April DNFs

Posted 29th April 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

Three DNFs this month – not so bad, as these things go!

When the Stars Alight by Camilla Andrew
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Published on: 16th June 2023
ISBN: 9781739308902

A maiden of the stars. A monster from the shadows. A collision that rewrites their worlds.

Princess Laila Rose is a fallen star in human form. A beloved guardian to humanity. Yet in spite of these fantastical origins, she has never much believed in prophecies. That’s why when a demon of apocalyptic legend is presented to her in a block of ice, she feels fascination rather than fright.

Curiosity kindles into mutual desire once he breaks free of his captivity. Far from the rampaging beast of mass destruction everyone expects—he is monstrously handsome, deviously articulate and alluringly mysterious, a prince among his kind. Eager to discover his origins, Laila travels from her idyllic seaside realm into a land of unspeakable horrors, relying on her wits to survive her journey. She arrives aiming to establish peaceful contact with the aid of the besotted prince.

However, it becomes clear that the heartless demon king does not desire peace at all, only war and conquest. When diplomacy fails, Laila turns to the king’s suave and manipulative bastard son in the hopes that she can inspire both him and his trueborn brother to go against their father. But soon it is her heart she must keep from being torn between their centuries-old dangerous rivalry.

This gothic fantasy set in a vibrant gaslamp world is a must-read for fans of Catherynne Valente and Angela Carter. It’s written in lush, lyrical prose full of intricate worldbuilding, courtly intrigue, and magic that seeps through the pages. Beneath its light, romantic and whimsical veneer, you can expect darkness, brutality and passion.

I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I requested an arc of this directly from the author because of the Catherynne Valente comp (and after being assured that yes, there are actual unicorns in it – albeit extremely minor ones), but alas, the book didn’t live up to its beautiful cover.

I’m not sure I’ve ever come across this exact problem before, but When the Stars Alight gets moving far too quickly. We’re given no time to learn the characters, nevermind the world, before Things Start Happening, which means much of it has no real impact because the reader doesn’t know or understand what a big deal each Thing is – you have to know the status quo to appreciate the Things that wreck it. So the le gasp! aspect of each Thing has to be explained as it happens, which is pretty terrible for maintaining tension or excitement in any given scene.

And to be honest, the things that do happen…make very little sense, even with the explanations. For example, we’re quickly introduced to the cryptograph, a mysterious machine only one professor can operate, which allows her to communicate with…the forces of chaos? Which in this story are Very Evil. I don’t mind that part – but why is nobody concerned about the existence of this machine? Why are the answers it gives trusted? If the Forces of Ultimate Evil were talking to me, I certainly wouldn’t trust what they were saying! Wtf? And the description of how reading the cryptograph works seems lifted straight out of The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman;

The dial spun rapidly, needle scratching over several eldritch symbols in continuous sequence. Nobody knew how to interpret them besides Hariken herself, and to do so she had to train her mind to take on a certain concentration. She’d called it “dipping into the abyss”, for the sensation was akin to descending into oceanic depths until her skull almost cracked from the pressure of it.

Just like how Lyra in The Northern Lights has to focus just-so to make the alethiometer’s needle swing to the symbols that answer her question? Um. That’s a little too close to be coincidence. Best-case scenario, Andrew didn’t consciously copy the alethiometer, but it got into her subconscious somewhere and came out in her writing. I guess none of her beta readers had read Pullman’s trilogy?

The rest of the worldbuilding didn’t really click for me either: the dark god (dark lord?) especially seemed as if the story couldn’t make up its mind about his nature. Why does a god keep a grimoire? But then, he’s also communicating through the cryptograph? And provides a weird prophecy-thing to help guide them to wherever he’s been all this time;

Tread the course of ivory salt
’Til the dragon’s lungs exhale
Cross the wound of despair before I entered my lair
Within its innards you shall prevail

I don’t like Being Mysterious just for the sake of it – why not just tell them where he is, if he wants them to find him? – and I don’t like prophecies or prophecy-esque messages that conveniently rhyme when translated. But what I really don’t like is how there is literally no way for the reader to make any sense of this.

“They’re directions,” Dr Hariken explained, “to the Shadowlands.”

“How can you know?”

“It took me a moment to decipher, but the ‘course of ivory salt’ is the White Sea. And ‘the dragon’s lungs exhale’ refers to the Dragon’s Breath.

We just have to take her word for it, because we have no idea what the White Sea or the Dragon’s Breath is at this point in the story. This is kind of what I meant about the story moving too fast – the reader is just getting dragged along, with no time to absorb the world or gather enough info that we can actually understand what’s happening.

Moving away from the worldbuilding to the characters: the instalust made me incredibly uncomfortable, at least partly because we have this petite delicate heroine and a bulked-up 7-foot-tall ‘monster’ – and something about that contrast makes me feel ick. I’m not sure why, because similar pairings haven’t bothered me in the past – maybe it’s that this ‘monster’ is just a basic humanoid but big, but is being described in very animalistic, bestial terms that don’t seem warranted? So Laila’s lust comes across as really gross and creepy, like a white woman with a fetish for Black men? (As far as I can recall both characters involved are brown-skinned, for the record.) Like, for whatever reason, it was Laila’s lust that bothered me, not the love interest’s so much. I felt like the love interest was getting objectified in a really yuck way. I can’t put it any better than that.

And this is all aside from the fact that instalust is a trope I don’t like anyway.

Venom & Vow by Anna-Marie McLemore, Elliott McLemore
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Latine cast & setting, genderfluid MC, trans MC
Published on: 16th May 2023
ISBN: 125082222X

Two enemy kingdoms are forced to work together to break a curse in this lush YA fantasy, featuring a transgender prince and a bigender dama/assassin in the lead roles.

Keep your enemy closer.

Cade McKenna is a transgender prince who’s doubling for his brother.
Valencia Palafox is a young dama attending the future queen of Eliana.
Gael Palma is the infamous boy assassin Cade has vowed to protect.
Patrick McKenna is the reluctant heir to a kingdom, and the prince Gael has vowed to destroy.

Cade doesn’t know that Gael and Valencia are the same person.
Valencia doesn’t know that every time she thinks she’s fighting Patrick, she’s fighting Cade.
And when Cade and Valencia blame each other for a devastating enchantment that takes both their families, neither of them realizes that they have far more dangerous enemies.

Cowritten by married writing team Anna-Marie and Elliott McLemore, Venom & Vow is a lush and powerful YA novel about owning your power and becoming who you really are - no matter the cost.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I am so massively disappointed here, but I think I need to admit that I’m not enjoying this one and call it quits.

There’s a lot to love, including the use of dual perspective – something I don’t always enjoy, but which was used to great effect here, as we see the characters mislead and misunderstand each other in ways both believable and (at times) kind of hilarious. The setting is marvellous; I loved the castle that morphs and changes in response to the feelings of the monarch, and the ancestor-spirits that come out of the other kingdom’s tapestries in the forms of jungle birds and big cats. I loved the monastry. I loved having two very effective, badass characters who are both physically disabled.

But the story just didn’t hook me. The writing is perfectly nice, but whenever I put Venom & Vow aside, I don’t want to pick it up again. It’s not that it’s a hard book, exactly, but reading it gives me brain-fog – I desperately want a nap after making it through a few chapters. And for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I just…don’t care about the plot? I’m not curious or invested enough to want to know how it ends. And I don’t know why, which makes me suspect the issue is me more then the book. Because I really do think that, objectively, Venom & Vow is pretty awesome.

Maybe if I come back to it in the future I’ll click with it better.

Regardless, I don’t want anyone to take my DNF as a sign you shouldn’t try it yourself. It’s a really lovely book, and if the premise interests you I encourage you to pick it up. Pretty sure the problem is with me, because there’s nothing about Venom & Vow that I want to actually critique!

Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: F/F, secondary gay Black character
Published on: 11th July 2023

A young noblewoman must join forces with a rumoured witch to conquer an ancient curse in this devilishly funny and heartwarming sapphic Regency romantasy from TikTok titan and bestselling author of Boyfriend Material Alexis Hall.

It is the year 1814 and Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into the highest society of Bath hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough, with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at the ball of the season, a scandal she only narrowly manages to escape.

However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, she realises she must seek out urgent assistance, even if that means mixing with the most undesirable company-and there are few less desirable allies than the brooding Lady Georgiana Landrake-who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune.

If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress.Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I’m not really sure what happened, but somewhere along the way I seem to have stopped finding Alexis Hall very funny? I DNFed Husband Material and Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble, despite adoring their predecessors – and Mortal Follies fell flat for me in much the same way.

I think it’s objectively a lovely book, and I can see how it’s supposed to be charming and a little bit silly and heart-warming, and I was happy with the neat worldbuilding. Having Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow as the narrator is sheer brilliance, and his little asides to the reader are probably my favourite parts of the book. But I don’t feel any incentive to keep reading and find out how it all ends.

It is very possible that the problem is me, again – I got hit with depression hard this month, so maybe I just wasn’t able to appreciate Mortal Follies for what it is because of that. I have a small suspicion that if I come back to it later, I might enjoy it a lot more. But for now I’m putting it aside. I just don’t have the spoons to keep pushing through when I’m not enjoying myself.

Here’s hoping for fewer DNFs in May!

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