Category Archives: Young Adult

Book Review: Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn

Dianna Gunn’s Keeper of the Dawn combines a smartly plotted adventure with a sweetly written romance in a richly imagined fantasy world with plenty of space for more stories if the author chooses to return to it. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit much for a novella-length work. It’s a little overstuffed, and the sequence of events, while well-considered, has a tendency to read like a run-on sentence of “and then this happened and then this happened” and so on; all characters aside from the protagonist are underdeveloped, sometimes to the point of being cardboard; and the denouement could have used good deal more space to breathe. Still, there’s a lot to like about Keeper of the Dawn, and there aren’t so many YA lesbian romances featuring asexual heroines that it’s not still important representation despite its flaws—especially when the biggest flaw is simply that the story could have used another hundred pages or so to address its shortcomings.

While the secondary characters leave quite a bit to be desired, Lai is a mostly well-crafted protagonist with a distinct character arc and notable growth over the course of the book. Her early motivations are a little obscured by the trauma and disappointment of her failure in the trial to become a priestess—it would have been nice to have a deeper understanding of why being a priestess was so important to her and what it was about her mother and grandmother that made her want so much to emulate them. The failure to achieve a lifelong dream works well as the spark to start off Lai’s journey, but there’s too much time spent in the early part of the book dealing with Lai experiencing some mild-to-moderate bullying and struggling with her own resentment over her widower father’s remarriage. It delays the start of the story, and it’s confusing and frustrating when none of this stuff is revisited later or resolved by the end of the book.

That said, once Lai gets going, things improve a great deal. Her decision to run away is impulsive, but it makes sense for her as a character, and the early aimlessness of her journey as she tries to figure out what to do with her life after such a major disappointment is relatable, if not always entirely compelling. Still, even at her lowest point, Lai never falls into the unnecessarily and unpleasantly melodramatic angst that some teen heroines are prone to, and once she discovers the possibility of a future that though different than what she had hoped for herself has the potential to be equally fulfilling, Lai is steadfastly driven to succeed. One particularly admirable trait of Lai’s is that, though she is disappointed by her early failure, she never loses a core of confidence in herself that sustains her through hard times and encourages her to find different ways to achieve her goals of worshiping her goddess and honoring the memories of her mother and grandmother.

The worldbuilding is overall strong, and the idea of sister cultures separated by hundreds of years and miles but still connected through their shared faith is an interesting one. As with many other aspects of the book, it would have been nice to see some of these ideas given more space for development, but fortunately Gunn doesn’t overdo it with details. Necessary exposition about the world is delivered in a competently sparing fashion that never overwhelms the reader with history and backstory. Much of the in-universe history is only learned as Lai learns it on the page and with a minimum of info-dumping. There are a couple of issues with unfortunate implications—primarily with the strict-seeming binary gendering of social roles—and the use of stereotypes as shorthand for cultures and characterization but nothing especially egregious.

Finally, the romance between Lai and Tara is nicely done, without relying too heavily on hackneyed YA romance tropes. At the same time, it’s a romance with a good, comfortable, lived-in quality, without any major relationship-derailing conflicts and with an uncomplicated happy ending. The depiction of Lai’s asexuality seems sensitive, and it’s nice to see a YA-targeted romance that deals so frankly with issues of consent and addresses the potential problems of mismatched sex drives in a healthy and mature way. As a love interest, Tara isn’t extremely exciting, but what she lacks in excitement (which too often means emotional or physical danger in romance) she more than makes up for by being a solid, kind and caring presence, helping Lai to settle into her new community and being a supportive partner to Lai as she undergoes her new set of trials to become a Keeper of the Dawn.

In the end, the biggest shortcoming of Keeper of the Dawn is that it ought to have been longer. There’s a novel-sized story here, especially with the decision to include so much material about Lai’s life before she runs away, and to squeeze it into a novella-sized word count, some areas have to suffer. Another hundred or two hundred pages would have made that decision easier to justify, and it would have offered plenty more space for Lai to work through her issues with her father and stepmother and to explore her feelings about her best friend achieving the goal she had for herself. It also would have allowed the ending of the story to play out less hurriedly, giving more room for Lai to have a return journey instead of just a time-jump and for her to, again, process her feelings about returning to her people and family of origin. The extra length would also have allowed Gunn to give more depth to the secondary characters and add even more worldbuilding flourishes to make her fantasy world come alive.

Book Review: Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer

I didn’t find out about Spindle Fire until about three weeks before its release date, but I was excited when I first read about it. I love fairy tale retellings, and I’d been looking for something that would be a kind of lighter read to help me break out of a reading slump I’ve been in for a couple of weeks. I loved the idea of splitting the story of Sleeping Beauty between two girls, the cover is gorgeous, and the title was getting a decent amount of buzz leading up to its release date. Sadly, Spindle Fire turned out to be a dreary slog of a book. The sisters, Aurora and Isabelle, barely interact and only in the first couple chapters; both Aurora and Isabelle have significant disabilities, but the way they are handled in the text is not great; the romances are at once overwrought and dull; the major “twist” is heavily telegraphed; and the book just, overall, feels choppy and disjointed, with more focus on randomly (and occasionally nonsensically) pretty turns of phrase than on building a coherent plot or cohesive character arcs.

I didn’t expect this book to be all about sisterly love and bonding, just going on the marketing copy. It was obvious that Aurora and Isabelle would be going on separate adventures, presumably to link back up in the second book of this planned duology. However, though their sisterly relationship is moderately well-presented early on, once they part ways neither one of them spares much thought for the other. Instead, they’re each more focused on the boys they meet along the way, which is tiresome. This also ties into how the girls’ disabilities are portrayed. At the beginning of the book, it’s made clear that Aurora and Isabelle are very close in part because of their respective disabilities, that on some level they need each other. Once they part, though, Isabelle’s blindness is barely a hindrance—largely compensated for by her other senses, which are written as greatly heightened—while Aurora finds her disabilities (she can’t speak and has no sense of touch) completely, conveniently erased.

There’s nothing in particular that’s offensively bad about any of this, though Lexa Hillyer does rely on some very tired tropes. Aurora’s sensual/sexual awakening could be potentially interesting in the hands of a better writer, but what little action Aurora gets is kept strictly PG and her love interest, Heath, is kind of an asshole, even to her. Isabelle’s love triangle, on the other hand, is shamefully boring, setting her up to choose between a pair men who must surely be the blandest dudes in two kingdoms. Gilbert the stable boy barely has a personality at all, and he’s conveniently shuffled off (via being lost at sea and presumed dead, natch) to make room for William, who is perfectly nice and a seemingly dutiful prince, except when it comes to doing the dutiful thing and trying to wake up Aurora and unite their kingdoms. He’d much rather just marry Isabelle after knowing her for a couple of days, which is his only real character trait. The problem with all of this romance stuff, in any case, is that none of it every manages to be romantic or sexy at all.

All throughout the book, one gets the sense that it was written from a strict outline, possibly with each chapter written separately and then published with little attention paid to continuity or foreshadowing or making sure that the story flows together or makes sense at all. While most of the chapters were told from Aurora and Isabelle’s points of view, neither of them has a distinctive enough voice to be truly compelling, and the POV chapters from other characters primarily function as infodumps, flashbacks or ham-fisted attempts at surprise reveals. Spindle Fire is a book without a strong narrative core, and the POV chapters don’t revolve around a central story so much as flounder about and jockey for attention despite being, ultimately, forgettable. Several times, I found myself having to go back and reread previous chapters to try and make sense of events that seemed inexplicable, while at other times I could easily predict major developments well in advance. There’s a balance to be found with building tension and surprising readers, and Hillyer hasn’t quite found it yet. The attempts at tension-building were simply frustrating, while the surprises either weren’t surprises at all or were surprises, but in a way that made me scratch my head in confusion.

Considering that Spindle Fire is the first in a duology, I may yet check out the second book when it comes out, just to see if things get better. It’s not at the top of my to-read list, though, as I’m not sure what could be salvaged from this wreckage of a good idea.

Book Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

I love that Dreadnought is a thing that exists in the world more than I actually enjoyed reading the book, though I did rather like it. It’s being marketed as great for fans of last year’s The Heroine  Complex and Not Your Sidekick, and both of those were titles that I just never did quite manage to get around to reading, mostly because I’m not super into super hero stories. Like these other books, Dreadnought centers around an unconventional protagonist, in this case a fifteen-year-old closeted trans girl named Danny who has to quickly come to terms with her identity when she is unexpectedly gifted with both superpowers and the body she’s always known she should have. Danny is a smart, plucky, relatable heroine who I expect will be an education for some readers and a much-needed bit of representation for others. Nonetheless, Dreadnought is a book that I read with the constant awareness that it wasn’t for me. Danny’s story of self-discovery and actualization is one that will be compelling for any reader, but I imagine it will resonate most deeply with readers who share more of Danny’s experiences as a trans girl.

Superhero narratives have long dealt with issues surrounding identity and marginalization, and author April Daniels has written a novel firmly in that tradition. Daniels’ geek credentials are on full display here, and it’s obvious that she has a thorough knowledge of genre conventions, which she deploys in a perfectly pitched tale that is both a top notch example of its type and a wholly fresh take on a set of familiar tropes. Dreadnought‘s fairly straightforward hero’s journey structure is a tried and true framework that works well here to provide a foundation upon which Daniels can build a strong, clearly messaged modern superhero story. It’s an excellent example of the value of not reinventing the wheel, and Daniels shows a good instinct for when to utilize common tropes and when to subvert or interrogate them for maximum effect.

I love that there’s no real preamble to Danny’s story. Daniels digs right into things from the first page, with Danny undergoing her transformation almost immediately and being thrust into a vastly changed life by chapter two. The pace of events never does let up, which makes for fast reading. I didn’t make it through Dreadnought in a single reading session, but only because I had other obligations that kept me from it. Each scene in the novel feels necessary and has an easily identifiable purpose, moving along the plot, fleshing out characters, or communicating part of the book’s message. This trimness is a great asset, especially in the YA market where the fashion for some years now has been great sprawling, meandering fantasy stories with indistinct characters and bland ideas. At an economical 276 pages, Dreadnought is a refreshing departure from that trend.

Trans issues take up a lot of page space in Dreadnought, but I still wouldn’t say its a particularly message-heavy title. Danny is a transgender teen, so she’s got a lot of stuff to deal with, but Daniels presents it all matter-of-factly and in a naturalistic enough fashion that most of it feels about the same as reading about any other teen drama. It’s not that Danny’s struggles with parents, friends, doctors, and various associates aren’t specific to her trans-ness; it’s just that these things seldom feel like the point of the book. While Danny’s trans-ness figures largely in the novel and is inextricably bound up with her superhero abilities, being trans is only one part of Danny’s character, and many of the scenarios Danny must deal with as a teen with sudden superpowers are pretty standard stuff for the genre. Sure, she has to deal with some blatant transphobia from her parents and others, and that will no doubt be new to many readers, but a lot of her problems are still just versions of the same banal coming of age crap everyone has to deal with as a teenager trying to figure out their place in the world.

In most ways, Dreadnought is a run of the mill teen power fantasy. It’s always obvious who the villains are in this book, and while it doesn’t flinch away from depicting some darkness, I never felt any real fear that the bad guys were going to win. Even the authorial choice to complicate things by exploring the double-edged nature of super powers as both blessing and curse and the decision to interrogate the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing isn’t altogether new or particularly noteworthy. It’s well done, though, and it’s still sadly rare for there to be a book like this written by a trans woman about a trans girl. April Daniels offers a fresh perspective on her topics of choice and has created a great character with whom a disgracefully under-served population will be able to identify. Dreadnought isn’t an exceedingly ambitious novel, but it is a well-written, highly entertaining, and ultimately optimistic origin story of a heroine I look forward to reading more about.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Review: Windwitch by Susan Dennard

I read Truthwitch around this time last year and enjoyed it in spite of its flaws, which were, well, many. But it was the start of a new series, and it featured a great friendship between two young women and had an interesting idea for a system of magic. Plus, while my tastes certainly skew towards the literary end of SFF, I appreciate some light reading to break up my routine from time to time. So I was pretty excited about Windwitch after enjoying its predecessor so much. Unfortunately, it turned out to be my biggest reading disappointment in a long while. Windwitch is the absolute worst sort of boring, insipid, YA claptrap I’ve read in years.

In Truthwitch, the story revolved primarily around Safi and Iseult, but Windwitch finds the two girls separated entirely. Obviously, based on the title, readers of the first book could expect Merik to feature largely in this one, and he does, but he is also disconnected from Safi and Iseult so that none of the primary characters from the last book actually interact with each other in any significant way. Instead, they’re shuffled around and paired off with others–Safi with Vaness and then both of them with a group of Hell-Bards, Iseult with Aeduan, and Merik with Cam and then sort of with his sister Vivia (who has been upgraded to a POV role)–but none of these interactions are very compelling, and very little actually happens at all, in spite of the book feeling fast-paced for most of its page count.

Safi and Vaness go on a journey, get captured a couple of times, and have to escape, only to learn that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. Iseult and Aeduan are also going on a journey, but they never get anywhere and then end up learning that they have to do something different from what they thought they were doing for the whole rest of the book. And Merik is trying to do something in Nubrevna but then finds out that he didn’t actually know anything about anything. Which, I guess, is supposed to be the main theme of the book–this whole no one knowing anything–but by the end of the book I found I simply didn’t care. It’s not even that the characters make foolish decisions or that everything feels so contrived and senselessly convoluted. Frankly, it’s all just so boring that I ended up just skimming whole chapters to get through it faster, and don’t think I missed out on anything.

None of this is helped by the fact that major aspects of the Witchlands’ magic system are still not very well-explained. It was only about halfway through this book that I finally decided that I’m just going to understand people who are “Cleaved” to be something like zombies, for example, even though I don’t think it’s at all conclusive from the text that this is the case. The magic of all the various characters continues to feel poorly defined, and the way Dennard uses it in the story is inconsistent. I’m sure that she has rules for how she’s writing the Witchlands magic, but whatever they are they’re basically incomprehensible to the reader. This was true enough in Truthwitch, and I called it forgivable because it was a first book in a new series and I otherwise enjoyed it. I thought that surely some of the fuzzier details of things would come into focus in this second book. They did not.

To add to these problems, none of the relationships or character arcs in Windwitch are at all interesting or entertaining except for Vivia’s and hers is subordinated to her brother Merik’s. Vivia didn’t figure largely in Truthwitch, but here she becomes a POV character with an interesting motivation–she’s trying to run her country while her father is ill, and she’s facing sexism in Nubrevnan society while also struggling with her ongoing grief over her mother’s death and her feelings of rather well-justified resentment toward her brother for the way that he has been given choices, responsibilities, and power that Vivia has had to work hard for. In the whole book, Vivia is the only character who has clearly defined and sensible motivations that are complex enough to generate real interest in her story, but she’s not given much page space and much of it is wasted on her almost obsessive thinking about her unspoken and possibly unrequited romantic feelings for another woman. I love women who love women, and goodness knows we could use more lesbians in fantasy, but this sort of relentless pining with no progression in the relationship is tiresome under normal circumstances. Here, where Vivia is legit dealing with a crisis situation as her country starves while being on the brink of war, her constant thoughts about the object of her affection are just plain intrusive–for Vivia and the reader.

Elsewhere, Iseult and Aeduan’s interactions are a study in what I guess passes for romantic/sexual tension. The difference here is that neither of them seem to have the least bit of self-awareness about their burgeoning attraction. I’m sure all this barely contained wanting to bone is great fuel for shippers and fanfic writers, but again there’s very little forward progress on that front. The revelation that Aeduan shares Nomatsi heritage with Iseult starts off feeling significant, but it never bears any actual fruit in terms of a deeper understanding or fellowship between them. Their physical interactions are too PG to ever be truly sexy, all written with a weirdly puritanical coyness that I found actively unpleasant to read.

They could have been worse, though. They could have been more like the interactions between Merik and his sidekick Cam or between Safi and the hell-bard (and by the way, I don’t think Susan Dennard actually knows what a bard is) Caden. The thing is, while I hate the dull, predictable chemistry between Safi and Caden, and I hate the way that Vaness is allowed to fade into the background of Safi’s POV sections, and I hate Safi’s sort of generalized insouciance and her terrible jokes… I despise Merik and his treatment of Cam.

Cam is a trans boy with what sounds like vitiligo, and he’s clever and brave and loyal and long-suffering. Because Merik is pretty much an asshole to Cam through the whole book about everything. The worst part, however, is just how much time Merik (well, Susan Dennard, really) spends commenting on Cam’s transness. It’s as if Dennard decided to make Merik the mouthpiece for her to work through all her own confused feelings about trans people, and Cam spends most of the book being misgendered inside Merik’s head–until the very end of the book when Merik magnanimously decides that he needs to focus on thinking about Cam with the proper pronouns. It’s not good enough. Cam is obviously trans from the beginning of the book, and Merik’s inability to either understand or accept that for almost four hundred pages doesn’t reflect well on him. It’s only when Merik meets someone who know’s Cam’s original name that things seem to click for Merik, and a ridiculous amount of page space is dedicated to Merik essentially marveling that being trans is a thing.

Being cis myself, I don’t feel qualified to fully unpack all this, but it seems like a particularly ham-handed way of including a trans character. Without any scenes from Cam’s POV, there’s very little insight into how he feels about any of this. The disconnect between the way Merik talks to Cam and the way he thinks about Cam is messed up as well. He’s very particular about calling Cam “boy” throughout the book–which has a weird racial dynamic as well, since Merik codes white and Cam is described as being dark-skinned with lighter patches–but he consistently thinks of Cam as “girl” even though he first knew Cam only as a boy. It’s just a huge mess of a well-meaning (I think) but ultimately insufficient attempt at inclusiveness.

Which is pretty par for the course with this book, which is, overall, a big mess in which almost nothing really works. The things that do work–Vivia’s storyline, Aeduan (though not Aeduan with Iseult)–seem to work almost be accident, not through any particular skill or intention of the author. Honestly, I’m not quite sure anymore what Susan Dennard is trying to do with this series. I might come back for Bloodwitch next year, because I do like Aeduan and am mildly interested to see if anything gets any better, but Windwitch honestly made me question every positive feeling I had about Truthwitch.

Book Review: Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Goldenhand is a welcome return to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom universe, but it unfortunately feels, overall, a bit half-baked. It’s an enjoyable read if one doesn’t think too hard about it, but the truth is that Goldenhand is problematic in numerous ways that detract from the joy of revisiting such a well-loved fantasy world.

Goldenhand is a direct continuation of Lirael’s story following the events of Abhorsen and picking up about a year or so later. It also incorporates events from the novella The Creature in the Case, which continued the story of Nicholas Sayre after he returns to Ancelstierre at the end of Abhorsen. Lirael has been hard at work learning in her role as Abhorsen-in-waiting to her sister, Sabriel, and she’s given the chance to take on more responsibility when Sabriel and Touchstone go on their first vacation in twenty years. Meanwhile, after accidentally freeing and empowering a dangerous free magic creature, Nick is on his way back towards the Old Kingdom in pursuit of it. Meanwhile, Chlorr is still stirring up trouble in the north, and it turns out there’s a whole previously unmentioned group of people that are being used for Chlorr’s nefarious ends. There’s a lot going on, at least ostensibly. Perhaps the biggest problem with Goldenhand is that, despite the ambitious worldbuilding and great number of things happening, none of it particularly works.

It was interesting at first to be introduced to Ferin and her people, but with only Ferin as a point of view for that part of the world and no sense of what normal life is like for the tribes, there’s ultimately very little to learn about these new people and their culture. Ferin herself has a very specific and non-normative experience within that culture—she was raised to be basically a sacrifice, sequestered from the rest of the tribe and denied even the humanity of a proper name (“Ferin” is from a childish mispronunciation of “Offering”)—and she’s the only one of her people the reader meets directly. The rest are faceless villains and obstacles for our heroes to overcome, and there’s no real sense of who these people are and how they normally fit into the regular fabric of the Old Kingdom. This diminishes the reader’s investment in Ferin’s history and struggle, and it’s not helped along by Ferin’s extremely practical nature. She’s so pragmatic about everything that happens to her that it ends up feeling as if she isn’t affected very much by anything she goes through. This would be frustrating in a minor character, but Ferin is a point of view character for fully half of this book, and it’s extremely difficult to become really immersed in a perspective that is so poorly socialized and without enough context for understanding why and how she’s the way she is. Ferin is a weird character, and not in a good way. Rather, she takes up a lot of page space without ever being compelling enough to be a proper balance or complement to Lirael, who we already know from previous books.

Sadly, Lirael, too, is a lot less interesting this time around. Lirael and Abhorsen were heavily focused on Lirael’s journey to discovering her own identity and finding her place in the world, and there was a clear and well-executed character arc as she came of age. Goldenhand gives us a Lirael who is much more confident and self-assured to start with, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this Lirael doesn’t have nearly so much to learn or so far to travel, for all that she goes fully from one end of the Kingdom to the other. Some attention is paid both to Lirael’s lost hand and her grief over her missing friend, the Disreputable Dog, but neither of these things are given the weight they ought to have. Indeed, Prince Sameth has already built a magical gold hand for Lirael by the start of the book, which effectively erases her disability. Most of Lirael’s thoughts about her hand are marveling at how functional the magical prosthetic is rather than lamenting the loss of the real hand. Similarly, Lirael does at times miss the Dog, but with everything else going on there’s not much time for truly exploring her feelings of sadness and loss. Instead, Lirael’s primary arc in this book is a romantic one, mostly centered around her growing feelings for Nick and her relationship with him. While Lirael’s final dealing with Chlorr/Clariel seems intended to be a climax for the story, it happens quickly and the novel is then ended rather abruptly, which prevents the event from having much emotional weight.

This lack of impact is, frankly, characteristic of Goldenhand. Erasing Lirael’s disability and glossing over her grieving process in favor of focusing on her burgeoning relationship with a man she barely knows (and who doesn’t get much development of his own, by the way) makes for a very slight novel. Both that romance and Lirael’s quest to stop Chlorr once and for all rely far too much on previous books in the series to generate what interest they do hold. If you haven’t read Lirael, Abhorsen, and Clariel (and preferably The Creature in the Case as well), you’re likely to find yourself more than a little at sea in Goldenhand. Goldenhand is not an entry point into the Old Kingdom for new readers; it’s a book for superfans who will consume anything they can get in this setting without being too picky about things making sense. This overall effect might have been counteracted if Ferin’s story was stronger, but Ferin’s goals and purpose are never quite clear; she is trying to do something to save her people I guess, but most of her chapters are taken up by an aimless chase that never manages to feel dangerous or high stakes enough to justify its existence. Instead of acting as a powerful new addition to the series, Ferin’s story functions mostly as a rather dull and uninspired distraction in what might otherwise have been a decent piece of fan service.

While Garth Nix does a lot of work here to expand the world of the Old Kingdom and provide more theoretically fertile ground for, presumably, future sequels, Goldenhand is plagued with enough craft problems and various missteps that it’s hard to get very excited to learn what comes next. Unless it involves queer Ellimere (I mean, come on—everyone else has been paired off heterosexually now) and lots of Mogget (there was not nearly enough Mogget in this book), I can’t say I’m very interested.

Book Review: Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Archivist Wasp is a strange and beautiful story that still managed to be somewhat disappointing to me. I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love it the way I thought I would and I’m not sure exactly why except that I feel somewhat misled by an enormous amount of good reviews that were terribly vague about what this book is. At the same time, I do like that Archivist Wasp defies any neat genre categorization. It’s a book that is many things, but mostly it’s hard to describe without giving away the whole story. In any case, I’m not sure exactly what I expected from this book, but what I got wasn’t it, and I can’t say that my expectations were challenged or unsettled in any positive way. I just feel weirdly neutral about the whole thing.

After about a week of trying to figure out why this book just didn’t sit right with me, I think it’s largely because, while it’s a thematically strong work—dealing with issues of identity and choice and the ways in which people can be susceptible to bad ideas—there’s just not a whole lot of actual story. The whisper thin plot might have worked if Nicole Kornher-Stace made up for it with particularly beautiful prose or great characters or a good sense of the setting, but that’s not the case. Kornher-Stace’s prose is just workmanlike; Wasp is kind of a wonderful character, but she’s not enough to carry a whole novel; and the setting seems to be shooting for almost mythic—a journey through an underworld—but fails, and at the same time is a post-apocalyptic dystopia of sorts—but without any details to give it any specificity or to ground it in a plausible future.

It seems to be somewhat in vogue these days for authors to skirt the line between science fiction and fantasy, and genre-bending is a common buzzword of recent years that I’d heard used to describe Archivist Wasp. That may be the case, but to me it felt more noncommittal than purposeful in its failure to decide what it wanted to be. Wasp’s abilities seem to be mystical in nature, and this isn’t entirely at odds with a world that appears to have been shattered by a human-caused apocalypse, but there’s really no explanations for either of these things. Certainly, there isn’t nearly enough explanation given to even begin to explain how the world shifted from the one that produced the super soldiers whose ghosts Wasp interacts with to the world in which Wasp has been raised.

It’s not always necessary to explain this stuff, and sometimes it’s actually better if authors don’t bother—too many potentially good books have been ruined by over-explaining—but the society that Wasp is part of is so alien that it’s difficult to imagine how it happened at all. If I’m being very generous, I could say that this makes the book original, and it is, as far as that goes, but in the absence of any common genre tropes, it becomes the responsibility of the author to make sure that the reader has all the information they need to grok the book.

I suppose that in the end, though, it’s not so much that Archivist Wasp is hard to understand; it’s just deeply unsatisfying. While I can appreciate what I suspect is the author’s aversion to holding the reader’s hand, just a little more explanation would have gone a long way towards making this a much more enjoyable read.

Book Review: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Whew! Truthwitch is an absolutely exhausting, if exhilarating, read. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in this book, and I kind of loved it, but the problem with doing lots of things in a novel is that it’s only seldom that they’re all done well. Like many other ambitious and complex works, especially those intended for a YA audience, Truthwitch is a bit of a mixed bag.

The biggest problem with Truthwitch is that, while a ton of stuff happens, nothing is resolved and not all of the things that happen seem to belong in the same story with each other. Some parts feel almost entirely disconnected from the rest, while other parts are both too obviously connected with each other and made to feel much more mysterious than they actually are.

The book opens with main characters Safiya and Iseult in the middle of a “heist,” though it’s never particularly clear what they’re up to, how they planned to get away with it, or why this was how Susan Dennard decided to start the story. It could be intended to establish the girls’ “normal” state of affairs, but it’s made very clear later on that this was something that they did infrequently, as both of them have legit positions in the city they live in that would prevent them from really engaging in a life of crime—not to mention the ways their choices are constricted by their social positions. It’s a strange opening that—even more so in hindsight—feels like the beginning of a very different book than what we’re actually given.

Once you get past the unfortunately confusing and unnecessarily cold open, though, Truthwitch is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. It’s still somewhat scattered at times, with a couple of lengthy diversions into subplots that I’m sure will come to fruition later in the series, but the majority of the book is forward motion. By the final quarter, it veritably hurtles towards a conclusion that is equal parts devastating (in a good way), aggravating, and altogether too neat after the chaotic middle section of the book. This is highlighted by having a final chapter dedicated to wrapping up each character’s story in a few paragraphs to prepare the reader for the next book. This seems to be a common trend in YA series, and I hate it. It’s just too much like handholding, and it puts me in mind of the stilted, at-least-half-redundant fashion in which eighth graders write conclusions to essays.

The other major issue I have with this book is a world-building complaint. While the Witchlands is a big, beautiful, complex fantasy world, the details of its magic system can be frustratingly opaque at times. It’s a great idea, and I loved all the different types of magic, but there are several concepts that are woefully underdeveloped and a couple that are just plain ill-conceived. The worst offenses on this score are Safi and Iseult’s powers, which are both poorly defined and not utilized very smartly in the narrative.

Iseult’s magic as a Threadwitch seems useful, but it’s obvious early on that her abilities are non-normative. It’s also just not really that clear what exactly Threadwitch’s do. Although Iseult’s mother seems to have an important place in their Nomatsi community, it’s never actually explained what her role is or how the Threadwitch magic works. Instead, there’s a lot of sort of mystical explanations that seem at odds with the utilitarian descriptions we get when Iseult actually uses her powers.

Meanwhile, Safi’s magic as a Truthwitch is supposedly extremely rare and ridiculously powerful, but there’s nothing in the narrative to confirm that this is truly the case. Again, there are some descriptions of her using her magic that make is seem extremely useful, but it doesn’t seem to affect Safi’s day to day life that much. Especially when it’s revealed—and relatively early in the book—that Safi’s witchery may not be as accurate or powerful as everyone seems to think, I was left feeling that there’s a good deal of much ado about nothing going on. Indeed, Safi’s magic seems redundant and second-rate when Wordwitches exist; certainly, it doesn’t seem to be powerful enough to be worth starting a world war over, though that is exactly what is happening by the end of the book.

That said, the way that Dennard describes and utilizes the magic of the book’s secondary characters is really well-done. Wordwitches, Glamourwitches, and Windwitches drift in and out of the narrative doing really interesting stuff with their magics, which are shown rather than told about. The Bloodwitch, Aeduan, has his abilities described wonderfully—much more what I would expect of a very rare and powerful magic—and again we are shown how his magic works and the way it fits into the story Dennard is telling. I expect that Safi and Iseult’s magics will play a much larger role in future books, but there’s a coyness to the way they’re used in Truthwitch that I found highly unpleasant, largely because of the way in which it contrasts with the much better fashion in which Dennard shows us literally everyone else’s magic.

The greatest strength of Truthwitch, on the other hand, is its focus on exploring friendship and the families that people choose as opposed to those we’re born into. Safi and Iseult’s relationship is the strongest one in the novel, and no matter what else happens to the two girls, they prioritize their love for each other over nearly everything else. With so many other YA books having a heavier focus on romance, it’s delightfully refreshing to read something where everything revolves around the friendship and love between two young women. At the same time, both Safi and Iseult are distinct individuals with concerns, plans, hopes, and dreams of their own. Though their destinies may be intertwined, they are never subsumed in each other, and their personalities are complementary rather than particularly similar to each other.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any romance, of course, and I found myself rather enjoying Merik and Safi’s hate-to-love journey, though it’s not covering any new ground in the genre. It’s pedestrian, but in a way that is comfortingly familiar. It also helps that it’s not given so much page time that it distracts from other things. Additionally, Merik’s friendship with Kullen is well-portrayed as a parallel to Safi’s friendship with Iseult, so there’s much more than just a romantic subplot going on. Speaking of romance, though, I’m much more interested in whatever is going on between Iseult and Aeduan. Yeah, he’s a terrifying Bloodwitch who is hunting the girls across the world to probably kill them, but there are some sparks there (#iamtrash).

All in all, Truthwitch is a solidly entertaining read and a strong start to an interesting new series. It’s very reminiscent of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, and I’m loving this kind of sword and sorcery trend in YA fiction. While Truthwitch isn’t perfect, none of its flaws are fatal ones, and all are forgivable. I can’t wait to see what happens in the Witchlands next.