Review: Aliens on Holiday

Reasons for Inclusion:

Major character is from a non-gendered species with poly families.

My Review

(4/5 stars)

This was a very enjoyable middle grade science fiction adventure, full of likable heroes and dastardly villains, dramatic fights, and a few good lessons as well.

Alex is an ordinary English boy, but his friend Shakespeare is far from ordinary. He’s a shapeshifting alien undercover cop, and he needs Alex and his family’s help to catch a gang of other aliens who want to trade drugs for the weapons they can’t get anywhere but Earth. So begins a vacation to France filled with car chases, alien spaceships, monster attacks, and outer space tech.

The book touches on serious issues: the drug trade, violence, illegal weapons. In a slight (but well-deserved) jab at American laws, the antagonists are getting their guns from Walmart. Other species outlaw powerful weapons, and Shakespeare’s pacifist culture doesn’t even produce them.

Shakespeare’s philosophy about violence was one of the best parts of the story. While he considers the rest of his people a little naive for their inability to conceive of violence and for selling dangerous machinery to known villains without realizing how they’re going to abuse it, he doesn’t accept killing either. He’ll rescue a man he thinks is a drug smuggler, because he’s a person and it would be wrong to let him die. And like the other Dancers, he solves problems through communication instead of violence. Even when talking it out won’t work and he has to resort to trickery, he makes sure no unnecessary harm is done.

In addition to the strong morals and thrilling action, there’s a little queerness too. Shakespeare’s species doesn’t have gender. Each individual has between three and seven parents, making Shakespeare’s five average. He’s mostly seen in the form of a male human, which is how Alex knows him best. Shakespeare’s boss knows him best in the form of a female of her species, and so uses she/hers. The one other Dancer we see, one of Shakespeare’s parents, is (a little disappointingly) referred to as he/him in the narration.

This book was a lot of fun. There’s things in it for both a young audience and an older one, and I recommend it to both.

Review: The High King’s Golden Tongue

Reasons for Inclusion: Gay protagonists and secondary characters, egalitarian society, men can have babies, secondary characters include interracial lesbian couple. Characters are of various skin colors. 

My Review:

(4.5/5 stars)

High King Sarrica wants his fiance to be a soldier, just like his late husband had been. Prince Allen turns out instead to be a beautiful diplomat and genius linguist- something Sarrica has no patience for. He rebuffs Allen, but before he can leave in humiliation, Allen’s skills make him indispensable among the soldiers and palace staff. With his ability to communicate across language and culture borders, Allen fixes problems left and right, but the king will not listen, until Allen leaves on a dangerous mission and Sarrica finally realizes what he might lose.

This was one of my favorite reads this month. I loved the characters and their interactions. Allen might not be a warrior, but languages and diplomacy are just as important when it comes to running a kingdom. He’s kind, helping Sarrica’s staff even when the king himself has been unforgivably rude. One of the best scenes was when Allen comes across a merchant beating an apprentice in the streets and puts a stop to it. 

Sarrica was especially interesting, if not as immediately likable. He knows he’s being an ass, something his advisors don’t hesitate to tell him either. But in between mourning his dead husband, raising his kids, running a country, and dealing with migraines, he doesn’t have the time to consider why the match might be more suitable than he first assumes.

The side characters are fun. Two of Sarrica’s advisors are his brothers-in-law. One, Rene, has romantic troubles of his own to deal with. Various castle staff have names and personalities, as do the soldiers of the Three-Headed Dragons mercenary band Allen travels with.

The worldbuilding was complex and satisfying. Allen’s education as a “silver tongue”  is essential in this world of varied languages and customs. Same-sex couples are the norm, poly families are mentioned, and the soldiers Allen travels with are of at least three genders. Women are in high positions in military and government. Men can have babies (as Sarrica’s husband did), although how this works is never fully explained. An interracial lesbian couple feature as important side characters.

The pacing felt a little odd, though. The middle of the story felt like it would be the end of a shorter work, but the story stuck around to tie up loose ends and prolong the relationship angst. This wasn’t a problem; it made sense and didn’t leave things hanging, but it was just a little unusual.  I was very happy to have another half a book to read about these characters!  

Megan Derr is writing a companion novel about some of the secondary characters, set to be released next year. I’m looking forward  to returning to this world!

Review: Disciple

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Reasons for Inclusion: Chinese-inspired setting and magic system. 

My Review:

(3.5/5 stars)

When Celine dies, she’s reborn as a baby in a fictional world. But she’s not the hero of this story, she’s the villain, Shann. While training in elemental magic at Sue Sierra, she has to use her knowledge of the story and her own wits to avoid suffering  Shann’s defeat by the hero of the book. But will her dedication to her quest lead her down the same dark path?

The Chinese-inspired magic system of the book was very interesting. The Immortals can live for centuries and possess powers based on one or more of the five elements (water, wood, earth, metal, fire) or “mutated” forms of them. Unlike in a lot of other works, here the most powerful people are those who specialize in only one or two elements. Having potential for all five is seen as the worst situation to begin from.  

The world is very reminiscent of wuxia martial arts movies. There are distinct ranks of power, which a student advances through by increasing their internal strength, or by eating special “pellets.” Novices seek to be trained by selective master immortals, fighting each other in duels to earn the right to ask to be taught. They spend years in seclusion meditating or studying  in order to advance ranks. Shann goes on several quests to find magical items. People travel on flying swords and canoes, magic apparatuses “choose” one master to bond with, currency comes in the form of energy-infused ling stones, and spells called fu are sold as pieces of paper than activate when needed.

 I really liked the idea of Shann as the antagonist fighting her destiny. She remembers bits and pieces from the Book of Immortals, and uses this to her advantage.  But it isn’t so easy to rewrite the book. As she makes gains, her actions get more and more questionable. Will avoiding being the villain make her one after all?

 On the negative side, I did find the action a little contrived sometimes and some of the writing immature, especially in the “real world” scenes.

This book by an WOC indie author had a lot of imagination in it that’ll definitely appeal to fans of Eastern mythology and martial arts movies. 

(Review copy from Netgalley)

Short: From Stars They Fell

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Reasons for Inclusion: Protagonist is from a culture without gender, uses ze/hir pronouns for self and as a default. Love interest is deaf and black. Sign language is important to the story.

My Review:

(4/5 stars)

I’ve been looking forward to this story ever since I spotted it on the Forthcoming list. And I wasn’t disappointed: there’s a curious alien, a welcoming community, and plenty of diversity.

Veni crashlands on Earth after escaping a perilous political situation on hir homeworld. Luckily, ze has translation software, so ze can talk to the people ze meets. Veni’s species doesn’t have gender, so they use ze/hir pronouns for everybody. (Social distinction is instead drawn between long- and short-winged individuals, but even then, there are people in between.) Veni, when told about gender, adapts to the dwarves’ he and she, but continues to use ze for unknowns. What’s really interesting here (and reminiscent of Diskworld!) is that dwarf gender presentation isn’t like human presentation- women have beards!

And then the romance comes in. Wystan, who trades with the dwarves’ community, is deaf, and his use of sign language intrigues Veni. Through hir translation program, ze is able to communicate easily in Wystan’s own language, and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes romantic.

I really loved the way the story handled cultural differences. Veni, the dwarves, and Wystan had several interesting conversations about aspects of their cultures, and nobody was rude or judgmental. I hope I can find more stories like this!

(Review copy received through Netgalley) 

Review: Banished Sons of Poseidon

Reasons for Inclusion: Gay characters. Hanhau’s people are darker-skinned than the Atlanteans and are led by a warrior queen (which might indicate a matriarchy).

My Review:

(4.5/5 stars)

(Disclaimer: I haven’t read the prequel to this book, The Seventh Pleiade) 

Damianos isn’t a hero. He’s only the dishonored cousin of the real hero, Prince Aerander, who led his people to safety after the collapse of Atlantis. But life is better here then it had been in Atlantis, and Dam is able to carve out a life among the underground civilization sheltering the Atlantean refugees. There are still ungrateful bullies, who insult their hosts and taunt Dam for his old sins, but there’s also Hanhau, an attractive warrior boy willing to accept Dam, flaws and all.  

Just as things seem to be going well, and the Atlanteans choose Aerander over the rebels in an unprecedented election, disaster strikes when the source of their power is stolen. Dam and his new boyfriend join the quest to get it back.

Dam fights all sorts of underworld monsters, survives explosions and earthquakes, and eventually masters mythical powers in pursuit of his goal. He must seek help from a banished goddess and an old enemy if he wants to succeed.

I especially loved the themes of trust and dealing with the past. Dam struggles to overcome the stigma of having been abused by some of the other boys and then tricked into a foolish plot that nearly killed them. For some Atlanteans, this counts for a lot. Hanhau’s people, in contrast, see a man’s present deeds as far more important than the past. The differences between Hanhau’s culture and Dam’s were interesting too. The worldbuilding was very nicely handled, and both worlds felt like they could have a life beyond what we see on the page.

The theme of trust and the past comes up again when Dam has to trust an old enemy, and a goddess who once loved that enemy. Should the past define their present, or should Dam move forward with whatever help he can get?

This book was a lot of fun to read, full of monsters and magic and vibrant characters, and it brought up some deep questions. The roots in Greek mythology made it even better.

Review: Idol of Bone

Reasons for Inclusion: Jak is agender and doesn’t use pronouns, several other characters have magically changed sex/gender in the past. There is a lesbian couple that includes a trans woman. The Meer and Delta cultures seem to correspond to something other than western/white cultures.

My Review:

(4/5 stars)

Idol of Bone is a dark and complicated story set in places that span from rich temples to cozy underground villages to the hopeless shadowed streets.

Ra comes in existence on a snowy night. She is welcomed by the Moundholder villagers, including Jak, who rejects gender and doesn’t use pronouns, and Ahr, who has a dark past of his own that intertwines with Ra’s former life. 

Ra is one of the Meer, a race once treated as gods for their ability to conjure matter out of thin air. The Meer were exterminated in an uprising by the Deltan people, and Meerhunters still roam the country looking for remainders- looking for Ra. 

Delving any further into the plot would involve spoilers, so I’ll move on to the gender diversity in the book.

Jak is agender and pansexual, and the Moundholders don’t seem to object to any of that. They might think Jak’s lack of gender is unusual, but they still respect it. The townspeople have stricter gender roles. When the lesbian couple in the book, Ume and Cree, are in public, Cree dresses as a man. Her partner, Ume, is trans, and apparently passes as a woman to most people. The people of the Delta, the society Ume and Cree fled from, have laws about gender presentation and treat any “transgression” as a crime.

Gender is treated as an important part of identity. Anyone who intentionally misgenders a character is a villain. The antagonist raises a child slave as “it”, stealing the child’s identity. Rediscovering gender is crucial to this character’s development. But gender isn’t required to be a person- Jak’s choice to go without it is just as valid.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy and seeing where the characters go from here.

 (ARC received from publisher)

Series: The Oracle

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Thanks to Less Than Three Press for the review copy!

Reasons for Inclusion: M/M romances, first story features a poly relationship.

About:

In the Oracle’s Monastery, people of the four Castes manipulate the four elements, the quadrants led by their Dragons. All are guided by the Oracle who can see the possible futures of the world.

An evil king has taken command, ruining the land, harming the people, and sending the true prince into hiding. The Oracle seeks the best future, achieving it by careful manipulation of her people. 

This series may be set against political intrigue and world-changing destiny, but really, it’s about the characters. It’s about Dragon finding victory, love, and family with the twins on the pirate ship, outcast Ling finding a kindred spirit in the equally outcast son of the ousted usurper king. Lost Golem finding love and hope after suffering for the Oracle’s plan. 

I liked this world’s take on the four elements. Most people can use all of them to some extent, but the Testing shows their affinity and power level. The negative implications of this system are explored in full. The super-powered Dragons gain adoring followers only out for their own gain. Those without great power are bullied and dismissed as useless.

The Oracle’s manipulations don’t come without victims. The third story focuses on the man she seduced in order to have the child who would fill a needed position in the future. He was left convinced he caused her death, and now has faded away until he’s nearly just another rock in the mountain.

This darkness does not come without hope. The stories are also full of kind and welcoming characters. The romances usually follow a theme: both partners feel they don’t fit in, and then find someone who accepts him for who he is and helps him find his place in the Oracle’s plan. The cook is the first person who doesn’t tease Dragon for his seasickness while his twin teaches Dragon about sailing. Ling is the first person not to see Prince Damarion, the son of the usurper, as evil because of his parentage. Marl doesn’t judge Golem’s history, and Golem doesn’t see Marl as weak and useless. Keir doesn’t force Sprite to be anything he doesn’t want to be, and Sprite sees Keir as more than just a military hero.

Occasionally the dialogue felt a little fake, or the plot came together a bit too cleanly, but these were still very enjoyable stories.

Fire, Earth, and Air have all been covered, as well as Ether, the combination of the four. The next story, The Oracle’s Current, will focus on Water. I’m looking forward to it!