Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan

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I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.

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Legend, by Marie Lu

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I dismissed this book too quickly.

I bounced from the jacket copy and didn’t click with the forecasted tropes. I saw there was a scion of a privileged family falling in love with a street rat with a heart of gold—all wrapped neatly in a dystopian shell—and I absolutely checked out. I only read it because it was still on my list and I felt compelled to finish it before I returned it to the library.

I misjudged Legend.

It’s not that those forecast tropes aren’t present. It’s not that the romance pulled me in (it didn’t).

It was the parallels Lu created between her two lead characters that caught me, her own reformulation of (as she put it) Javert and Valjean from Les Miserables. That was the twist I hadn’t expected, the one that convinced me I had to finish the book. That was what I really liked.

Past-Henry could have reminded me that I loved Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which used the same forecasted tropes. That book blew me away. Maybe then Present-Henry wouldn’t have been so surprised to enjoy Legend.

I must note that Legend is not The Summer Prince. Few books deliver so much beauty, normalized queer representation, and so many deep questions about the role of art and artists in society as The Summer Prince does.

But Legend zeroes in on and plays with two characters who are opposite sides of the same coin, and I had a lot of fun with that. I would certainly recommend it on those grounds. If you also like star-crossed lovers from different social strata, betrayal, intrigue, and murder then this book is definitely for you.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

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With only a little exposure to her work, I’m already a fan of Laini Taylor‘s words. Her evocations of character and place, particularly in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, are sumptuous and possess the brilliant clarity of a portrait etched in glass. If you’re fond of reading beautiful things and you like romantic YA fantasy, this is a good book for you.

There were several pieces of this book that made me bounce, but I think most of them are because I’m not this book’s target audience. For example…

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Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L. A. Meyer

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Yup! This one is pretty good too!

It’s almost a different genre though. Where the first book (*very mild genre spoilers*) was largely historical fiction and adventure, with a dash of romance towards the end, this one is more of a school social drama (still historical fiction), complicated by romance and a dash of adventure (*end spoilers*).

I’d say it’s still worth reading, but if you were only here for the sailing ships I’m afraid you’ll be rather disappointed. On the other hand, there were a few ships on the side as set dressing and I’m sure there will be more ships in the next book. And, of course, it’s still tremendous fun.

However! I should note that there’s some sexual harassment featured in this one, more so than in the last. The first book had a little, which ultimately ends rather poorly for the abuser (thank goodness). This one has more, at lower intensity for the vast majority, in other situations. I don’t think it’s been too much so far, but I’m not sure that I like this as a pattern.

On the one hand, sure, it makes sense to include some of this. I’m more willing to accept it in part because it doesn’t overshadow Jacky in any way, and her reactions to it feel quite real. It makes it clear how uncomfortable and unwanted that behavior is, and how confusing and difficult it can be to react to receiving it. If nothing else, it might be a decent learning experience for young not-female readers, where they can come away from it thinking “oh, that’s fucked up, we shouldn’t do things like that.” But on the other hand, I don’t want to keep reading about sexual harassment and assault in every Jacky Faber book. If that is an underlying theme of the series… well, I’d really rather that it weren’t.

This hasn’t been a terrible sticking point for me so far. But it might become one, and it may already be one for you. Forewarned is forearmed, etc.

And again, I still like this one and I’m planning to read the next book damn soon. So it obviously hasn’t stopped me yet.

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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I know, it’s not more Barium Deep. My apologies. But I’m busy and this is an easy recommendation to make. The Summer Prince is an excellent book. I won’t go in depth, because I have a submission due for my editor tomorrow and I want to give her more material, but it’s an excellent book and was one of the few items on my syllabus so far this semester that I’ve found myself reading for pleasure.

I guess I’m part of the target audience these days, but this gave me a great deal to think about in terms of art, and what art means and what it does. It also contains queer romance, and a sometimes hopeful sometimes not vision of a post-apocalyptic future. It’s very much worth reading.

Oh, and in case this is the sort of thing that you care about, this book is written by a woman of color and has (exclusively) non-white protagonists. I really liked it.

End of Semester Delays

My posting won’t go back to normal for the next two weeks, I think. I’m too distracted by the things I have to finish for my last two sets of classes.

On the up side, I have had a chance to look at lots of books recently, and I have a few to recommend.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a fun story in an awesome fantasy setting. My only reservations revolve around how it follows a bunch of romance genre conventions in a way that I find a little less appealing. This isn’t because I have something against good romance work — I love Bujold’s romance stories — but because I don’t like the dynamic between the two romance leads as much as I like the rest of the story. And to be clear, most of the story isn’t very heavy on the romance. But it is definitely there.

Hmm, that sounds less like the recommendation I thought I was writing and more like a warning. It’s a fun book, and I *do* recommend it. It has an Eastern European setting with witches and magic and Baba Yaga type stuff! What more could you want? I rather enjoyed it.

And, on the picturebook front, I strongly encourage you to look at Water Is Water, published last year. It is gorgeous. It has so much detail and setting layered into each image. As a Vermonter, it gave me little nostalgic quivers. It’s worth reading.

Classwork: Write in a genre you haven’t written before

I struggled with this one.  In part, I blame the flash fiction I’ve written.  I had a really hard time finding a genre that I hadn’t at least played around in before.  I suppose I should have written some magical realism, but I … well, I chickened out.  Instead, I threw together the first two pages of a short romance, which is a genre that I think I haven’t explored very much.

Maybe it was cheating?  I don’t know.  But you can read it after the break.

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The Fault In Our Stars Made Me Cry

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Have you ever tried crying surreptitiously on an airplane?  It’s a very strange experience, perhaps doubly so as a man when so much of our society puts a premium on men “being strong” (crying in public is a definite no-no).  I was always a bit weepy as a child, particularly where movies were concerned, and as a boy I was teased mercilessly for it.  I worked hard on suppressing that behavior, until I got to the point where almost nothing could make me cry; eventually, someone who was well and truly pissed with me called me “Ice man” for my lack of affect or reaction (not in a kind way, nor as a reference to young Val Kilmer… which might have been kind?).  I’ve definitely reached a happier emotionally demonstrative balance, but this balance has given me the questionable pleasure of feeling awkward, wiping away my tears while the woman sitting next to me (watching the same movie) was completely dry-eyed.  Oh well.  All of which was a round-about way of saying that The Fault In Our Stars (the movie, not the book which I haven’t yet read) made me cry.

The movie (and presumably the book) is about a teenaged woman who has survived a bout with cancer and come out with less than half the lung capacity she should have, the specter of cancer returning in the near future, and a tendency for her lungs to occasionally fill with fluid without warning.  She’s understandably less than enthused with life around her.  The story, however, focuses on her budding relationship with a boy who is also a cancer survivor, one who has escaped mostly unscathed.  Mostly.

Ok, look, I don’t want to spoil anything more for those of you who hate spoilers.  I’ll leave that for after the break.  Suffice to say, if you have loved ones who’ve gone through cancer (or died to cancer, or saw their loved ones go through cancer), you might find this movie a bit emotional.  There are other reasons for it to be both good and sad, like watching teenagers trying to deal with imminent mortality, but I invite you to find out on your own.  And as I mentioned above, maybe it will do nothing for you.  The lady sitting next to me certainly didn’t seem very effected.

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