July DNFs

Posted 30th July 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Only three DNFs this month! HURRAY! And two of these, it’s really NOT that they’re bad books at all; I just didn’t jive with them. Which is very different from a book being so bad I want to defenstrate it. BENEATH A BURNING WAVE, I AM LOOKING AT YOU!

The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Representation: Black cast, secondary gay character, secondary albino character
Published on: 9th August 2022

A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.

Washington D. C., 1925

Clara Johnson talks to spirits, a gift that saved her during her darkest moments in a Washington D. C. jail. Now a curse that’s left her indebted to the cunning spirit world. So, when the Empress, the powerful spirit who holds her debt, offers her an opportunity to gain her freedom, a desperate Clara seizes the chance. The task: steal a magical ring from the wealthiest woman in the District.

Clara can’t pull off this daring heist alone. She’ll need help from an unlikely team, from a jazz musician capable of hypnotizing with a melody to an aging vaudeville actor who can change his face, to pull off the impossible. But as they encounter increasingly difficult obstacles, a dangerous spirit interferes at every turn. Conflict in the spirit world is leaking into the human one and along D.C’.s legendary Black Broadway, a mystery unfolds—one that not only has repercussions for Clara but all of the city’s residents.

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.

The Monsters We Defy isn’t a bad book. It’s just…fine. Perfectly fine.

I made it to 35% – 15% further than my usual cut-off point – because I really wanted to like it. And because there’s nothing actually wrong with it. It’s just…fine? Although there were a few small surprises, for the most part the story was very predictable, and utilised a lot of tropes I’ve seen before, and the love interest practically had a banner over his head announcing that he was, in fact, the love interest, the magic system was extremely simple, and I just…didn’t really care? I don’t mind that the plot took a little while to get moving – Penelope utilised that time well to introduce us to our main characters and make us care about them – but there just wasn’t anything holding my attention.

I felt like I knew exactly how the story would go, even if I didn’t know the exact specifics, and there was nothing that made me want to stick around and see how it would unfold. You need some really unique hook, when you have a story where a reader can pretty confidently predict the ending (or thinks they can); or else you need especially lovely prose, or some stand-out kind of writing style or format. And I didn’t find any of that here.

I’m sure a lot of other people are going to enjoy it, and I can see why, but I don’t have time for books that I feel completely neutral about. It’s ‘this is so cool!’ or nothing, and The Monsters We Defy just didn’t grab me that way. Alas.

Beneath the Burning Wave (The Mu Chronicles, #1) by Jennifer Hayashi Danns
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown nonbinary cast
Published on: 4th August 2022
ISBN: 0008491186

I was incapable of imagining what I had never seen…

Kaori and Kairi are the first twins to survive infancy on the ancient island of Mu, where gender is as fluid as the crashing waves. One was born of fire, the other of water.

But there’s a reason why none have survived before. A prophecy that has haunted the elders since time began. A rivalry destined to sink the entire island beneath a twin catastrophe of volcano and tsunami.

As hatred spills from the forbidden twins like the deadly poison of sacrificed sea snakes, they must decide what matters to them most…

The fight for the island – for tradition and duty.
Or the fight for freedom – for love and light.

The Mu Chronicles is a visionary YA fantasy trilogy exploring the origin of gender and desire in an epic queer fusion of Japanese folklore and Egyptian mythology.

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.

This is incredibly poorly written, with simplistic language, shallow characters, and a complete failure of worldbuilding. Burning Wave is supposed to feature a nonbinary society, but despite everyone using neopronouns, people are still divided by biological sex, with forced roles for those who can become pregnant, aka ‘carriers’.

A seventeen orbit carrier without a maymu is a freak.

(Seventeen orbit = seventeen years old, maymu = baby.)

When talking about sexual attraction, one character puts it thus

I think I prefer my opposite rather than my same.

Hi – you have completely failed to create a nonbinary, or genderfluid, society. It’s actually kind of embarassing. When you discard the male/female binary, there is no longer any concept of ‘opposites’. So it makes absolutely no sense for your characters to think about it this way.

I was also pretty unhappy that the characters are clearly coded traditionally masculine and feminine, and that it’s the XY characters who have ‘male’ traits and the XX ones who are feminine. Seriously? Not only does your allegedly genderfluid society divide people by sex, you couldn’t be bothered to explore or experiment outside traditional gender roles? Why use neogenders and nonbinary pronouns if you’re just going to replicate the cisheteronormative system???

Other reviewers have mentioned that the writing is incredibly confusing. This is very much the case. I was rarely able to understand the reasoning or motivations behind anyone’s actions, and at times the writing just dissolved into the nonsensical.

I don’t want to live anymore anyway. I am already dead. You all buried me. I am free. I am your fear. I am the air. The sky. The dying. The dead. You are all living in my tomb. I am outside breathing while you suffocate in my stench. Look at you. Your sanctimony. You feast on willing, weak minds to elevate your own sick soul. I am you. You are me. I am half of nothing. You are nothing. Truth is not in this chamber. No one in this chamber seeks truth. You are not judging me. You are judging yourself. You would do what I do if you had the guts. Instead, you are submerged in stagnant red pools. You pretend to be horrified but I see your pleasure. It drips down your legs. Lick it up. It is as close to escape as you will get. I am the horizon. The point of no return. You can finish me but I will begin again.

This isn’t the speech of a god, or someone communing with some kind of spirit, or even someone intoxicated: this is the inner monologue of one of the main characters when they are brought before the ‘court’ on charges.


On top of that, the author has filled the book with invented words, without ever explaining what those words mean. Is this noun an animal, vegetable, or mineral? I have no idea. Because characters were described as ‘curling up like a coco’ multiple times, I was picturing some kind of small animal, but eventually I worked out that it’s actually some kind of fruit or nut. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either – who curls up like a nut? And there are dozens of other terms where it was never clear if the characters were referring to an insect or rodent or maybe a big cat???

This next part isn’t down to bad writing, exactly, just extremely unpleasant: one of the two main characters is a sadist who really, really despises ‘carriers’, and wow it was not fun being in their head.

I don’t like carriers. I think they are pathetic for letting a maymu take their purpose…They don’t seem to live as long as Maymuans and even if they did they are never allowed to become Experienced.

Experienced = elders, the governing body of this society. So this genderfluid culture still manages to be sexist towards anyone without a penis. Why???

There are also a lot of scenes involving violence towards animals. I appreciated the author including a content warning for this; however, it seemed hugely gratuitous: at one point a character is walking in the woods and without looking, randomly punches an owl off its branch.

…Why? We already know this character is a villain. You really don’t need to have them punching owls to underline it for us. It’s so stupid it almost becomes funny. Why would anyone punch a random owl? It makes no sense, especially in a culture where you can face the death penalty for killing an animal. But the characters don’t even comment on it, never mind explain it.

To go back to bad writing: it is a bad idea to give your main characters almost identical names. Other reviewers have talked about not being able to hear the difference on the audiobook, and I can tell you that even reading the names on a page, they’re easy to mix up. Writers, please don’t do this.

Finally, I learned that the sadist character is going to set up their own society and it will be misogyny central. I was going to DNF this book already, but when I heard that…I just cannot even.

I read 32%, and it was 32% too much.

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Secondary M/M
Published on: 23rd August 2022
ISBN: 0356518655

Hart is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria. It’s an unforgiving job, and Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder his loneliness.

Mercy never has a moment to herself. She’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son Undertakers afloat in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest.

After yet another exasperating run-in with Mercy, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born.

If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most – Mercy. As the dangers from Tanria grow closer, so do the unlikely correspondents. But can their blossoming romance survive the fated discovery that their pen pals are their worst nightmares – each other?

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.

Undertaking, on the other hand, is actually a pretty great book, I think – it’s just not a me-book. Which is not its fault! But it does mean I don’t want to finish it, even after hitting the halfway point.

It’s a tiny bit silly and very indulgent and delightfully odd: the worldbuilding is fairly simple, but manages to feel very original and unexpected. There is emotional growth to go through and misunderstandings and delicious baked goods, and quietly in the background are some big mysterious question marks about some of the magical shenanigans.

This is a book a whole lot of people will love, basically, and I’d like to come back to it at some point, maybe. But for now I’m putting it aside.

Just three in one month is pretty great! Let’s hope August goes as well.

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