Review: Stray

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Stray
by Elissa Sussman

★★★★½

2014 • 384 pages • Greenwillow Books

As we established in Friday’s interview with author Elissa Sussman, I’ve been following Stray’s journey as a book for a good long time. But in the context of this summer’s Maleficent, which managed to sneak an utterly radical feminist message by cunningly disguising itself as a hot mess of a movie, Stray feels both timely and desperately, gaspingly long-awaited.

Stray is the story of Princess Aislynn. Like all aristocratic girls in her culture, Aislynn is attending school in order to make her a graceful lady for her future husband and keep her firmly on the Path. The Path, a very thorough and strict set of teachings, accepted behaviors, and expectations for women, purports to protect women from their inherent magic, putting them under the protection of their male guardians. Aislynn, however, has trouble controlling her magic, and when her debut is ruined by a burst of magic, she is promptly Redirected: her “loving heart” is removed and she is sent off to become a fairy godmother, a ladies’ servant meant to serve as a living warning to aristocratic girls. Aislynn is assigned to the monarch princess, but the small freedoms she enjoys as a fairy godmother begin to make her realize that the Path may not be the only way to live.

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Interview: Elissa Sussman

I met Elissa Sussman by breaking the rules.

“I know it’s easy to do a little Googling and find these people, but please don’t contact these authors,” our instructor of the day said on a blazing hot day sometime last summer, as we all riffled through the pages on our tiny fold-out desks.

I peered over my printed out excerpt from what is now Stray, my foot looking for my lost heel somewhere on this stupid row (my big fidget then was popping one of my wedges on and off, thus my predicament), and made a face. Well, I thought, that’s not happening. It’s pretty simple: genre feminists think other genre feminists are pretty groovy. If you put feminist fantasy in front of me, I will seek it back to its source.

Said source turned out to be Elissa Sussman. Continue reading

Review: Gossamer Axe

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Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino

★★★★½

1990 • 351 pages • Roc

Gossamer Axe found its way onto my reading list after several commenters recommended it on a lesbian-focused installment of Tor.com’s column Sleeps with Monsters, but, like a lot of older and more obscure speculative fiction on my list, it happens to be out of print. I despaired of getting my hands on a library copy. (In retrospect, I probably could have picked a copy online for quite cheap, but I have this allergy to paying for shipping.) But my despair was short-lived, because the universe immediately realized that a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy novel from the eighties was practically my birthright. One of my friends found a copy at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Atlanta (which I’ve still never been to!) and I immediately roared dibs.

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Review: How I Live Now

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How I Live Now
by Meg Rosoff

★★★★½

2004 • 194 pages • Penguin Books

During my sophomore year of high school, we were given a choice between two novels to read in English class. The first was Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, which had worked its way from newly published book to speculative fiction suitable for expanding the minds of our young folk in only a few years. Examining the book, I realized that it featured a love story between two blood cousins. Obscene!, I raged to myself. Inappropriate!, I raged to myself. Despite having read American Gods at the tender age of twelve, I had virtuously tricked my mother into purchasing that novel for me by not saying a word when I presented it at the counter; a school passing that filth out? My recently developed and oversensitive sense of morality was offended to the core. (I saw myself as an authority, set apart from other kids. Needless to say, I was an insufferable giant child.)

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Review: The Penelopiad

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The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood

★★★☆☆

2005 • 224 pages • Canongate

Margaret Atwood, especially in her later years, has a very specific and peculiar gift as a writer. Reading her prose, you hear not only the voice of a fully developed character, but Atwood’s as well. I’m tempted to say that her female protagonists have some similarities, but I haven’t read enough of her bibliography to feel comfortable saying that. All I can say is that Penelope and Offred are two different women related by a common mother. Atwood’s voice never intrudes, but you would never confuse her books for anyone else’s.

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Review: The Jewel

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The Jewel
by Amy Ewing

★★★★☆

2014 • 368 pages • Harper Teen

I enjoy a good referential pitch as much as anyone else. I myself constantly convince people to watch Plunkett and Macleane by describing it as “A Knight’s Tale Gothy, romantic older sister,” only for them to rage about how hard it is to get ahold of. (It is one hundred percent worth it.) But seeing The Jewel marketed as The Selection meets A Handmaid’s Tale gave me pause. It’s not the latter title, as everybody should read A Handmaid’s Tale, especially teenage girls, but the former. It just ties in so neatly to the young adult juggernaut narrative, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games to Divergent to the current interregnum. The Selection itself was marketed as a riff on The Hunger Games. Obviously, there’s very good marketing sense to invite comparisons to The Hunger Games, but I have mixed feelings about the young adult juggernaut narrative.

But in this case, I’m fine with it, because if it gets more teens reading The Jewel, the better.

The Jewel’s premise is, as promised, along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the Lone City, the royalty is so inbred that they cannot produce live births. Fortunately for them, a rare genetic mutation found, for some reason, in the lower classes gives girls the ability to do limited and hardwon magic—magic useful for fixing royal fetuses, once implanted. The surrogate system, where girls are taken from their families for training after they manifest their powers, trades luxury for freedom and bodily autonomy. Violet Lasting is Lot #197 for the upcoming auction. Already ambivalent about her role, her purchase by the cold and mercurial Duchess of the Lakes whisks her into a world of privilege, servitude, deceit, and danger. As she comes face to face with the fact that she will be impregnated against her will, she discovers a way out—a way out that will compromise her budding but secret relationship with a male companion. Continue reading

Review: The Royal Diaries — Elizabeth I

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The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor
by Kathryn Lasky

★★★½☆

1999 • 240 pages • Scholastic Press

When I’m cherry-picking nostalgia bombs with other bookish people my age, Scholastic Press’ Dear America inevitably comes up when you’re talking book series of the late nineties and early aughts. (I literally just had this conversation last week, while visiting a college friend in Texas.) First published between 1996 and 2004, the series featured diaries written from the perspectives of young women at critical moments in American history. It was so popular that it’s not only been recently relaunched (as of 2010, with both new titles in the series and just reissues of the original), but spun off three other series. My Name is America was Dear America’s staff counterpart, while My America was aimed at younger children. But The Royal Diaries, which took the formula and reapplied it to young royal women throughout human history, was, in my young eyes, clearly superior.

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Review: Just Ella

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Just Ella
by Margaret Peterson Haddix

★★★½☆

1999 • 240 pages • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

As a kid who liked books and organizational supplies (in that specific order), Scholastic Book Fair was like manna from heaven. (And equally unexpected, given my total obliviousness to things like calendars and recurring events as a child.) There’s a post making the rounds on tumblr celebrating Scholastic Book Fairs in a typically bombastic and curse-laden way. It hits very close to home, from the unexpected nature of the fair to catalog browsing to all the little totchkes. The pop-up bookstore clearly works, as this model shows us, and whoever can adapt it for an adult market will… have a traveling independent bookstore on their hands, but at least it’ll be interesting.

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Review: Long Hidden

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Long Hidden
edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older 

★★★½☆

2014 • 370 pages • Crossed Genres Publications

There are a lot of tired arguments against diversifying media that I hate, but anything that incorporates the words “forced” or “shoe-horned” are in my top three stupidest arguments against diverse media. As if defaulting to cisgendered straight white men was somehow natural and not a product of the fact that most of the people involved in creating mainstream media fit into those demographics. As if stories have to go out of their way to incorporate any other perspective.

As if these stories might not be more poignant in someone else’s shoes.

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Review: Otherbound

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Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

★★★★☆

2014 • 400 pages • Amulet Books

When it comes to fantasy, I usually don’t like my secondary worlds squirreled away within our own. (Careful Internetting tells me that this is called portal fantasy, which is an incredibly handy phrase.) As a kid, I was just burned too many times where the real setting isn’t integrated carefully and a real part of the story. At best, I’ve seen easily bruised worldbuilding (Harry Potter); at worst, I’ve seen hideous emotional trauma swept under the rug (The Chronicles of Narnia). I fully realize and know that it can be done well—I’ve seen it done well, such as in The Magicians, an incredibly brutal deconstruction of both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia—but I’ve developed an aversion to it.

(This probably accounts for my reluctance when it comes to urban fantasy, come to think of it.)

So Otherbound’s central conceit, that a teenager in our world experiences the life of a servant in a more traditional fantasy setting whenever he closes his eyes, didn’t appeal to me. What did appeal to me was Ana’s review at the Book Smugglers, which revealed that Otherbound was diverse young adult fiction, a rare enough quantity in and of itself, let alone diverse young adult fantasy. I decided to suck it up and give it a go.

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