October DNFs

Posted 30th October 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Horror Reviews, Reviews / 0 Comments

Eight DNFs this month – twice as many as September! – but one was a case of ‘this is too scary for me’, not ‘this is a bad book’. The rest were a mix of ARCs and books I bought myself, but ultimately let me down.

The Grief Nurse by Angie Spoto
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Pansexual everyone
ISBN: 1914518187

Imagine you could be rid of your sadness, your anxiety, your heartache, your fear.

Imagine you could take those feelings from others and turn them into something beautiful.

Lynx is a Grief Nurse. Kept by the Asters, a wealthy, influential family, to ensure they’re never troubled by negative emotions, she knows no other life.

When news arrives that the Asters’ eldest son is dead, Lynx does what she can to alleviate their Sorrow. As guests flock to the Asters’ private island for the wake, bringing their own secrets, lies and grief, tensions rise.

Then the bodies start to pile up.

With romance, intrigue and spectacular gothic world-building, this spellbinding debut novel is immersive and unforgettable.

This is a book I’ve been trying to read since very early this year, but no matter how I try, it’s just not holding my interest. The prose is just a little bit off, like a song that’s just barely out of tune; the rhythm of it jars, is clunky instead of running smooth. And there’s so much telling, so much info-dumping, and I get that none of the characters are meant to be likeable – they’re clearly meant to be awful – but they’re not interesting. Awful-but-interesting is very allowed, but this cast is dull as dishwater, and while I liked the concept of the Grief Nurses, I really didn’t understand how this society had developed; the worldbuilding didn’t make much sense to me. I was interested in Lynx herself, and in the appearance of a second Grief Nurse in the household for her to interact with, but I couldn’t force myself through the out-of-tune prose to continue reading about her.

A Necessary Chaos by Brent Lambert
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Black queer MCs, M/M
ISBN: 1952086469

In a world of magical empires and the anarchists that would tear them down, two mages are each assigned to spy on the other by opposing sides. But when they both catch feelings, what happens when they’re commanded to kill their target?

After an incredibly long wait, A Necessary Chaos was a real disappointment. The novella opens with so much telling not showing and general infodumping that it’s clear this story shouldn’t have been a novella at all: it needed to be a full novel, fleshed out and taking up space instead of rushing so fast it tripped over itself. The dissonance between what this story is versus what it could/should have been was almost physically painful. No thank you!

Winter Harvest by Ioanna Papadopoulou
Genres: Fantasy
Published on: 21st November 2023
ISBN: 1739234863

From the moment of her birth, Demeter, the second born daughter of Kronos and Rhea, lived in darkness, trapped inside her father’s stomach, always fearing that inside her body a monster lived and she had to keep it caged. This rage inside her didn’t cease or grow any weaker when she was freed by her youngest brother, nor when she and her siblings defeated Kronos and his allies during the Titanomachy, the war that forever changed Greece. It stayed under her skin, always reminding her of its presence but never gaining control.

All that changed when her precious only child, Kore, vanished from the face of earth and Demeter found herself alone in her quest to regain her daughter. Unable to contain her rage, she gives in to all she tried so hard not to become and begins a period of starvation that brings humanity to the brink of extinction as she embarks on a journey to find Kore, filled with humiliation, further betrayal and desperation which reshapes her Godhood and changes her in a way she never expected nor wanted.

Winter Harvest is a stand-alone feminist mythology retelling which explores Demeter’s place in the Dodecatheon and her harsh and painful life as she becomes a chthonic Goddess, linked with both death and life. The novel combines various myths about Demeter, shaped like a fantasy novel which focuses on Demeter as a female goddess, struggling to fit into the patriarchal status quo of Olympus while she is constantly changing her identity in an attempt to find her place in the world and what it means to be female.

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 was really excited for a look at Demeter, a goddess who gets dismissed or simplified far too often…but this is not a book for me. I think it’s legitimately bad writing to have ancient Greek characters using modern terms like ‘okay’, and I kept running into sentences that seemed very awkward; sometimes anachronistic, sometimes oddly immature, sometimes just clumsy.

making my eyes change into something different and scarier

the quieter and stiller I remained, the more fake his laughter turned.

That would look bad on you.”

(That last one is intended to mean ‘that would reflect badly on you’, not ‘that would look bad on you’ like a bad outfit or something, to clarify.)

But the rest of my issues are more a matter of taste: I’m TiredTM of women being afraid of their monstrous sides, which Demeter spends a lot of the beginning being (afraid, that is, not monstrous), and I’m also sick to death of reading about rape.

(Yes, I know there’s a LOT of rape in Greek myth. Your point? These are RETELLINGS of FANTASY. The authors can do what they want. Papadopoulou chose to include a fair bit of rape in her story, and I’m not saying that’s not allowed, I’m saying that’s not something I want to read.)

Not to mention, I found the take on divinity itself confusing and dull, and wanted to bang my head against my desk when Zeus was the one deciding what everyone’s power/dominion was going to be. WHY? WHY DO THIS? I HATE THIS SO MUCH. I’m so sick of reading mythological retellings where women are given their powers by men! Even when they trick said men into giving more than they intended – I don’t want to read these stories, okay? If you’re giving me gods, I want beings whose dominions are innate, not things that are given to them. Especially when we’re talking about goddesses.

I think my review makes it clear that a lot of this is about personal taste – Winter Harvest was never going to be for me, it wasn’t written with readers like me in mind. And that’s fine. But I do also think the writing is not-great, and that’s what I’m rating it on.

The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Queer MC
ISBN: 1837860009

A lyrical, queer sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet as a locked-room thriller

Hayden Lichfield’s life is ripped apart when he finds his father murdered in their lab, and the camera logs erased. The killer can only have been after one thing: the Sisyphus Formula the two of them developed together, which might one day reverse death itself. Hoping to lure the killer into the open, Hayden steals the research. In the process, he uncovers a recording his father made in the days before his death, and a dying wish: Avenge me…

With the lab on lockdown, Hayden is trapped with four other people—his uncle Charles, lab technician Gabriel Rasmussen, research intern Felicia Xia and their head of security, Felicia’s father Paul—one of whom must be the killer. His only sure ally is the lab’s resident artificial intelligence, Horatio, who has been his dear friend and companion since its creation. With his world collapsing, Hayden must navigate the building’s secrets, uncover his father’s lies, and push the boundaries of sanity in the pursuit of revenge.

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 sorry. I’m sorry. I tried, okay? I really did. I made it to 60%.

But I was just. so. BORED!

I was excited for this because I adored Liu’s debut novella, If Found Return to Hell, and the early reviews for Death I Gave Him were really promising. But I feel like I read a different book than those reviewers did; that, or I’m just not intellectual enough to appreciate what I was reading. I’m usually a mega-fan of introspection, and this book is 99% introspection, but – it’s introspection in a very grim situation where we’re dealing with a lot of people who are grieving and/or clinically depressed and/or paranoid (in fairness, usually paranoid for very good reasons). I loved the relationship I saw developing between Hayden (Hamlet) and the AI (Horatio) that ran the lab they were all in – I’m pretty sure it was going in a romantic direction, and I was damn invested in that. But not enough to put up with the rest of it.

(If I’m honest, I’m also not sure it was super healthy for me to be that deeply in the mind of someone that depressed – even though I’m mostly past the point Hayden’s at, it felt somewhat triggering. Which just means that Liu is very, very good at writing believable messed-up people, but that might have been part of the reason I wasn’t enjoying myself.)

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez, Pablo Gerardo Camacho, Megan McDowell
Genres: Horror, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Latine cast, bisexual MC

“We have children so we can continue, they are our immortality.”

A young father and son set out on a road trip, devastated by the death of the wife and mother they both loved. United in grief, the pair travels to her family home, where they must confront the terrifying legacy she has bequeathed. The woman they grieve came from a clan like no other—a centuries-old secret society called the Order that commits unspeakable acts in search of eternal life. For Gaspar, the son, this vampiric cult is his destiny.

Now Gaspar is in danger. As the Order tries to possess him, father and son take flight, yet nothing will stop the Order for nothing is beyond them. Hunted by evil and surrounded by horror, Gaspar and his father attempt to outrun a powerful family that will do anything to ensure its own survival. But can any of us escape the fate that awaits us?

This is not a bad book in any way; this is simply an issue of, I am not enough of a badass for this book. It’s properly scary and horrifying in ways I can’t stomach, that’s all. Proper/hardcore horror fans should flock to this, because, you know, as a horror novel, it’s wonderful; complicated, with twisty characters and fucked-up lore and evil that continues after death. It’s excellent! But it’s going to give me nightmares if I keep reading, so I think I’d better stop!

A Blackened Mirror (Memoirs of the Borgia Sibyl #1) by Jo Graham
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
ISBN: 9781952456152

1489—When Giulia Farnese came to Rome to make an arranged marriage with young noble Orsino Orsini, she dreamed of learning and power in the glittering city of the Renaissance popes. However, her mother-in-law seems frightened, and her husband refuses to consummate the marriage at the direction of the head of his family, Lord Bracciano. But Giulia herself has a secret: she sees visions in mirrors and hears the whispers of spirits, the gifts of an ancient sibyl in an age when magic is heresy punishable by death. Is this ability the reason Bracciano has trapped her in this sham of a marriage?

As she struggles to unearth answers, Giulia finds herself drawn to her mother-in-law's cousin, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. Ruthless, sophisticated, and old enough to be Giulia's father, Rodrigo is a humanist, a collector of pagan art and heretical writings, and a loving father to his illegitimate children. He is a bright spot in Giulia's chilly life—but to Bracciano, he's a political rival to be removed. Bracciano's dark rites to summon demons may make Giulia the instrument of Rodrigo's destruction.

Dealing with demons is a mortal sin. Refusing Bracciano would be a fatal mistake. And Giulia’s growing attraction to Rodrigo might be her downfall—or the key to her salvation. To defy the demon's power and seize control of her life, Giulia will need to cross the line between innocence and dangerous knowledge. And once she's descended into that underworld, she is not coming back unchanged.

Another book I’ve spent most of the year trying to read. Graham’s prose is lovely, and I like the main character fine, but…I’m bored. And, if I’m honest, sick to DEATH of 16yo girls having romances with men in their 40s. It’s historical fiction. In this case, historical fantasy. You can change the rules! You’re adding seers and demons and whatnot to the time period, literally NOTHING is stopping you from changing the ages at which people are marrying!

The MC is engaging and very proactive, which feels surprising but pleasing; and the 40yo love interest is genuinely charming. But the book takes so long to get anywhere, and when it does, the magic is a surprisingly low-key part of it. I just had nothing holding me to the story; I didn’t care where it was going (it’s easy enough to guess that the bad guys will be overcome, for example) nor how we were going to get there. The MC is great, but the story she’s in is too slow and doesn’t give her room to manoeuvre, if that makes any sense.

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig
Representation: Chinese cast
ISBN: 1639730389

For readers of Outlawed, Piranesi, and The Night Tiger, a riveting, roaring adventure novel about a legendary Chinese pirate queen, her fight to save her fleet from the forces allied against them, and the dangerous price of power.

When Shek Yeung sees a Portuguese sailor slay her husband, a feared pirate, she knows she must act swiftly or die. Instead of mourning, Shek Yeung launches a new plan: immediately marrying her husband's second-in-command, and agreeing to bear him a son and heir, in order to retain power over her half of the fleet.

But as Shek Yeung vies for control over the army she knows she was born to lead, larger threats loom. The Chinese Emperor has charged a brutal, crafty nobleman with ridding the South China Seas of pirates, and the Europeans-tired of losing ships, men, and money to Shek Yeung's alliance-have new plans for the area. Even worse, Shek Yeung's cutthroat retributions create problems all their own. As Shek Yeung navigates new motherhood and the crises of leadership, she must decide how long she is willing to fight, and at what price, or risk losing her fleet, her new family, and even her life.

A book of salt and grit, blood and sweat, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is an unmissable portrait of a woman who leads with the courage and ruthlessness of our darkest and most beloved heroes.

Some similar issues to Blackened Mirror; too slow to get going, and I didn’t like where we were going. Bear in mind I’m also a bit of a prude with a weak stomach, which is exactly the wrong personality type for keeping up with a woman who’s going to become history’s greatest pirate queen. I wasn’t enjoying the prose and was confused as to how and why I wasn’t connecting with any of the characters; I think it’s at least partly because the writing style feels…very emotionally detached from the cast? Like we’re a step away from the story, behind a glass wall, rather than immersed in it. I’m sure it’s also partly that Chang-Eppig does nothing to romanticise the reality of piracy, and the reality is not comfortable or nice, and I’m not very good at enjoying books that are realistic about how un-nice life can be. Which is not a critique, just a matter of taste and preference.

Nightbirds (Nightbirds, #1) by Kate J. Armstrong
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC

The Nightbirds are Simta’s best-kept secret: Girls with a unique and powerful magic they can gift with just a kiss. Some would kill to possess them; the church would kill them outright. But protected by the Great Houses, the Nightbirds are well-guarded treasures.

As this Season’s Nightbirds, Matilde, Æsa, and Sayer will spend their nights bestowing their gifts to well-paying clients. Once their season is through, they’re each expected to marry a Great House lord and become mothers to the next generation of Nightbirds before their powers fade away. But as they find themselves at the heart of a political scheme that threatens not only their secrets, but their very lives, their future suddenly becomes uncertain.

When they discover that there are other girls like them and that their magic is far more than they were told, they see the Nightbird system for what it is: a gilded cage. Now they must make a choice—to remain kept birds or take control, remaking the city that dared to clip their wings.

Yet another book I’ve been trying to read since early in the year…this one is a ‘soft’ DNF, though; I would really like to come back to it at some point. The prose is very pretty, and I can see myself enjoying this if I could just find the bandwidth to focus on it properly. As-is, it pleased me by being more complicated than I was expecting, but while I loved the old-school lore, I wasn’t very impressed with the 1920s-esque current worldbuilding. I did like the budding Girl Power vibes – they were more subtle than I often see them – although I’d be surprised if this series ever touches on where trans or nonbinary girls fit into the magic – even if we did get one sapphic MC.

Fingers crossed for fewer DNFs next month!

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