bad that involves sneaking into a supernatural cage match surrounded by Night Dwellers who think humans make tasty snacks. But when the lads accidentally free Tormy, a talking kitten the size of a border collie, things really go to hell…

Night’s Gift is clearly inspired by D&D in its setting: the land is populated by humans, dwarves, and elves, swords and other European medieval elements are abundant, and magic is common. I have a limited tolerance for D&D motifs, yet their presence here never felt wearing, perhaps because they were well-used and never leaned on too heavily. I found a lot that was surprising here, from the richness of the descriptions (unusual in what I am guessing is a YA book, since the protagonists are in their teens), to the twists and turns as Omen and Templar navigate the Night Games, to the bits of lore the authors slip in about Hex and the wider world of the story.

Tormy is a wonderful character–though a magical being, he is clearly and recognizably a cat, with catlike behaviors and impulsiveness, and I bonded to him about as quickly as Omen does. I especially liked the choice to have Tormy speak in an imperfect patois reminiscent of the lolcats meme. If you’re into fantasy YA, D&D, adventure stories, and of course, cats, check it out — I think you’ll have fun.

Already read Night’s Gift? Let me know what you thought in the comments!


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