Sunday, 27 April 2014

Book Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

Title: Pantomime
Author: Laura Lam
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, LGBT
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Published: 2013
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A modified blurb (borrowed from The Book Smugglers):  

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

An intersex teen, Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, raised as the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Gene’s parents wish to force a decision on which gender Gene will spend the rest of Gene’s life as, so Gene runs away from home, assumes the identity of Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. 

Why I read it: A month ago, I’d never heard of this book. Then I noticed it being talked about repeatedly – reviews of the book, reviews of its sequel, discussions on its straightwashed blurb (more on that later) – and bam, my curiosity was piqued. Plus I always want to support the authors who are queering up my favourite genre :D

My thoughts:

So the first thing I did after finishing this book was go straight to Amazon and download the next one. I think that says something about how much I liked it.

The main character is a boy called Micah – a bisexual & intersex lad raised as a lady. (I suppose it’s more accurate to say he identifies as genderqueer rather than male, but I’m using male pronouns for this review.) Pantomime is basically his coming-out story. It follows Micah as he abandons the luxurious world of a noble debutant and careens into the freewheeling life of a circus performer – and honestly, it’s a very fun ride. While Micah does spend a lot of this book lying through his teeth and fearing discovery, he also seems at home at the circus; it suits his reckless & independent side, and of course there’s love on the horizon.

This is a low-magic world, and at times it feels like the fantasy realm Lam has created is little more than window-dressing for Micah’s story. We hear mentions of mysterious domes of penglass littering the landscape, and of expensive vestige artefacts capable of creating illusions. However, these are primarily curios that nobody understands or can fix when broken. The only hint of real magic seems connected to Micah which – along with some odd stories about the intersex gods of old – suggests that Micah’s identity might come complete with magic powers. I’ve read quite a few reviews that rail against this idea, but personally I like it. Without the magic, this book is little more than a queer coming-of-age. There’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve just seen it before. A lot. (Pretty sure I read every single YA LGBTI novel available at the library back in the day.) But this is a fantasy book. Why not tie the sex of the main character to their budding magical ability? Wheel of Time did it (with male & female strains of magic).  Possibly other books have done too. So I don't see why linking magic to intersexuality should be any different. 

I also liked the circus aspect of the story. How could I not? Trapeze artists are awesome. Micah also acknowledges the dismal lives of the animals early on, which I appreciated. At times, the whole thing reminded me of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (although this is possibly because my brain went preforming arts + queers + 19th century chaos and came up with the closest match, rather than any real similarity between the two novels). I did want more magic & noble politics, but I’m assuming that will come to the fore in book two. Fingers crossed, anyway.

There isn’t much else I can say about this one. It was a fun, short read – definitely recommended.

Also, a couple of thoughts on the blurb:

Laura Lam has stated (on Goodreads, in response to a question I posted) that she didn’t expect Micah’s gender identity to be a spoiler, and that she’d happily describe him as intersex for potential readers.

So the problem was really with Strange Chemistry's marketing team. I don’t understand their decision at all - it doesn't make any sense. The entire plot of this novel is basically about Micah’s quest to control is own life and his eventual coming-out. It has fantasy elements, but they’re minimal. Obscuring the LGBTI content means this book will be a lot harder for queer teenagers to find, and I imagine a lot of queer kids would really want to read this book. As for straight readers… well, the majority of homophobic folks are older, not younger. I seriously doubt this would turn off its intended audience. So... why bother?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: My Favourite Queer Characters

Another Tuesday, another top ten list. (Thanks, The Broke & The Bookish!) This week’s topic is the top ten characters who are insert adjective here. My list? My top ten queers from speculative fiction. Only I've just got 7, because there’s not a lot to choose from. 

I should note that these aren’t the only LGBTI characters in fantasy. There are books I haven’t read that I know have queer content. (Ash by Melinda Lo, I’m looking at you. You’re on my TBR.) There are books I have read that – apparently – have queer characters that I simply don’t recall. (For example, GLBT Fantasy Fiction Resources tells me that The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay has a bisexual male protagonist, and that China Mieville wrote a lesbian into Perdido Street Station. I think I read some books by Mercedes Lackey that had queer characters too, but it was long ago I honestly don’t remember). There are also books that have queer characters deliberately left off this list, because I think they were misrepresented or badly-written. 

Also? The one upside to making this list was discovering that Nicola Griffith (who wrote Hild) is a lesbian. I’ve been planning to get around to Affiny by Sarah Waters for a while now, but I think I might try Griffith’s Slow Rivers instead. It’s got some very nice reviews over on Goodreads. 

1. Phedre No Delauney from the Kushiel’s Legacy novels by Jacqueline Carey.
Love as thou wilt. God, I adore these books. Not only are they absolutely perfect epic fantasy novels, they are full of queer characters doing their thing. I’ve decided to highlight Phedre here because of her enduring connection to Melisande & her overall awesomeness (because who doesn’t love brave, thoughtful, and incredibly sexy linguists?) but honestly, I could have chosen about half the characters from this series to gush over. 

2. Micah Grey from Pantomine by Laura Lam
Micah’s an intersex, bisexual teenager who runs away & joins the circus. He spends a lot of the book being duplicitous and afraid, which makes sense given his circumstances. Still, he seems like a nice guy underneath all the fear. The first book of this trilogy really reads like your standard coming-out-story, just one set in a fantasy world. However, there is a sequel; I can’t wait to read it and watch Micah grow into his own skin (and hopefully start causing some magical chaos!). 

3. Loup & Pilar from the Santa Olivia & Saints Astray books by Jacqueline Carey
I loved these books. From the way Santa Olivia was marketed, you expect to read some dystopian werewolf novel. Instead you get a beautiful coming-of-age tale with a surprise lesbian romance. And these characters! Loup is brilliant, but Pilar… Pilar is amazing. It’s so refreshing to see a flirty, femme heroine doing her thing and still managing to be a badass without being scorned by the text. 

4. Lillia from the Traitor Spy Trilogy by Trudi Canavan
I really like Trudi Canvan’s work: partly because her novels are fun, and partly because she regularly puts queer characters in them. (Yes, I’m shallow. What can I say? I like reading about people who occasionally function like myself!) I liked Dannyl as a character, but Lillia has to be my favourite. She’s one of the main characters in Canavan’s Traitor Spy trilogy, a naïve and earnest girl who gets to fall in love multiple times and will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with in the future. 

5. Professor Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling
Yes, I know this was only made canon after the series ended & there’s absolutely no hint of this in the books. (Such a missed opportunity, JK!)  But I spent my teenage years reading far too much Harry Potter fanfic – so as far as I’m concerned, everyone at Hogwarts was gay. The school was basically the magical academy version of Lip Service. Or maybe The L Word. One or the other. 

6. Daisy from the Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey

These books aren’t my favourite because I’m not a huge fan of paranormal romance. However, I really like Daisy. She’s a strong character. She also happens to be bisexual. I don’t care that she swings closer to the het side of the spectrum – there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just so nice reading stories that feature people with a range of sexualities, especially when queer folk get to be protagonists rather than just the best friend.

7. Daja from the Circle of Magic & Circle Opens Quartets by Tamora Pierce
I was obsessed with Tamora Pierce books as a teenager. Especially her Tortall ones – I read them repeatedly, probably over 50 times. There are quite a few side characters who are queer in her books (Thom, Lalasa, Nestor & Okha, Lark & Rosethorn) but it meant so much me when Daja came out. I think I was so happy I cried! And it certainly cemented The Will of The Empress as one of my favourite YA novels. 

So, who have I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Book Review: Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

Title: Sarah’s Key
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Genre: Historical/ Contemporary
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Published: 2007
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Blurb (taken from Goodreads): Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life

Why I read it: 
A friend gave this to me years ago and it’s been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. I figured now would be a good time to get around to it!


The historical framework underlying Sarah’s Key is grim. It concerns the 1942 Vel D’Hiv roundup, where French policemen arrested over 13,000 Jewish familes in Paris. Women & children made up most of the detainees (a lot of men had gone into hiding, but expected their families to be safe). Confined in a large velodrome for the better part of a week, police later shipped their victims off to concentration camps. Most were gassed at Auschwitz. Before reading this novel, I’d never even heard of the incident (although I’m neither French nor a historian, so perhaps that’s not surprising). Either way, it’s unbelievably horrible – although the book itself is quite good.

Most of the novel shifts between two viewpoints. The first is Sarah’s:  a sheltered 10-year-old Jewish girl, who gets arrested by French police at the start of the novel. However the main character is really Julia - an American journalist living in Paris, a woman working on an article to mark the sixtieth commemoration of the Vel D’hiv incident.

Sarah’s story is harrowing. When the police pound at the door in the night, she locks her 2-year-old brother in a cupboard to protect him. (You can probably work out what happens next. It’s not pretty.) However, Sarah doesn’t understand what’s happening as the authorities spirit her away; her parents never explained the political reality of the day, to her extreme detriment. I thought it was a pity she was so ignorant. As a teacher, I know kids that age can have surprising insight… although I also realise it would be an extremely awkward conversation.

Julia’s story is interesting enough. I didn’t really care about her failing marriage, but her relationship with her daughter (much more open than the one Sarah had with her parents) and her life as an expat in Paris were fascinating. I’ve never lived in Paris, but I’ve passed through there quite a lot, and the city seemed incredibly well-described. The throw-away comments about bakeries, tourists, the different arrondissments and expat magazines all rang true – although I did think Tatiana de Rosnay overused italicised French words occasionally. I speak the language so it wasn’t a problem for me, but other readers might find it frustrating.

The only other thing that bothered me about this book (aside from the fact I was reading a print copy!) were the very short chapters, and the fact that Sarah’s and Julie’s stories are told in different fonts. I found it jarring at first, but as the stories progressed I soon stopped noticing. So only a minor quibble…

Overall? This was an easy-to-read (and occasionally devastating) novel. I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Ten Most Unique Fantasy Books I've Ever Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a book meme hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

I actually haven’t done a Top Ten Tuesday in a couple of weeks, so I thought I’d jump on this one. The topic for this week was unique books we've read. Now I’m not sure if those on my list are the most unique books out there, but they’re all fantasy novels with a clever take on the genre.

1. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Two words: Mermaids & royalty. This book takes place in an alternative 16th century Earth where European rulers marry deepsmen to ensure control of local waters. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything similar.

2. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Billed as the adult version of Harry Potter, this book follows Quentin after he is accepted into a prestigious & secret magical academy. However Quentin is a spoiled brat, and the characters – all in their early 20s – spend a lot of their time angsting about what they want to do with their futures instead of being noble and heroic. It’s unexpected and rather enjoyable.

3.  The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams
A portal fantasy, where a musician named Theo gets sucked into the world of faerie. Only Faery has also undergone an industrial revolution, resulting in some twisted urban landscapes running off magic rather than electricity.

4. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
This book is bizarre, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. It's chaotic, urban, weird, unexpected... If you haven’t read it then you are missing out.

5. Feast of Souls by Celia Friedman
A very original take on vampires in a secondary-world fantasy. In this world, using magic consumes your own life-force - or the life-force of others, if you gain entry to the immortal order of Magisters. 

6. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
A book included on this list purely for the descriptions of communist domovye (house-elf) committees that run individual Russian households. And perhaps for Valente's lyrical writing.

7. The Secret Vampire by L. J. Smith
I read this book 15+ years ago, but I still remember it as one of the most original vampire novels I’ve ever read. The main character is Poppy, a teenager girl dying of cancer. Luckily, she also has a bloodsucking boyfriend. It’s a nice twist to your average vampire romance.

8. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson’s magic systems are so damn clever he had to make it on this list eventually. I wasn’t too fond of the writing in this one, but the magic system is stunning.

9. Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox
This book made it on this list for two reasons. The first was the setting - colonial NZ society through a fantasy lens. How often do you see that? The second is the plot, concerning a magical realm called ‘the Place’ where dreams can be harvested and shared among the wider population. It’s an interesting novel all around, and I say that as somebody who doesn’t read much YA.

10. Mystery Faery Novel
My google fu failed me with this book, and I can’t remember the title or the author. It tells the story of a woman who moves to Australia after a tragedy back in the UK. Unfortunately, she’s also being pursued by the Fairy King, who promptly swaps his court with the local one in Sydney so he can continue stalking her. I remember it being a good book, and a very clever way of importing British myth to an Australasian setting. If only I could remember its name! If you recognise it, please tell me...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Book Review: Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

Title: Somewhere in France
Author: Jennifer Robson
Genre: Historical Romance
Published: William Morrow & Company
Date Published: December 2013
Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

Why I read it:
I’ve read a lot of mediocre fantasy recently, and was craving something different. A book about an ambulance-driving WWI heroine seemed to fit the bill.

My Review:

Oh, this one was good. I loved almost everything about it – the setting, the characters, the central romance.

Lily (or the Lady Elizabeth) was a lovely heroine. The stifled aristocrat starts the novel full of good intentions but little agency – she’d like to make something of her life, but it seems unlikely she’d ever muster up the courage. How could she, with choices severely restricted not only by her gender, but also her class? But the war and her correspondence with Robbie, a surgeon with a working-class background, push her into action: first working as a clippie in London, later taking a position as an ambulance driver in France.

I’m not a historian, so I’ve no idea if Robson’s portrayal of English society was accurate or not. But it certainly made for a very different story. From glamorous Downton Abbey estates to the Western Front, the story is permeated with a sense of restrictive British propriety. Female soldiers are strictly segregated from the male troops. Men try not to swear around delicate, feminine ears, and worry about providing sweethearts with “the protection of their name.” This is made all the more ridiculous by the sheer horror of the surrounding war. Is it a cliché to say that Britain at this time really was another world? In any case, the all-pervasive sexism made me very glad I wasn’t born 100 years ago.

Somewhere in France also has a compelling plot (something I don’t often say about lit fic!). It’s tied up in two things – Lily’s dutiful quest to aid the war effort, and her romantic feelings towards Robbie. This romance comprised a large part of the story, and I’m frankly surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. While there are a few too many mentions of Robbie’s deep blue eyes, their relationship was mainly reserved and sweet. It also always came second to the demands of the war. And those demands! Life in London, training in the WAAC, being posted at a field hospital… I found it endlessly fascinating. The only thing I had difficulty believing was how Lily frequently hid her background. Surely her accent would have given her away?!

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical fiction.