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The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

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Sharon Biggs Waller writes highly original, highly feminist historical fiction. Her debut, A Mad Wicked Folly, is one of my favorite novels, so I was incredibly excited to read her second book, The Forbidden Orchid, which came out at the start of this month.

In The Forbidden Orchid, Elodie, the eldest of ten daughters, must take care of her family when her flower-hunting father fails to return home from his latest adventure. When her father’s employer shows up at their house, demanding a huge amount of money in recompense for her father’s failed last adventure, Elodies decides she will do anything to save her family — including heading off to China to help find those promised orchids herself.

The novel is in three distinct sections: Elodie at home in Kent, on the ship sailing to China, and the adventure in China itself. The section on the boat was my favorite — it was probably the shippiest part of the book (no pun intended), and I’m a sucker for every plot twist that emerged. But every section pulls you in, presenting a richly painted, compelling world with great sensitivity and depth. Biggs Waller clearly did a lot of research for this novel: research on flowers and flower hunting, on clipper ships and tea races, on the second Opium War and on China in its immediate aftermath. The novel has a sense of danger and adventure, but it never romanticizes any of its darker subject matter. Because yes, at times, this book gets seriously dark.

But it’s also exciting and refreshing. I’ve never seen a book about a passionate botanist before, let alone one who is also a Victorian adventurer, and I loved Elodie as our stubborn and determined protagonist. The book also has loads of other great characters, especially Ching Lan, the blunt and fearless herbalist, and the ex-missionary doctor, Prunella Winslow.

The novel isn’t particularly fast-paced, but I found it completely addictive. It was one of those rare books that kept me reading past 3am because I just needed to read one more chapter, again and again. It has some romance, but mostly, it’s a book about family and flowers and feminism in Victorian England and 1860s China. If you want to read a historical novel or an adventure story that’s a little bit different, you should definitely give it a try.

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A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

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A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to V E Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, a fantasy novel about parallel Londons, the one guy who can travel between them, and the thief from our Regency London who gets caught up in a dark scheme to destroy them all.

The series has fantastic world-building and incredibly compelling characters, and is an addictive read. A Darker Shade of Magic has (deservedly) received some Hugo buzz, and I, for one, was desperate to get my hands on Book Two.

In this instalment, Delilah Bard is pursuing her dreams of becoming a pirate as the official thief on the Night Spire, captained by the charming magician Alucard Emery. But she’s starting to get too comfortable, to like these people too much, and she’s getting the itch to run again. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are preparing for the Essen Tasch, an international magic tournament that should bring trust and peace after the horrors in A Darker Shade of Magic. Kell, exhausted by everyone’s mistrust after those dark events, plans to compete in secret — and so does magical newcomer, Lila Bard.

A Gathering of Shadows is very much a middle book. It’s a good book, and it’s an enjoyable book, but its purpose is to move the pieces from the mostly self-contained Book One to the even higher-stakes threat of Book Three. Most of the tension comes from anticipating when the characters will collide — anticipating when Kell and Lila will finally meet again, anticipating when the quiet threat growing in the background will finally burst into the foreground.  The tournament itself provides some fantastic moments and is a compelling plot, but we anticipate it a long time before it begins, and people wanting the same high stakes, fast-paced plotting of the first book will be disappointed.

But the characters are, once again, fantastic. Lila Bard is a great protagonist to read about — so closed off, so angry, so desperate, charming, determined, adventurous, stubborn, and unwilling to let anything get in her way. The series is a little short on significant female characters, but those who do appear are perfect. I found the palace-based drama with Rhy and Kell a little less compelling, but events at the end of the previous book definitely add a new, interesting dimension to their relationship with one another and with the rest of society. Alucard, meanwhile, was a fantastic addition, and quickly became my favorite character.

If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll enjoy this one, as Schwab expands on the world of Red London and digs deep into her character development. Just don’t expect it to be quite as dramatic — that kind of tension is clearly being reserved for the third and final book in the series.

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We have to stop debating Mary Sues

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Let’s talk about Mary Sues. Again.

As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Star Wars has got people talking once again about Mary Sues, after people criticized Rey for being too capable to be believable. This “Mary Sue” label has been critiqued to death, with many, many people pointing out its sexist connotations.

But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the term “Mary Sue” isn’t just annoying, but actively harmful to younger viewers. The label “Mary Sue” suggests that a character is poorly written, and that only undiscerning and uncultured people could like them. This probably doesn’t change our opinions on characters when we’re older, but it definitely influenced me as a teenager, and I doubt I’m the only one. By allowing the term “Mary Sue” to masquerade as literary criticism, even by discussing how “Mary Sue-ish” or un-“Mary Sue-ish” a character might be, we reinforce this idea that a female protagonist can be too powerful, and end up taking empowering narratives away from readers and viewers.

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Getting Meta with Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

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Anyone who’s read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl will recognize Simon Snow. He’s that universe’s stand-in for Harry Potter, a magical Chosen One fighting an evil villain while attempting to attend a magic boarding school. Fangirl‘s protagonist Cath is obsessed with the series, and is the author of a very popular slash fic between Simon and Draco Malfoy stand-in, Baz.

So the mere existence of Carry On is a bit strange. Our universe already has a Harry Potter. We don’t another (fictional) universe’s Harry Potter too. It’s too many levels of meta. An actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional bestselling series that was based on an actual bestselling series. Add in the fact that Cath’s story in Fangirl is called Carry On, Simon, and you’ve basically got an actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional popular fanfic inspired by a fictional bestselling series that’s closely based on an actual bestselling series.

My head hurts already.

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The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine

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The Impostor Queen is an amazing fantasy novel. It’s fast-paced fun, with a compelling protagonist, enthralling world-building, an intriguing magic system, and some great romance for flavor.

Elli has grown up knowing she’s fated to be the Valtia, the most powerful woman in the land, who uses her control over fire and ice to ensure peace and prosperity in the kingdom. Isolated from the rest of the world, she’s been taught to always trust her priests and to put her kingdom first. But when the old Valtia dies, Elli does not inherit her powers. After being forced to endure increasingly dangerous trials to unleash her magic, Elli learns that her priests plan to murder her, and she’s forced to flee the only life she’s ever known.

Although The Impostor Queen is epic fantasy full of magic and danger, at its heart, it’s very character driven — a story of characters figuring out who they are. As the story develops, it has lots of fantastic feminist themes: of self empowerment, of definition, of strength and courage in many forms. Elli isn’t the Valtia, so who is she? At first, she dismisses herself as a weak no-one, no use to anybody. The Impostor Queen is really about Elli learning to define herself separately from her title and deciding who she wants to be.

The book is also full of fascinating female relationships, particularly the one between the Valtia and her young successor, and the strong emotional bond they share despite other people’s attempts to control and isolate them.

Of course, all my favorite things about the novel are huge spoilers, as is often the case in books full of big plot twists and characters’ self discovery. But it is a wonderful, absorbing and compelling novel, with a lot of things to say. The first in a series, but a satisfying story in itself, and definitely worth a read.

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I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Meet my new favorite novel.

I was a huge fan of Jandy Nelson’s first book, The Sky is Everywhere, but for some reason, I was really slow to pick up her second book after it was finally released last year. On the bright side, this means I got the emotional-rollercoaster-esque pleasure of reading it now, at just the time I needed it.

I’ll Give You The Sun is the story of two twins who grow apart, before and after a tragedy. The “before” story belongs to thirteen year old Noah, an aspiring artist and outsider who sketches constantly and dreams of going to art school. He used to be inseparable from his twin sister Jude, but recently she’s turned into a popular surfing daredevil, scornful of his “weirdness” and jealous of his talent and closeness with their mom. When the charismatic stargazer Brian moves next door, Noah instantly falls in love, but does Brian feel the same way?

The “after” belongs to the sixteen year old Jude, a superstitious, closed-off sculptor who’s failing out of art school and has barely spoken to her more-popular brother in years. When she decides that she needs to create a stone sculpture to send a message to her dead mother, she sets out to convince a local unpredictable artist to mentor her. In the process, she meets Oscar, a blatant “don’t go near him, he’s trouble” guy who tests her self-imposed boy boycott.

As the back of the book says, Jude and Noah each only have half of the story. They know half of what happened to their family, half of what happened to their mom, half of what happened to their relationship with one another. They moved seemingly irreparably apart, but they need to move past their guilt and resentment and talk to one another in order to piece the truth together.

I’ll admit, when I read the first page, my main thought was, “I can’t read this.” Nelson’s writing is very metaphorical and poetic, and it takes a couple of pages to get used to it. But once I did, the writing style felt emotional but natural, and made perfect sense in the context of melodramatic tortured-artist-soul Noah and closed-off, guilt ridden Jude. It’s very artsy, but the whole book is about the emotional power of art, so somehow, it works.

And when I say it works, I mean it really, really works. This book is beautiful and emotionally devastating and revealing and uplifting and generally wonderful.

It’s not flawless, of course. I had some issues with the romance, in particular — not with how they’re written, as it’s very easy to get swept up with both stories, but in an objective, “seriously, Jude, this guy may be charismatic but he’s also 19 and this is not a good idea” way. But beyond a little frustration in the moment, this didn’t really affect my feelings on the book.

I’ll Give You The Sun absolutely captivated me. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, flaws and all. I’m completely in love.

Please read it.

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The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood

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Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is a YA attempt at The Handmaid’s Tale… with magic.

The series is set in an oppressive version of 1890s New England, where society is run by the Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists who insist that all women either marry at 18 or join their nun equivalent, the Sisterhood. Once, New England was run by witches, but they were almost all killed in a religious uprising, and now any woman suspected of “impropriety,” or accused of witchcraft, is sent to work on a prison ship, locked up in the infamous Harwood Asylum, or simply disappears without a trace.

Cate Cahill and her two younger sisters are all witches. They practice magic in secret, but as their mother died when they were young, they know very little about their powers or magic’s past. Cate has sworn to protect her younger sisters from the Brotherhood, but her eighteenth birthday approaches, when she must either find someone to propose to her, or be married off at the Brotherhood’s behest — and they don’t like quiet, strange girls like Cate at all.

Religious oppression runs deep in this book, and it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but, as I said, this is very much a YA version of that theme, both in the sense that it has romance that’s central to the story, and in the sense that it has hope. Things get pretty grim, but they’re never hopelessly grim, in part because magic is real, the girls do have power, and we always get the sense that they’ll be able to do something about their oppression in the end. It’s that YA dystopian “the world sucks, but teenagers might be able to fix it” thing, and it helps the book feel far more fun than it otherwise could have been.

The initial plot set-up is very marriage-plot-esque — Cate must declare her intention to marry in a few months time, or her husband will be chosen for her. And this does play a significant role in the story. But this plotline is quickly overtaken by Cate’s discovery that her mother didn’t tell her everything about her magic, and that protecting her sisters may not be as simple as she once hoped.

At its heart, The Cahill Witch Chronicles is about the relationship between these three sisters. Although it has a couple of love interests and a dead-mother trope, it’s full of vibrant female characters and their many complicated relationships with one another. It’s also a very diverse book, embracing the idea that if this alternate history can have actual witches, it can definitely have people who aren’t white. So the richest and most influential people in the town are the Ishida family, with Brother Ishida as a major antagonist and his daughter Sachi playing an important role in Cate’s story. This basic principle of “if you can have magic, you can have diversity” is found throughout all three books, and it’s a refreshing change.

Also, lesbian witches!

This is a great book series for fans of Libba Bray, Robin LeFevers, or any “Victorian magic!” style fiction. I devoured all three books in about two days, and I can’t wait to see what this author writes next.

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Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

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After three years, the long-awaited sequel to Libba Bray’s The Diviners has finally hit shelves!

Since The Diviners is one of my favorite books of all time, my expectations for Lair of Dreams were pretty darn high. Probably too high, really. Few books can live up to three years of waiting, especially when readers are expecting for it to be another “best book of all time.”

Luckily, although Lair of Dreams is far from perfect, it is a truly beautiful book. It manages to recapture the magic of its predecessor while bringing its readers something new, and Libba Bray’s characters and prose enchant from the start. In this addition to the Diviners series, 1920s New York is experiencing Diviners Mania, with everyone wanting a piece of those newly-discovered seers and miracle-workers. But a deadly sleeping sickness is sweeping through Chinatown, and no one knows who it might strike next.

Lair of Dreams is fully of fascinating, well-drawn characters, and is absolutely brimming with diversity. Anyone who claims that you can’t have or don’t need diversity in historical fiction needs to read this book. We’ve got Irish-Chinese Ling, who has to use braces to walk after surviving polio and develops a crush on another girl. Or Memphis, who dreams of being part of the Harlem Renaissance, and his white, small-town, dream-big dancer girlfriend Theta, running from a murder she accidentally committed. We see Jewish immigrant Sam who’s reinventing himself in order to succeed, and Evie, the Sweetheart Seer, who parties until she forgets, and Henry, who’s searching for his lost lover Louis in dreams. The line-up of protagonists can make it slightly hard to get re-invested in the book at first, since the narrative jumps perspective so much, but every one of them is compelling and unique.

And Lair of Dreams isn’t just nominally diverse. It has diversity in its settings, in its secondary characters, and in its perspective, addressing issues of racism, prejudiced hysteria, and the dark underside of the glittering twenties that weren’t so glittering for everyone.

The novel is written in the gorgeous prose that Libba Bray is known for, with not a single word wasted. It’s lush, immersive and thematic, treating 1920s Manhattan as a compelling character all of its own, treating dreams with such skill that they feel like a character in the novel too. Her worldbuilding, her attention to detail, the voices of her characters, the life she imbues her setting… Libba Bray really offers everything as a novelist, and it’s all on display here.

Unfortunately, the novel does have a few issues. It’s slow to start, with the plot very much a slow burn. The inclusion of so many different disparate characters and plotlines, most of which didn’t seem connected to the main “sleeping sickness” plot until near the end, also made it difficult to get hooked. I read the first 30% of the novel with a kind of detached appreciation, knowing it was fantastic, but not feeling particularly compelled to read multiple chapters or pick it up quickly again.

The novel is also written in third person omniscient, meaning that we jump around and hear different characters’ perspectives within single scenes. This is good for getting a more objective “bird’s eye view” look at what everyone is thinking or feeling, but it’s a style that I find slightly jarring, which hurt the reading experience a bit.

But once the story comes together, it really comes together. This is punch-you-in-the-gut novel, gripping and emotional, with one realization in particular that left me gaping at the book in dawning horror and that I’m still not recovered from weeks later. It took me a week to read the first third of this book and a day to read the rest, and I closed it both desperate for the next instalment and envious of those people who still got to experience this one.

If you read and enjoyed The Diviners, definitely read this one. And if you haven’t read the Diviners… I recommend you go read that, and then read this one, without the agonizing three year wait in between.

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Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA

Many people have been talking recently about a post on the Fantasy subreddit, discussing why it can be hard to find female authors of epic fantasy, and why people assume that those female authors who do exist must be writing urban fantasy or YA.

It led to an extended, interesting and depressing conversation, with highlights including examples of war fantasy being given romance-y cover, just because it was written by women, discussion of the pressure on female authors to switch to YA, and author Janny Wurts strongly recommending that new female authors of epic fantasy use their initials or a pseudonym in order to be successful.

And it got me thinking about female fantasy authors, and the relationship between “regular” epic fantasy and YA. As a YA fantasy author myself, I obviously don’t see any problems with female authors writing that genre, and I find it somewhat offensive that people assume a book must be bad purely because it has the YA label (those people have clearly never read books like Shadow and Bone and The Winner’s Curse). As YA is “for children,” and specifically “for girls,” it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes. In short, female authors are shunted off into another genre, and then are considered lesser because they’re there with all the other women.

Meanwhile, we’re told, “real” authors would fight to stay in epic fantasy — but face the fact that they’ll receive little support and are unlikely to have success while they’re there.

Everything about this invented dichotomy — female writers who sell out, write “bad fantasy” and succeed, and female writers who write “good fantasy” and are ignored — is irritating, to say the least. We shouldn’t need to defend female authors’ work by saying “it’s not YA!” and “it’s actually good!”, as though those were different from the norm.  Women shouldn’t feel like they’re betraying fantasy by choosing to write YA, either out of preference or necessity, or like they have to define themselves as “not like other female writers” in order to succeed.

The UK doesn’t have as big a YA industry as the US, and YA fantasy even less so. In fact, maybe YA fantasies in the US are published as adult fantasy here. Perhaps that is a blessing in one way, as female authors are not shoe-horned into YA. But it also means that female fantasy authors lose the one not-entirely-romance fantasy genre where they aren’t shoved into the background. With YA fantasy published along with epic fantasy, authors all have to face the same issues with a lack of shelf space and promotional opportunities.

So we see things like the famous Waterstones controversy, when Fox Meadows reported that the bookshop’s fantasy book recs booklet contained 113 authors, but only 9 women, and zero authors who weren’t white. Even more laughably, Juliet E. McKenna reported that when she challenged bookstore staff about the fact that they almost exclusively recommend male authors on their table displays, she was told that “women don’t write fantasy.” Assumedly they didn’t realize they were talking to a female fantasy author at the time.

As another example, the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy this year did not feature a single female nominee in either “best fantasy novel” or “best debut,” and only one female author has won in either category since it started in 2009.

To get a picture of how “unusual” women are considered in epic fantasy, I have an anecdote about my own local Waterstones: there’s We Need Diverse Books table in its fantasy section, which is definitely massive progress. But We Need Diverse Books is all about diverse authors writing about diverse characters in children’s books and YA, specifically about racial diversity, sexuality, gender identity, and disabilities. Most of the books on the table did not fit those criteria. Many were books by white female authors, because that was considered a major minority group (not to mention that, assumedly, the curators did not know of any other diverse fantasy novels to include).

There has been some positive change, of course — I recently saw a different fantasy table simply titled “get hooked on a new series” that ONLY featured female authors, without any mention of their gender, for example. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I must admit, I haven’t read many female authors of epic fantasy. Actually, the list may be “Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Jen Williams,” and at first I didn’t even know Robin Hobb was a woman. I haven’t read widely in the epic fantasy genre in general, as most of my reading time is spent on keeping up with new YA releases, but I’ve definitely read more male writers than female, and I could definitely name many male writers, and only one or two female writers.

I make no apology for prioritizing YA fantasy novels, because I enjoy them, it’s part of my job to stay current on the genre, and authors in that genre are worthy of support too. But the best way to address these issues is to buy, read, discuss and recommend epic fantasy novels from female authors as well, particularly from those who publish under their own name. I’m sure the recommendations of a female YA author who writes on a website called Feminist Fiction will mean little to anyone who already thinks that women only write YA and romance, but as these books are generally less publicized, less discussed and left off of recommendation lists, I hope that I’ll at least be able to find some interesting books, and maybe have some interesting discussions about the work of female writers in a genre that is still male dominated, in terms of both characters and authors.

So that is my challenge for the rest of the year — to read as many female YA epic fantasy authors (particularly those writing female protagonists and not using male pseudonyms) as possible, and to discuss them here. “As many as possible” is not going to be a deluge, because epic fantasy is time consuming and my “to read” list is already a bit jammed, but I’m going to do the best I can!

And if you have any recommendations of epic fantasy written by female authors, and particularly ones that deserve more attention than they’ve received, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts.

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The “Pills are Evil” Trope

Although I mostly enjoyed Brooke Soso’s plotline in the latest season of Orange is the New Black, the narrative arc exploring depression had one major flaw: it suggested that a therapist giving Soso a prescription for anti-depressants was dangerous and negligent, and that only therapy could possibly help her.

And this is a common problem even in progressive fiction. Therapy gets a pretty fifty-fifty treatment — some stories present it was pointless and weak, while others invoke it in a more positive way — but prescription medication for mental health is almost always presented as a bad thing. Anti-depressants, according to these stories, numb your emotions and transform you into a different person. They are not treatment but torture, and no one who actually wants to “be themselves” will take them.

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