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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Women’s Book March: The Race by Nina Allan

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!

My next installment in the Women’s Book March challenge is The Race, by Nina Allan.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I’ve had The Race on my to-read list for a while, in part because it was praised by one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Alastair Reynolds, who called it “a gorgeously and superbly strange SF novel”. Another blurb promised a blend of “English country novel and hard science fiction”, which is a pretty intriguing mashup.

The first section of the book starts strong, delivering a story about a near-future England ravaged by fracking. Racing illegally genetically enhanced greyhounds, called smartdogs, is big business for the former resort towns of the English coast. One such town is Sapphire, where Jenna and her brother Derek live and breathe smartdog racing until Derek’s daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Derek plans to win the ransom money by racing his beloved smartdog in the biggest race of the year, but things don’t go as planned.

This first section was taut and gripping, with gorgeous prose and characters who are flawed in relatable ways. There’s enough worldbuilding to sell the smartdog racing idea without bogging the story down, and the ending has a great twist.

I say ending because after the first section, Jenna’s story ends and the novel becomes something else. In the next section we are introduced to Christy, a woman who lives in fear of her abusive brother and is grappling with the possibility he may have committed a murder. It’s still set in England, but not the same England as Jenna’s story; in fact, all elements of science fiction vanish from the tale for about 200 pages, and what we get instead is more like a suspense novel.

It’s only in the fourth section that we return to something like the world of Jenna’s story, this time to follow the kidnapped girl, Maree. Now a young woman, Maree is learning to use her empathic abilities as part of a government project trying to decode what may or may not be an alien signal from outer space. Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting conclusion to the book sort of fizzles. We don’t get any answers about the origin or nature of the signal, and as a result the novel’s end feels more like setup for its sort-of sequel, The Rift.

My ultimate issue with The Race is a matter of concept versus execution. Nina Allan clearly has writing chops and a lot of interesting ideas, but the story is not disciplined in how it deploys those ideas. At times it felt as though Allan included an idea or storyline not because it served the story but because she couldn’t bear to cut it. This was especially true of the “suspense novel” section of the book, which could easily have stood on its own as a separate short novel.

The Race shows enough promise that I would be interested in returning to this author after she has a few more novels under her belt, and has perhaps become more disciplined about story structure. There’s still enough good stuff here, especially in the first story, that I’d suggest checking it out if you’re still interested. Your mileage may vary, and if the book had been marketed as a series of linked novellas rather than one novel, I probably would have enjoyed the whole much more.

Already read The Race? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

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Women’s Book March: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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!

My first read for the Women’s Book March challenge is Everfair by Nisi Shawl! This steampunk alternate history re-imagines the Belgian Congo if King Leopold’s colonizing forces had been repelled by an alliance of native Congolese, African-American missionaries, and British socialists who then establish their own independent, multi-ethnic country, Everfair.

Say what? If the above seems baffling, you’re not alone. I was only vaguely aware of the history of Belgium’s colonization of the region of Africa now called the Congo. Nisi Shawl lays out the facts in brief but horrific detail in her opening to the book:

This novel derives from one of history’s most notorious atrocities: King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo Free State. The exact number of casualties is unknown, but conservative estimates admit that at least half of the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died.

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences … This is that kind of book.

The result is an original, and at times deeply weird, story that unfolds from multiple perspectives over thirty years from 1889 to 1919. The alternate history aspects are deftly balanced with the steampunk, as well as some fantasy elements inspired by Congolese folklore. We see the newly minted Everfair through ups and downs, from its victory (at high cost) over the Belgian colonizers, to its dilemma over whom to side with in WW1, to internal racial tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.

I thought the steampunk elements were very neat: people who suffered amputations at the hands of rubber barons get modular bronze prosthetic arms and hands; airships are a common form of transport; and factories turn out shonguns–based on a traditional Congolese bronze knife, the shongo, these are guns that shoot knives. How cool is that?

At less than 400 pages, Everfair sometimes feels too short for its ambitious concept. The chapters unfold more like vignettes, separated from each other by months and sometimes years, than a single continuous narrative. The cast is huge, and though the characterizations we do get in each brief chapter are very good, at times I wanted to spend more time with a character to learn what makes them tick. There were a couple instances when characters had revelations “offscreen” which affected their perspectives or actions, and I would have liked to see those revelations play out on the page.

All in all, I really enjoyed Everfair. Even though I wanted more, what’s here is lush and beautifully written and thought provoking. If you dig alternate history, steampunk, or stories told from points of view not usually represented–or all of these!–check this book out.

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

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New Blog Feature: Women’s Book March!

Hi everyone! This is a quick post to announce a new post series launching this March on the Expansion Front: the Women’s Book March!

I’ve had it in my head for a while to challenge myself to read only books written by women and femme authors for a full year. I’ll be starting that challenge this March 2019 until March 2020.

The Rules:

  1. I’ll focus on women’s prose fiction for the challenge. Graphic novels and nonfiction may also creep in, but my goal is to read more widely of women novelists, particularly in science fiction and fantasy.
  2. Since I’m trying to expand my horizons, I will limit authors I’ve previously read to 30%. The other 70% must be women authors I haven’t read! Assuming an average reading speed of 4 books per month, this means one can be a known author and 3 must be new authors.
  3. Once I’ve read a new author, she will move from the “unread” to the “read” category.
  4. I will define women and femme authors as cis women, trans women, and nonbinary people who identify as femme.
  5. I will write a summary post of my impressions on the blog and on Goodreads for each book I read for the challenge.

The Goal:

As an agender-femme person, lifelong science fiction fan, and now science fiction author, I’ve heard over and over that women don’t read or write science fiction, or that women make up a tiny percentage of sci-fi fans and authors. While less prevalent in fantasy, this stereotype needs busting.

I hope this blog series reveals how many great female and femme spec-fic authors there are to choose from, and introduces me (and you, reader) to some awesome authors we would never encounter otherwise.

March on, reader!

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I’m answering reader questions on Goodreads in September!

To celebrate Absence of Blade‘s upcoming one-year release anniversary, I’ll be answering reader questions on Goodreads all September!

Visit my author profile on Goodreads and ask me anything about science fiction, publishing, the writing process, or something random if you’d like.

Did I mention there are prizes? Everyone who posts a question will get a free deluxe edition of Shadow Game, the newest novella in the Expansion Universe! Shadow Game tells how Gau, the embittered assassin in Absence of Blade, gained his first ally on the war-torn world of Rreluush-Tren. The story stands alone and is a great entry point to the series.

 Shadow Game will also be available for purchase on Amazon and other stores, or as a free download on this site when you sign up to my mailing list.

What’s in the deluxe edition? You get the novella, plus a special sneak peek into the next Expansion novel and bonus alien concept art by my very talented cover designer, Daniel Lambert! I asked Daniel to create totally new sketches of the Urd and the Arashal, two lizard-like alien species that feature prominently in Shadow Game. This art is exclusive to the deluxe edition.

What are you waiting for? Head over to Goodreads and ask me a question!



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