February DNFs

Posted 27th February 2022 by Sia in Reviews / 0 Comments

Five DNFs this month; four ARCs and my first read for the Subjective Chaos Kind Of Awards.

Gravity and Lies by C.G. Volars
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Queer hispanic MC
Published on: 8th March 2022
ISBN: 1954255225

Most cosmopolitan city in the universe, and a guy can't even get a freakin' sandwich.

It should be the least of Izo's concerns. After all, he's already been kidnapped by aliens and dragged halfway across the galaxy so they can make a buck off his abilities. And sure, he knew being able to fly made him a little unique. But he had no idea the cult-like—yet strangely marginalized—reputation Avarians held beyond Earth's boundaries. As he arrives on the Imperial Capital, IA, he's got one choice: cooperate with his captors so they'll get him back home, or split and head out on his own, taking his best shot at returning to Earth—a planet no one's ever heard of.

It isn’t much of a choice. Being extorted by a mean reptile, a tele-empathic linguist, and a giant teddy bear who could crush a car seems as bad as it gets—until a powerful CEO-Senator appears from deep within the IA’s darkest corners. With things changing from annoying to alarming, it’s up to Izo to navigate a dangerous game of befriend and befraud, or be trapped on the wrong side of the universe forever—several million lightyears from the nearest deli.

As much as I adored the main character, I just couldn’t get on board with the ‘lovable sentient-being traffickers’ thing, which it did seem like the narrative was trying to make me do. The worldbuilding didn’t work for me either – every member of every alien species is the same??? I am TIRED of that trope. Then there’s the entire concept of Avarians – people who can fly. Avarians can be any species, but regardless of their species the entire universe considers them sex objects??? Like. How can you even tell if someone’s an Avarian, if you don’t see them flying??? Couldn’t anyone just claim they were one, for the various modelling and sex-work jobs that are dying to get their hands on Avarians? Who’s going to know they’re lying?

Maybe later on in the book it’s explained – I made it to 21% – but what I read seemed to imply that there wasn’t a way to tell, so??? (The scout who picks up Izo never asks to see him fly, just overhears him saying he’s an Avarian and takes him at his word. The agent the scout brings him to also doesn’t ask for proof!)

This is without going into the fact that I wasn’t in love with the prose – it’s not bad or anything, but I want prose that’s lush and descriptive and preferably purple as hell, which this isn’t. (That will be a selling point to many other readers, I know.) More of a problem is the dissonance between tone and theme – Gravity and Lies is set up as light and funny, but again, it’s about some poor human teenager being kidnapped off his planet and forced to make money for his kidnappers if he ever wants to get home, with bonus objectification, victim-blaming, and one of the kidnappers having a ‘cute’ crush on him. None of that is fun.

Izo himself? Amazing. 10/10, I love his snark and his refusal to be impressed by the Capital of the Universe, his intense desire to get home and how he doesn’t take any of his kidnappers’ crap, fighting tooth and nail for every bit of independence and control he can get. I would love to read a book about him, but not this one.

I don’t think this is a bad book – I can see lots of people really enjoying it – it just didn’t work for me.

Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/M/M, queernorm world, secondary trans character
Published on: 5th July 2022
ISBN: 1781089760

Set in a planet-sized matriarchal city where magic and technology freely bleed together, a male courtesan’s quest for vengeance against his aristocrat father draws him into an ancient struggle between dragons, necromancers, and his home district’s violent history.

Koré wants to destroy a man.

Koré knew that meddling in politics could end badly, particularly when trying to sabotage his aristocratic father’s campaign before it destroys the city he has come to love. And when a chance encounter with a dying god imbues him with magic-breathing powers, it gets worse: he suddenly becomes a commodity – and a political player.

But the corruption in his city runs deeper than just one man, and an ally's betrayal unleashes an army of the dead on his home street. Koré must trust the world with his deepest secret to stand beside the woman and man he's finally let himself love, as only the bright truth of dragon's fire can break the iron fist of a necromancer's hold.

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.

Silk Fire? More like trash fire.

Gods, this was a massive disappointment. Like, heartbreakingly so. This was one of my most anticipated books of the year – hells, I’ve been looking forward to it for years, plural, ever since the publishing deal was announced. But it’s a trainwreck. I would even go so far as to say it’s an objectively bad book, rather than simply one that I didn’t enjoy.

The prose is simplistic and blunt, eons away from anything that could be called lyrical no matter what the author claims even if it tries to use prettier words and imagery occasionally. The dialogue is clunky, zig-zagging randomly rather than flowing naturally the way a conversation does. The worldbuilding is non-existent, just a checklist of cool things thrown into a pot together – hovercraft, dinosaurs, courtesans, dragons, etc – which I don’t object to, in theory, but in Silk Fire they don’t weave together into a cohesive whole, they’re just random disjointed bits that don’t fit. If I’m being charitable, I’ll say that it reads as though Ellor was afraid of info-dumping the reader, and went so far in the other direction we end up understanding nothing at all. Literally nothing is described, so we have no idea how to picture any of it – clothes? Food? Hovercraft? Buildings? I have no idea what any of it looks like. The only place we really see is the street the main character lives on – out of the entire ‘planet-sized city’ – and we don’t know what said street looks like either.

The names are just… Ellor raised on social media that Silk Fire is epic fantasy and that means there’s going to be weird names. But I cut my milk teeth on epic fantasy, and this is not how the good stuff works. Names are something that have to grow out of the worldbuilding; different cultures and social classes and everything else have different naming conventions. Names coming from the same cultures should sound like they’ve come from the same place, the same language. The names in Silk Fire are all over the place; some sound like they could come from a middle-class family in London, others are clearly completely made up, some sound vaguely Greek, and so on. Naming your MC Koreshizar is one thing; naming him Koreshizar Brightstar is something else – pairing something that sounds very Epic Fantasy with a surname that sounds like a My Little Pony. Vashathke Faraakshge exists alongside Opal and Stonefire, Kge next to Jasho. It’s a random mess, and someone should give Ellor a head’s up that unpronounceable names are harder for readers to remember and keep track of – they’re a turn-off for just about everyone. The pronunciation guide at the start of the book is woefully inadequate – and all the accent-marks on every other letter just comes across as pretentious, the modern version of putting apostrophes in your names and nouns.

The names are a mess because they’re a mess, not because this is epic fantasy.

(And I’m going to reiterate; we’re not given the in-world history! A non-sequitur reference to some individual or god or event thousands of years ago, mentioned once and never again, is not ‘giving us in-world history’.)

The ‘matriarchy’ is lazy and pathetic; again, no worldbuilding. Ellor just took our world’s patriarchy – at its most obnoxious – and flipped the genders around, rather than taking any time at all to consider how different a culture/world ruled by women would be. (A world where women have power and men have none is going to be terrible – but it should be terrible in different ways than a world where men have power and women have none, not a carbon copy.) Women are aggressive, grabby, patronising; men are overly emotional, drama-queens, should be at home taking care of the children. Hi, it’s 2022, you’re approximately two and a half decades too late to impress me with this crappy take. This kind of matriarchy only serves as an object lesson to show men ‘oh look, the way you treat women is bad, you wouldn’t like it if you were treated this way!’ like anyone who will listen still needs to be told that. It’s boring, crudely done, and disappointing.

Oh, and apparently this culture/world has existed unchanging for ten thousand years. Same form of government, same values, same language. Ten thousand years is longer than it took real-world humans to get from discovering agriculture to now. Unless you’re writing about elves or something, it goes beyond my suspension of disbelief to buy into a culture/world that’s stayed static that long.

(It is mentioned that people with a lot of essence – let’s call it magic life-force – can live to be about 200, but that’s not enough to account for ten thousand years of stagnation. Let’s pretend everyone in Silk Fire lives to be 200 – which they absolutely do not, that kind of lifespan is only for the 1%. But let’s pretend.

Ten thousand divided by 200 is fifty generations. Fifty generations in our world takes you back to the Fall of Rome; do our languages and beliefs and practices look anything like they did back then? No, because of course they don’t. Fifty generations produces a tonne of cultural change. Silk Fire‘s handwaved lack of history is lazy and makes no sense.)

The MC is whiny and idiotic – for someone who’s supposedly a master of political intrigue, whose only purpose in life is to bring about his political goals, he’s unfathomably unwilling to use the literally world-changing gift he’s given at the start of the book as leverage. Every other page, he’s calling himself a monster, without ever telling us why or showing us any evidence; it goes from repetitive to eye-rolling to fucking annoying. Spare me. Also, who just ignores the fact that they’re manifesting dragon scales??? Manifesting WINGS??? ‘Nope, nevermind, let’s pretend it’s not happening’ Kore why are you like this.

Also, partly a worldbuilding issue, but: his shame over his sex work??? Please make up your mind as to whether sex work is culturally acceptable or not, is supposed to be shameful or not. The book treats sex-work as whatever best fits the moment rather than establishing how it’s viewed in this culture and sticking with it; there’s absolutely no nuance to the depiction. Even though really good sex can make you accidentally give some of your life-defining essence to your partner, which should have an immense impact on how this culture views sex-work!

Zero chemistry with the love interests, who aren’t given much personality, but that’s fine because neither is Kore so it all works out, I guess. I’m poly myself, I could not have been more excited for a big epic science-fantasy featuring polyamory, but this is ‘meh’ at best.

The plot moves too fast. If it had been action-focussed, that would have been…fine, but Silk Fire constantly throws out these big emotional moments – and then rushes on before either the reader or characters can process what’s happened or been revealed. Which makes it impossible to be emotionally invested in any aspect of the story. (This is without touching on all the out-of-nowhere reveals and the Big Dramatic Things that appear once and are never mentioned again/don’t create any kind of ripple effect in this society.)

The sex scenes are abysmal. When your MC refers to his arse as ‘my lower opening’, you don’t get to claim your book is ‘if Sanderson wrote Kushiel’s Dart‘. (Which: why would anyone want that?) Don’t write about sex, about sex-work, about courtesans, until you can write sex scenes like an actual adult, kay? Because this is pathetic and cringe-worthy. Not quite as bad EL James, but that’s not exactly a high bar.

All in all, Silk Fire reads like a Nanonovel – a book written in 30 days, just to get the story down on paper. (Minus, in all fairness, the typos of a Nanonovel.) But the thing is, no one publishes their Nanonovel. They edit and rewrite and edit some more and rewrite it again, and it’s exhausting and hard and takes forever, but that’s what’s required to write something brilliant. Ellor is just not a good enough writer to pull off Silk Fire – which could have been amazing, if he’d held off on writing it until he was more experienced/better, or if he’d been willing to go back and rewrite it another half-dozen times. Worse, he’s evidently not a good enough writer to see what a trainwreck he made of the genuinely awesome story he had in his head. I would be humiliated to publish something like this, and I’m honestly stunned, and seriously unimpressed, that it’s being published at all.

Also heartbroken, because you can see the skeleton of something breathtaking here, and it’s a tragedy that it’s lost under all the trash.

Ultimately, Silk Fire doesn’t deliver on any of its promises, and I don’t recommend it for anyone.

The Stardust Thief (The Sandsea Trilogy, #1) by Chelsea Abdullah
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Arabic cast + setting
Published on: 17th May 2022
ISBN: 0316368768

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One NightsThe Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.
Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

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’ve checked and double-checked, and this is definitely supposed to be Adult Fantasy, but it reads much more like YA – and not amazing YA, but the mid-tier stuff. Between the description and the cover, I was expecting really beautiful, lush prose, but definitely didn’t get it – the writing is pretty bare and bland, and worse, it’s simplistic, as if Stardust Thief is meant for much younger readers. The characters, plot, and dialogue are also frustratingly simplistic, and there’s so much telling instead of showing, so much that is just…handwaved Because Plot.

I don’t think it’s an actively bad book, but I was looking for intricate and lush, and this just isn’t it. Sigh.

Last Exit by Max Gladstone
Genres: Fantasy, Portal Fantasy, Horror, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC, Indigenous American MC, Achillean hispanic MC, major secondary Black character
Published on: 8th March 2022
ISBN: 0765335735

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.

Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.

Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.

When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.

Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.

As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.

But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.

Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

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 don’t think this is a bad book at all… but it is so, so slow to get started, and despite all the chapters and chapters of introspection and memories, I really didn’t get attached to most of the characters. (The exception was Sarah. Sarah is amazing.) When the plot really did start to get going… It was too scary for me. Too heavy on the horror.

And while I can see the appeal, a big part of this book (at least the first half) is how grim and dark reality is and we’re all just doing our best to forget or ignore how everything is falling apart. Which, #accurate, but I am small and shallow and fragile and I just can’t deal with anything that heavy right now. Or in the foreseeable future.

I do hope to come back to it later, though.

The Future God of Love by Dilman Dila
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: African cast + setting
ISBN: 1913387518

The Future God of Love is a romance fantasy, set in an African world where stories are essential for the survival of humanity.

Jamaaro, a struggling storyteller, is the future god of love and must create a story every full moon for the prosperity of his town.

When he falls in love with a strange woman, having known loneliness all his life, he ignores the clues that she might not be what she seems.

My first read for the Subjective Chaos Kind Of Awards was unfortunately a disappointment. I loved the premise, but the execution bored the hell out of me. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s a bad book though, it may be a your-mileage-may-vary thing (hence not giving it a rating).

Fingers crossed there are fewer DNFs next month!


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