Sunday Souçons #17

Posted 9th October 2022 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews, Sunday Soupçons / 0 Comments

soupçon/ˈsuːpsɒn,ˈsuːpsɒ̃/ noun
1. a very small quantity of something; a slight trace, as of a particular taste or flavor

Sunday Soupçons is where I scribble mini-reviews for books I don’t have the brainspace/eloquence/smarts to write about in depth – or if I just don’t have anything interesting to say beyond I LIKED IT AND YOU SHOULD READ IT TOO!

Two books, both ARCs this time!

The Bride Hunt of Elk Mountain by Lumen Reese
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Indigenous American MC, Deaf MC, sapphic MC, secondary Black sapphic character
PoV: 3rd-person, past-tense, multiple PoVs

Every five years the girls of Elk Mountain wake up in the woods, where the simple farm boys they grew up with become predators and hunt them for brides.

Dan Lightman returns to the mountain to help the Marlow sisters. Lizzie is twenty, deaf since childhood and worried that she could end up married to a man who won't learn to communicate with her, that she won't have a voice in her own home. Beck is seventeen, exchanging secret letters with a girl from the other side of the mountain, and she'll kill or die before she'll marry anyone else. Nellie is only fourteen, and all she wants is a few more years, to grow up on her own terms.

All three girls live in the shadow of their beautiful eldest sister, Julia. Five years ago -at the last Bride Hunt- she refused the man who caught her, and she was killed for it. The barbaric ritual is a sacred rite of passage to a fringe sect of Catholicism in post-apocalyptic, small-town Appalachia. Dan is one of the hunt's only critics. He was once too afraid to fight for the girl he loved, but now he’s back with a hired cutthroat and a plan to save the remaining Marlow sisters from their gruesome fate...

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 Bride Hunt of Elk Mountain is compellingly written, but fails to completely stick the landing. Despite the majority of the book being introspective and thoughtful, delicately examining different aspects of the story, characters, and setting, the climax dissolved into quick and easy cliche; the Big Fix came together too quickly and perfectly, which undercut all the nuance that came before it. It’s not that I wanted anything less than a happy ending, but I didn’t want a magic wand happy ending, complete with a romance arc that lacked chemistry and seemed to exist just to neatly wrap up some loose threads.

Also, although Reese chose to tell a story about sexist fundamentalism though characters who don’t usually get to tell these stories – a Deaf young woman, a queer teen, and a young man of Indigenous descent – I don’t feel like Bride Hunt had anything new to say about any of the topics it addressed.

The writing was good – the prose isn’t lush but it is heartfelt, and it flows beautifully. I would have liked to see Bride Hunt go through one more round of editing – mostly to smooth out the seemingly random shifts between past- and present-tense – but it’s a solid book. It’s not amazing, but it’s definitely not bad, either.

Empire of the Feast by Bendi Barrett
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Black queer MC, M/M, nonbinary secondary character
PoV: 3rd-person, present-tense
Published on: 25th October 2022

In Empire of the Feast, we awaken with Riverson, 32nd ruler of the Stag Empire, as he attempts to govern without the memories of his previous lives. To survive the ever-sharpening gears of war, he will need to mend the political schisms threatening to tear his empire apart while maintaining the erotic rituals holding off the eldritch horror known only as the Rapacious.

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

Oh, how I wish this had been a full novel rather than a novella! Not because the story doesn’t fit its length – I’ve rarely seen a story that fit inside a novella so well. But damn, I want more of this world!

And the ending does leave room for sequels, so I’ll cross my fingers that we get some!

With one exception, nothing in Empire of the Feast goes as expected – Barrett very deliberately sets out to subvert the story beats we’re used to, so that the twists and reveals come as genuine surprises. (With, as I said, one singular exception that made my eyes roll, because X is always the traitor. But that can be at least partly forgiven, since X’s motivation is so interestingly weird.) This is on top of some of the oddest worldbuilding I’ve ever seen, which I have to admit I didn’t always understand (one reason I’d like more books in this setting!) But it’s fundamentally, objectively pretty damn cool: there’s a monster inside a sun, and the only thing keeping it from devouring the galaxy is…a never-ending orgy? Because sex magic? Which is controlled or focussed through the reigning Empress or Emperor? Who, by the way, is the same soul reincarnated over and over again, if I understood that correctly?

I’m not sure I did, but it was a lot of fun either way. I liked that the empire was called out on its flaws; I loved the dry, wry humour and the snark. I appreciated the ugly consequences of grand, dramatic gestures, and how every last one of the characters managed to surprise me; I lost count of how many times Barrett flipped the tables on me, how nothing at all went as l expected it to. And from a technical standpoint, I’m massively impressed with the pacing; I often complain that stories are moving too quickly, but the whole point of Empire of the Feast is that everything’s hitting the fan at once, so the speed of it all really worked. Besides, Barrett somehow managed to keep up the pace without sacrificing character development or wouldbuilding – how, I have no idea, but, just – WOW.

Barrett, I take my hat off to you, truly.

I think my only quibble is that it would have been nice to have more women in the cast – given that the empire has been ruled by a long line of Empresses up to this point, I would have expected there to be more women in positions of power, when in fact we didn’t see any. Why???

That aside, this is a brilliant, twisty, very weird little Science Fantasy novella that I enjoyed very much, and it has definitely catapulted Barret onto my list of authors to keep an eye on!

Do either of these catch your interest? Let me know!

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