Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

From Goodreads:

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

I have a strange relationship with young adult novels. I really liked Magonia when a lot of other people didn’t, for example. In this particular case, I did not like Daughter of Smoke and Bone quite as much as the Goodreads consensus does. I really, truly was hoping to love it, as it was our book club pick this month. Star-crossed lovers, you say? I enjoyed that trope in These Broken Stars. Angels and demons are fun, too. But other than the world building, it just didn’t click with me in the way other books have. Perhaps it was because the main character’s personality seemed typical for the genre? Maybe it was the instant love between Akiva and Karou. Maybe it was the predictable plot. In any case, I just did not fall in love with Taylor’s story.

Let me start with what I did enjoy. This story was not what I expected it to be from the blurb on the back. The angels and demons are not what they first seem, and I quite liked that! I loved the descriptions of the various chimaera, of their different aspects, of their cultural myths and legends. While war between a slave race and a dominant race is nothing new, Taylor does manage to create an interesting conflict that will be quite the driving force in the later novels, I can only assume. Additionally, the use of teeth for wishes was grotesque and super cool at the same time, as is what the teeth are actually used for within the story.

However, as for the characters, I enjoyed the secondary characters over the main cast. Zuzana, Brimstone, Issa, even Razgut… I felt that they were all so much more more realistic than Akiva and Karou are. Karou reminded me of that comic describing young adult main characters being good at everything and a vampire to boot. (Of course, she isn’t a vampire, but I digress.) She’s talented at drawing, combat, has chimaera for a family… She’s as special as it gets. While it didn’t make me dislike her, it still felt too unbelievable even given the explanation. I think it may be because I prefer to see that growth during the course of the novel, rather than being given a character that’s already good at everything. Her only downsides seemed to be that she felt empty and acted as expected for her age, and I suppose that would be what teens would relate to and is, of course, understandable. Even so, I feel like more flaws or weaknesses would make her feel more “human”.

As for the romance… It was instant and frustrating, and the part that really made me want to put this novel down. While I thought it was definitely cute at times, there needed to be more development, even with the excuse given later on as to why they are so drawn to each other. There was just too much, too fast to begin to be believable, especially with the circumstances in which they first meet in the story. The romance fires sparks within a day, and I find that rather ridiculous. Instant lust, sure. That would make sense. Since it is termed as love in the story, however, I can’t help but shake my head.

With all of the above, as well as a jarring story structure (see: last fourth of the book switching gears dramatically), I can’t give this novel more than three stars. While I am curious to read the other two books in the series because of how the book ends, I am hesitant. I don’t really ship the romance as hard as I would like to, and the story really just isn’t gripping me the way it should to read it all. In one word, it was unbelievable. And that’s a weird word to use for a fantasy novel.

ARC Review: The Bone Witch

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my thoughts, feelings, or anything of that nature regarding it. You have been advised.

The Bone Witch

From Goodreads:

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

The cover of this book captivated me and was the original reason I chose to request the novel. It is beautifully dark, with purple hues and the skull right in the center, like a warning to anyone entering. Unfortunately, though the contents inside do oftentimes match the atmosphere given off by the cover, I found myself bored throughout the middle of the book. While there are parts that certainly make reading the middle worth it for the end, much of it felt easily skipped. The descriptions of daily life, while good in moderation, seem like the majority of the novel and cause it to drag. I wanted more action, more daeva fighting, but these were much smaller sections of the book than I had thought would be the case. The comparison to Memoirs of a Geisha is warranted with the descriptions of becoming an asha, but it is not nearly as captivating as Golden’s work.

In addition, the characters did not feel as well fleshed out as I would have liked. Many of them feel one-dimensional, or had character traits described but not shown nearly as much in their actions. While Tea was definitely rebellious and strong-willed, I had a hard time connecting to her even though she is the narrator of her own story. Oftentimes, she felt almost bland to me, even though she has the coolest magical skill set and could raise people from the dead. I had an easier time connecting to her protective, yet stoic older brother. And her love interests? Flat throughout the majority of the novel.

However, the strength of The Bone Witch falls in its worldbuilding. I loved the descriptions of the heartsglass, the drawing of the runes for the magic system, and the demonic daeva. While the countries fall on real-world examples to help flesh them out, they still feel alive from the information we are given about them and seeing their people populate the novel. There are even old myths and an age-old conflict that help make this world feel vibrant. I especially enjoyed how most of the countries did not have much in the way of Western influences, and how the asha are like fighting geisha. Even the description of the food veers away from fantasy norms. Chupeco does a wonderful job at making her world, while familiar in many ways, feel atypical in a Western fantasy dominated market.

Due to the middle of the novel’s slowness and the flat characters, even though the worldbuilding was strong I give The Bone Witch three out of five stars. While it does end on a cliffhanger of sorts, because I did not connect with Tea as much as I would have liked, I will not likely be reading the next book in the series. With characterization being so important to me, I wish she had as much life to her as the world around her does.

Comic Review: Monstress Vol 1


From Goodreads:

Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.

Originally, I read the first issue of this comic back when it was released and when Marjorie Liu had a signing at our local comic book store. I was fascinated and couldn’t wait for more. It has been a little over a year since then, and I finally picked up the trade paperback to go through the first six issues simultaneously. I am truly glad I read it this way instead of issue to issue. While engrossing and beautiful, the story would have been much harder to appreciate had I read it monthly.

The comic follows Maika Halfwolf, who at the start of the first issue is seeking revenge for the death of her mother. She is both crass and combative, and I honestly had a hard time liking her. It is understandable as to why she is that way, however, due to her upbringing during the war and also having been a slave. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and even if she is indeed monstrous and unlikable, I can definitely respect her as a character.

The other characters, human, Arcanic, or otherwise, are all captivating in their own right. I loved reading about Ren and Kippa especially. Kippa, being a scared yet optimistic child regardless of what he goes through, and Ren, the trickster cat, work as great companions to Maika throughout the story. While the human villains feel truly evil, even they are full of surprises. Intrigue, betrayal, and ulterior motives are staples of Monstress, and nobody is truly as they seem. The humans are often inhuman, and the Arcanics are not the monsters the humans claim them to be.

One of my favorite aspects of this comic is the setting. The artwork gives off a very Egyptian atmosphere, with depictions of masks that resemble Anubis and the gratuitous use of the color gold. Their world is one of steampunk elements such as airships, and Lovecraftian Old Gods whose ghosts roam the world. While each element on its own may have been used time and again in the past, together they create an unique and stunning universe.

The plot itself, however, is one found in many comics. It is a story of revenge and a story where multiple factions are trying to track Maika down for what she holds. I can’t tell you how many comics I have read where people are chasing the main character as a main plot device. Even only considering the comic’s publisher, Image Comics, this is a common trope. Regardless, I still felt heavily absorbed in the story even if there are many recycled plot threads.

The depth of the worldbuilding in this work is rather grand as well, and this is why I felt it would be difficult to read each issue separately. I was dropped into the story without much guidance, and there was little info-dumping throughout save for the lessons given at the end of each issue. Those segments were incredibly helpful, and I would have been rather lost without them. It definitely takes the first few issues for things to begin to make sense overall.

Even with the formulaic plot, I loved Monstress. It is arresting, beautifully drawn, and full of fascinating characters. I also couldn’t help but love the cats too! I give this comic four out of five stars, and cannot wait to read more in the future.

Book Review: Magonia


From Goodreads:

Aza Ray is drowning in thin air.

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

I honestly was not sure if I would like this book in the beginning. It begins with stream of consciousness writing, with a slice of life focus. While fascinating and beautifully written in its own right, I could not help but feel that Aza Ray was a special snowflake. Nerdier than the rest of the class? Check. Only one friend who understands her, and is just as nerdy? Check. Nerdiness is almost to the point of being beyond belief? Check. A mysterious illness that not even doctors understand? Needless to say, I had a hard time initially with the novel. However, as I continued reading, these facets added to the fantastic and dream-like atmosphere of the story. While we see a typical YA heroine with special powers and coming to terms with her destiny, the world building and mythos make up for these tropes and others throughout the story.

Maybe I have not read enough, but I have never read something quite like this novel. Ships in the sky? Sure, I’ve seen that plenty of times. Birds that roost in your lungs to amplify your singing voice, however? That as well as plenty of other facets, from the Magonian race to the Rostrae, were unique and refreshing. I fell in love with this world, even if there were plot holes abound and a lack of believable characters.

Even if they were unbelievable, however, I still could not help but empathize with them all. They all had clear goals, clear motivations, and were never black and white. It was also nice to see Aza and Jason’s parents play such a strong role in the story as well. I could not help but root for everyone, cry with them, and laugh with them, especially with how strong the audiobook performance was. Even once I had to turn in the audiobook and read the physical book, their voices stayed with me.

Although there was a romance triangle, it made sense within the context of the novel and did not bother me as much as they normally tend to do. Jason and Aza together, in particular, were adorable, and I could not get enough of them. From the alligator costume in their beginning years to watching giant squid together, the entire time I wanted to both hug them and push them together at every moment.

Factoring in the improbable characters and plot holes (seriously, Jason, using the dark web as an excuse for all the shenanigans you manage to get up to??), I give this novel four out of five stars for wonderful world building, emotional and poetic writing, and for making me cry on the bus home of all places. I will definitely be giving the second book a try, as Aza Ray’s story will stick with me for a long time.  Thank you, Maria Dahvana Headley, for writing such a poignant and amazing novel.

Visual Novel Review: Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet


From Steam:

It is thirty years after the failure of the Space Colonization Program.
Humanity is nearly extinct. A perpetual and deadly Rain falls on the Earth.
Men known as “Junkers” plunder goods and artifacts from the ruins of civilization.
One such Junker sneaks alone into the most dangerous of all ruins — a “Sarcophagus City”.
In the center of this dead city, he discovers a pre-War planetarium.
And as he enters he is greeted by Hoshino Yumemi, a companion robot.
Without a single shred of doubt, she assumes he is the first customer she’s had in 30 years.
She attempts to show him the stars at once, but the planetarium projector is broken.
Unable to make heads or tails of her conversation, he ends up agreeing to try and repair the projector …

For those unfamiliar with visual novels, and kinetic novels in particular, before I get into Planetarian’s review I will give a short explanation. Visual novels essentially are compromised of text, visuals, and music. Often there are choices to be made that will feed you into alternate endings and paths, making the experience one that is worth repeating, such as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. The amount of interaction can range from a “kinetic novel”, which has no choices, to “adventure games”, which contain more gameplay elements. While there are many that have been written in Japan, the amount that have been translated into English officially is much smaller, though growing. There are also many fan translation patches that you can get if you have Japanese copies of certain games, so that is an option that exists.

To warn you, however, many have eroge content, meaning that there often is 18+ scenes added in, which I will warn you about if I review one of that nature. Additionally, I will let you know if there is an official English version available or if I played a patched in fan translation.

Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet is an all-ages kinetic novel developed by Key that was originally released in 2004, and has been released in English on Steam. The story follows a Junker who scavenges a post-apocalyptic world for anything useful he can find. The unnamed protagonist, on one of his excursions to a sarcophagus city, finds himself in a planetarium with a female android named Hoshino Yumemi that has been waiting for customers for thirty years. Much of the plot centers around this planetarium and its sole occupant, who is unaware of the nuclear and biological warfare that encompassed the planet a generation prior.

First of all, this visual novel broke my heart. I can’t really get into why without spoiling the whole story, but do go in knowing that you’ll probably cry. I knew this beforehand from the Steam reviews, and still I was a sniveling wreck.  This means that the novel is easy to connect to and empathize with the characters, which is great in the four hours it takes to play the game.

Over the course of the story, there are only two characters that are presented, and in the setting, that is honestly just enough. Seeing the interactions between the Junker and Yumemi is heartwarming and simultaneously heartbreaking, as the Junker’s cynicism and Yumemi’s optimism often clash. Yumemi believes that customers will eventually come back to the planetarium, while the Junker time and time again tries to explain that there is nothing left. It is a contrast between the optimistic belief in humans and the reality that humanity has wrought onto itself.

The aspect I loved the most about this story is the focus on the stars. With the Rain pummeling down on the world constantly, the sky has long been obscured from view. The stars represent hope and belief in humanity’s possibility to heal.

While relatively short and predictable in many aspects, the novel packs a punch. There’s just enough exposition to color the story in the beginning, discussions on humanity’s path to the stars, and character growth from both parties.  Even the Junker’s harsh manner becomes manageable by the end.  The artwork, while relatively simple in comparison to modern day visual novels, is still just enough to paint an accompanying picture to the text. The music, particularly “Gentle Jena”, does a fantastic job at tugging at the heartstrings and making one want to look to the night sky.

Overall, I give this visual novel four out of five twinkling stars in the sky, mainly because it is rather predictable. Even so, I feel like it will stay with me for a long time, and I look forward to trying the anime adaptation soon.




Comic Review: Descender, Vol 1: Tin Stars


From Goodreads:

Young Robot boy TIM-21 and his companions struggle to stay alive in a universe where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters lurk on every planet. Written by award-winning creator, Jeff Lemire, Descender is a rip-roaring and heart-felt cosmic odyssey. Lemire pits humanity against machine, and world against world, to create a sprawling epic. Created by Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Trillium) and Dustin Nguyen’s (Little Gotham) critically acclaimed, bestselling new science fiction series!

Collecting: Descender 1-6

Okay, it is time to reel in my flailing before beginning, this graphic novel was that good.  I honestly have not read something this amazing in quite a long time, and it was wonderful for a comic to just “click” with me so well.  Descender is fantastic sci-fi rendered in a beautiful watercolor setting that was incredibly unique and refreshing.  Alien worlds emblazoned in rich shades, so unfamiliar and otherworldly, fit with the flow of the story well enough that any doubts I may have had from the deviation from normal comic book art were blown out of the water.

The story follows TIM-21, a companion android for children that wakes up years after an attack from massive robots known as the Harvesters.  Alone and afraid on a desolate mining planet far from populated reaches of the galaxy, different factions vie for retrieving him due to his importance in identifying the origin of the murderous machines that killed millions upon millions.  Those groups, such as the UGC, Grishians, and the like, all have their own clear motives and were each fascinating in their own right.  I cannot wait to learn more about each of them as this comic progresses!

The grayness of each character was another favorite part of this work for me.  No one was strictly good or evil, which in comics feels great as there is so often a clear good guy and bad guy, especially in the superhero genre.  From the “father of modern robotics” to those who want to destroy all robots in existence, they all have solid reasoning for their actions and their own light and dark sides.  This becomes clearer as the comic progresses.  All we can root for is poor TIM-21, who just wants to see his family again.  And, of course, Driller, because Driller is the best and there is no argument that’ll make me believe otherwise.

Finally, the theme of the humanity of robots is always a wonderful one to visit, and this comic has this in spades.  TIM-21 is programmed with emotions to facilitate his job as a companion robot, and the robots shown throughout the story feel much more human than their modern-day counterparts.  Yet, they are being massacred due to the robot attack that so many planets endured.  The parallels to genocide are not easily missed, and the easiest characters to empathize with are the machines.

Overall, I cannot wait to read the second and third trade paperbacks that are currently out and will likely review those as well!  (We may have already bought them, I was so excited.)  Descender deserves all five stars, as Jeff Lemire has created a beautiful world and characters I can get behind.  This is probably my favorite sci-fi comic outside of Saga, which is a high honor!



Book Review: The Amber Project


From Goodreads:

In 2157, a mysterious gas known as Variant spreads across the globe, killing or mutating most organic life. The surviving humans take refuge in an underground city, determined to return home. But after generations of failures and botched attempts, hope is beginning to dwindle. That is, until a young scientist makes a unique discovery—and everything changes. Suddenly, there’s reason to hope again, and it rests within a group of genetically engineered children that are both human and Variant.

Terry is one of these children, modified and trained to endure the harsh conditions of a planet he cannot begin to understand. After years of preparation, Terry thinks he knows what to expect. But the reality is far stranger than anything he can imagine—and what he will become is far more dangerous.

I often do not pick up self-published novels.  I don’t have anything particularly against them, but oftentimes they suffer from needing more editing passes and beta/gamma readers.  This doesn’t mean the novels are always bad, of course – they just need more tender loving care.  This is how I can describe most of my experience with The Amber Project, which was December’s read for a book club I am a part of.  Riddled with continuity errors, scenes that seem out of place, and flat characters, this novel could have been so much more.

To me, J.N. Chaney’s book felt like a typical dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel.  With so many of those released within the last ten years, I felt like each scene I had seen before in some sense.  A breeding system?  Check.  Government falling apart slowly?  Check.  Some sort of deadly outside agent?  Check.  With generally cut and dry prose and only a couple really interesting action sequences, oftentimes I just felt bored.  It did not help that every once in a while there would be an error here or there with the year the scene was taking place, and sometimes contradictory information was given.  It could be jarring at times and brought me out of the story.

The Amber Project focuses on two sets of characters – the genetically modified children who are created to be able to traverse the Variant-ridden surface without special equipment, and the adults in power, such as the main character’s mother, Mara.  I will be honest, the main storyline with the children was not nearly as interesting as the politics going on in the background with the Mothers, the Scientists, and the Military.  Politics are often my favorite part of dystopian fiction.  Transition of power, the breakdown of a checks and balances system, and how the separation of the sexes is handled are all topics covered within this novel.  Especially as Ender’s Game-like schooling was happening with the children, the adults were just so much more interesting to read about and generally better fleshed out as people.

My other favorite part of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels is the explanation as to why society broke down.  While the Variant gas is covered and explained in detail (though the science felt off), how the city initially came to be before the Jolt and why there are a myriad of types of plants, farms, and a general higher standard of living is glossed over, if it was really touched on at all.  A subplot about the slums was hinted at as well, but also was barely mentioned outside of two or three scenes.  There seemed to be a lot this book wanted to do, and perhaps the author does in the following two novels, but as a first book in a series I felt there was so much left to be desired.

If there was any one word to describe what I read, it would be this: mediocrity.  The main character Terry felt inconsistent and I had trouble empathizing with any of the cast.  There were recycled topics.  Shaky science.  I felt this book had the foundation for something great, but fell below that on so many levels.  For the interesting politics and premise, I give it three stars, but I likely will not continue with the series as I never got the emotional connection I wanted.  Someone at least let me know how Mara does, though!

Comic Review: Paper Girls


From Goodreads:

In the early hours after Halloween of 1988, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls uncover the most important story of all time. Suburban drama and otherworldly mysteries collide in this smash-hit series about nostalgia, first jobs, and the last days of childhood.

Collects Paper Girls #1-5.

Paper Girls kept popping up on my radar through various posts and best of the year lists on Twitter and the like.  Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of eighties and nineties nostalgia in particular, and coming into this comic I knew practically nothing about the story itself save for the back cover description.  Not my typical read, I thought, but I went ahead anyway.  And I’m glad I did – though I have not watched Stranger Things, I assume this is the kind of enjoyment I would get out of it.

For your sake as well, I want to keep you all as much in the dark about the actual plot as possible, because I felt it was a lot more fascinating watching it unfold that way.  What I can say is that the supernatural elements and the eighties culture and iconography were mixed very well, including and up to the way the comic was drawn and colored.  Neon hues illuminated the pages, like something out of an old movie such as Blade Runner.  Everything felt like it fell into the right place for the comic it wanted to be, and boy, it moves at breakneck speed once it gets going.  Brian K. Vaughan does not disappoint, as usual.

I absolutely loved the all-female main cast, even if I’m still trying to get a grasp on their characters.  They mention breaking the glass ceiling in paper delivery, and I quite enjoy stories that show young women at the helm and kicking ass at what they do.  I really hope that in the next volume or so, I can get to know the individual characters more readily and have an appreciation for each of them, as at the moment I see them as a conglomerate.

If you enjoy supernatural elements and your eighties nostalgia, then this graphic novel is right up your alley.  I give it a solid four stars, and recommend giving it a try, as I was pleasantly surprised.  Which I shouldn’t have been, honestly, because I love the writer’s other works, such as Saga.   And if you haven’t read Saga already, you better do that too!

Road to ICFA 38: 2015 Paper

A few weeks ago, I got the news that my proposal for ICFA was accepted, making this the second time I will be going to the conference as a scholar.  I wanted to document the experience as the paper itself comes together with you guys, and report on the event itself.  The paper that is in the works currently is titled “Pre-Crime, Free Will, and Institutionalization: An Exploration of the Themes of ‘The Minority Report’ and Psycho-Pass“.  I hope to inspire you guys to visit the conference sometime, or perhaps present for ICFA 39!

For clarification, ICFA is the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, held yearly in Orlando, Florida as a scholarly conference for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The first time I attended was almost two years ago because of a paper I wrote in Professor Andy Duncan’s class at the University of Alabama.  He’s won the World Fantasy Award a number of times as well as the Nebula, and has been Hugo nominated, so you should check him out sometime.

But I digress.  I wanted to share with you that very paper that began my journey that hopefully will continue in the scholarly world.  It unfortunately does not have any outside sources other than the source material, which is my only regret and will be rectified for the next paper.  Additionally, it’s about 2400 words or so, so I warn you now before you get into it!  Finally, this paper has spoilers for Who Fears Death, Lagoon, and Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, so beware!!!

Rewriting the Great Book: Subverting the Story of Zoubeir in the Works of Nnedi Okorafor

Male heroes swoop in to save damsels in distress.  A woman’s death becomes the impetus for the protagonist to take action against a great evil.  These tropes, among many others, plague not only science fiction and fantasy but also the entirety of fiction.  Nnedi Okorafor, however, is a standout example of an author who completely turns these tropes on their heads.  While Okorafor employs these subversions in all of her novels, this is especially apparent in Who Fears Death, where Onyesonwu proves again and again that she is as competent, if not more so, than her male counterparts and ultimately becomes the chosen heroine that saves the world.  This subversion is most succinctly illustrated in Chapter 39 of Okorafor’s novel, which is a self-contained story that acts as a foil to the rest of the book.  Particularly with the sacrifice of the pure maiden who ultimately receives no recognition, the story of Zoubeir the Great, Suntown’s greatest chief, embodies many of these typical devices seen in literature.  In choosing to recount it, Okorafor manages to capture all that Onyesonwu finds wrong within her world and the destiny that she is determined to change by rewriting the Great Book.

But what is so wrong with her world that she seeks to change everything in the first place?  While the main objective of her journey is to confront her biological father, bundled in with this is the rewriting of the Great Book.  This document is both an origin story for the genocidal conflict between the Okeke and the Nuru as well as serving as a religious text for the people of the Seven Rivers Kingdom and the surrounding desert.  Therefore, changing this book is to ultimately change the narrative of the region, to put an end to the genocide, weaponized rape, and misogyny rampant in this post-apocalyptic Africa.

Zoubeir the Great’s story of how he escaped death to ascend to chiefdom is the only passage of the Great Book that is fully retold within the novel, immediately after Binta’s death.  Described as a Nuru favorite, “it’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness” (Okorafor 242).  It begins by describing the birth circumstances of Tia and Zoubeir, the latter born in secret due to the nature of his conception while the former’s birth was, as Onyesonwu says, nothing special.  Zoubeir, of course, is recognized by the town as special and a natural leader while Tia, short and silent, is the ideal woman.  When soldiers arrive after the Suntown chief falls ill and hears of the existence of his bastard son, Tia selflessly sacrifices her life by becoming a human shield so that Zoubeir may fulfill his destiny.  And yet, even though they had chemistry between them and were by all accounts great friends, there is nothing built in her honor and she becomes a footnote in history.  The chapter ends with Onye proclaiming her dislike for the story that has turned to hatred after Binta’s death.

The most overt reason for this hate is due to the parallels between Binta and Tia’s deaths.  Binta is murdered defending Onyesonwu, though she is verbally defending her friend rather than becoming a human shield.  Both characters are described as so beautiful that even their fathers lusted after them, a recipe for an abusive childhood.  And out of the traveling companions, Binta is the shortest and quietest.  The fact that Tia is forgotten and never mentioned again in the Great Book is likely the most infuriating aspect of the story for Onye.  That essentially it was Tia’s duty, and by extension, Binta’s as well, to sacrifice themselves for the chosen one because they were poor, pure, and women.  Telling this story, then, shows Onyesonwu’s commitment to not allowing Binta to be forgotten to the sands of time.

However, this story can be viewed in a much wider context than as a commentary on Binta’s death.  The relationship between Mwita and Onye is mirrored to an extent by Tia and Zoubeir, with the roles within the story gender swapped.  Mwita, while viewed as an Ewu, is born to parents who love one another, and his birth is not significant in the way Onyesonwu’s is due to this fact.  Onye, in contrast, is the bastard child of rape by the general Daib, a great sorcerer and a man with significant political power.  Zoubeir’s birth circumstances can be viewed in a similar light, the implication being that the sexual relations between the Suntown chieftain and his mother are not entirely consensual, if at all.  Both Zoubeir and Onye are destined to do great things, while Tia and Mwita both end up sacrificing their lives in order to allow the chosen ones to live and fulfill their destinies.  Though many of the circumstances are similar, Onye also does not allow Mwita to be forgotten, as the conception of their child and the subsequent consequences creates enough chaos to allow the Great Book to be rewritten.  The gender switch, in this way, both subverts the typical heroic trope of female sacrifice as well as underlines how problematic it is.

Onyesonwu also performs the ultimate subversion of the female martyr at the end of Who Fears Death.  Throughout the novel she knows of her ultimate fate, being stoned to death by the Nuru because of her actions, and for all intents and purposes does initially allow this fate to happen.  However, rewriting the Great Book also translates into rewriting her fate.  The final chapter of the book, marked as simultaneously another first chapter, details the thought process during her escape.  After transforming into a Kponyungo, a firespitter from the desert that resides in old salt beds, she completely rejects her fate of death:

No, she was not a sacrifice to be made for the good of men and women, Okeke and Nuru alike.  She was Onyesonwu.  She had rewritten the Great Book.  All was done.  And she could never ever let her baby, the one part of Mwita that still lived, die.  Ifunanya.  He’d spoken those ancient mystical words to her, words that were truer and purer than love.  What they shared was enough to shift fate.  (Okorafor, 385)

This is a complete refutation of the duty of women to sacrifice themselves for the greater good that is integral to the story of Zoubeir and Tia.  Rewriting the Great Book means rejecting this notion of the necessity of sacrifice, and therefore also rejecting the roles that are delegated to her gender.  Women can be powerful too and save the world without becoming martyrs, with the ability to live within the new world they have helped to create.

Viewed more broadly, the story of Zoubeir and Tia, and by extension the Great Book as a whole, reflects the social and gender norms of both Onyesonwu’s world as well as parts of our own.  People of the Seven Rivers Kingdom look to this story and “hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great” (Okorafor, 242).  But what does this mean exactly?  Zoubeir is the strong male figure, who commands respect among his classmates and is forever remembered by history for his achievements.  Tia is quiet, of small stature, and puts up with physical abuse, as well as possible sexual abuse, from her father.  Her life is snuffed out to help a man fulfill his destiny, and she is never recognized for how vital her role really was.  She is even marginalized at her birth, the midwife staying with Zoubeir’s mother rather than Tia’s “because she had a feeling that this woman’s child was a boy and the other woman’s child was a girl” (Okorafor, 243).  Women, then, are marginalized in the Great Book, not worthy of recognition, always having to take a back seat to the desires and destinies of men.  After all, Zoubeir’s existence is the product of a man who was not content with the four wives he had, Onyesonwu criticizing this by saying “honestly, was this chief not the stupidest man on earth?  Why couldn’t he be happy with what he had? Why couldn’t he focus on things other than his carnal needs?  He was the chief, no?  He should have been busy” (Okorafor, 243).

This gender dynamic is readily apparent throughout Who Fears Death.  From the female circumcision required by the Eleventh Rite, to Aro’s initial refusal to take Onye in as a student due to her gender, to Mwita’s struggle throughout the novel to come to terms with being delegated to the role of healer and companion of the great sorcerer, the inherent misogyny in Onye’s world is on full display.  Mwita’s frustration with not passing his initiation is the best example of this.  Time and time again, throughout the novel, he expresses his distaste for the situation, seen in great detail in his outburst upon arrival at the nomadic town of the Vah where he states “I should be the sorcerer, you should be the healer.  That’s how it’s always been between a man and a woman” (Okorafor, 253).  Onyesonwu explains how this is the one aspect she dislikes about Mwita:

Those old beliefs about the worth of and fate of men and women, that was the only thing that I didn’t like about Mwita.  Who was he to think he was entitled to be the center of things just because he was male?  This had been a problem with us since we’d met.  Again, I think of the story of Tia and Zoubeir.  I despise that story.  (Okorafor, 254)

Her hatred of the story of Suntown’s greatest chief is yet again expressed, this time in a different context, in her frustration with patriarchal gender roles.  Yet, if Onyesonwu had been born a boy and thus fit society’s narrative, as she was supposed to, she would have been a tool of Daib’s in his eradication of the Okeke.  Her character is a deviation from the norm, a subversion within itself.  Against all odds, against the prejudice she faces for being both Ewu and female, she changes the world for the better.  It is only natural for her to hate the story of Zoubeir and Tia in this context.  The story reflects what needs to be changed about the world, what she views as the intrinsic problems that are at the heart of the conflict.  It is no coincidence that she states that the story is a favorite of the Nuru, the race that both subjugates the Okeke and enjoys all the privilege that she is denied because of her mixed race and gender.

Okorafor also laces her other novels with similar subversive themes, particularly with her use of African female protagonists.  One facet of Akata Witch, for example, explores how Sunny handles prejudicial treatment due to her gender and her status as an albino Nigerian-American.  Her father throughout the novel shows a preference for his older sons over his daughter, culminating in an outburst toward the end where he insinuates that Sunny leaving the house for long periods of time will end up with her pregnant, as her grandmother did (Okorafor, 338).  Sunny also has to prove herself to the other boys on both teams during the soccer tournament at Zuma Ajasco.  As girls are not traditionally allowed to play in the match, she is required to show skill above and beyond the average player on the team she tries to join in order to earn the right to play in the first place.  The other team also underestimates her during the match because of her gender and throws jeers at her such as “girls belong on the damn sidelines” (Okorafor, 260).  However, Sunny uses this underestimation to her advantage and becomes the talk of the festival because of her incredible skill at the game, even compared to Pele by the spectators.  Through this, she opens the avenue for other girls to be able to play in future tournaments.

Lagoon, too, employs similar themes with the characters Adaora and Ayodele.  Adaora, a marine biologist, finds herself at the beginning of the novel at Bar Beach after being assaulted by her husband, who due to the influence of Father Oke begins to think that his wife is a witch.  Adaora has to come to terms with her husband’s religious revival and his subsequent misogynistic treatment of her, a much different picture of the man she originally married that built the lab in the basement of their home.  Ayodele, the ambassador of the alien species that arrives in Lagos, decides to portray herself as female even though she is a shape-shifter.  This opens her up to many of the negative stereotypes against women regardless of being a different species, highlighted in a scene where Moziz, the boyfriend of Adaora’s housekeeper, thinks kidnapping Ayodele will be simple because “she just woman; she no dey harm” (Okorafor, 57).  Regardless of this treatment, however, both Adaora and Ayodele, along with Anthony and Agu, become the impetus for change within Nigeria.

Through using the foil of the story of Zoubeir and Tia, Okorafor has managed to highlight the status quo of the world of Who Fears Death.  It represents everything Onyesonwu wishes to change about the society around her, the epitome of what she finds problematic.  It is the system that has allowed for so much death and destruction, the system that has kept her from living a normal, peaceful life.  Rewriting the Great Book thus means destroying the racism and misogyny of the Seven Rivers Kingdom, in hope of creating a world where the story of Zoubeir and Tia is not possible.  Where sacrifices will be remembered and revered rather than being forgotten, or optimally become completely unnecessary.  Most significantly, though, with the reveal of the setting being the post-apocalyptic Kingdom of Sudan, Okorafor makes it impossible to ignore the connections her novel has to the world around us.  This becomes especially apparent with her inclusion of similar themes in books set in our world.  She forces us to see what is wrong with our Great Books, our status quo, our gender and racial norms.  She makes us, through the story of Suntown’s greatest chief, realize just how problematic the tropes prevalent in fiction are.  And above all, in this sense, urges us to do as Onyesonwu has and rewrite our own destinies.

Book Review: Of Metal and Wishes


From Goodreads:

There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her… for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her… and she might go down with it.

Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of the source material of this book.  Back in middle school, I lived, breathed, loved The Phantom of the Opera after a good friend introduced me to it.  Hell, I still love the heck out of it today.  It’s close to my heart.  Once I heard via the blogosphere that there was a YA retelling being published of it, I knew I had to snatch it up.  And while it sat on my bookshelf for a year before getting to it, I unfortunately don’t really regret the wait.  For while I did enjoy the book, I just did not feel the connection to the protagonist that I would have liked to.  Perhaps my expectations were too high because of my passion for the book and musical.

I keep wondering if it was the mood I was in while reading this book that made me ultimately feel rather meh about most of the characters, since plot-wise there was absolutely nothing wrong with the novel.  I loved the story, the setting, the atmosphere of the slaughterhouse… It was brutal and terrifying and so very satisfying.  I warn you now, if you do not like reading in graphic detail violence and slaughterhouse everyday life, you WILL have a rough time with this book.  I feel like the setting really captured many of the more violent aspects of The Phantom of the Opera, and the Ghost’s preoccupations with mechanical devices replaces that of Erik’s obsession with music.  Still, I felt a lot of the beauty of Phantom was missed in this book at times due to the new setting.

My biggest issue was that I did not feel connected to the romance between Melik and Wen.  Though I’ve always been most interested by the character of Erik (and subsequently the Ghost in this book), even in Phantom I could feel how right the connection between Christine and Raoul was.  I just was not able to really swoon over Fine’s characters, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily anything she did wrong.  I was more invested in the growing turmoil within the factory.  More than anything, I felt myself focusing on the Ghost and his behavior and actions more than any other character in the book.  He was just the most fascinating, even though Wen and Melik had their own clear motivations.  If I read the second book in the duology, which I’m still debating on, it will be to see what happens with the Ghost.

I believe, overall, it may have been my interest in the Ghost over the other characters which made Wen and Melik feel more flat to me.  While the other characters were fascinating in their own right, no one really compared to how interesting the Ghost is as a sort of anti-hero.  I think, in many respects, this happens in the source material for me as well.  I am incredibly happy that the Ghost has many of the same character traits as Erik and Fine pulls him off wonderfully as a character.  He’s childlike in his cruelty and manner, but a genius nonetheless.

Of Metal and Wishes, then, does not capture all of the elements that made me love the source material so much.  The Ghost’s mechanical creations do not quite capture the beauty in the horror that I fell for.  But this book stands up well on its own merit and plot.  The setting of the slaughterhouse was a unique one for me and it was nice to read about PoC characters, even if I did not get quite as much of their culture in this book as I would have liked – it was difficult to really place them as I believe they were of fictional ethnicities that corresponded to real life ones.  I think in many ways some of the characters suffer while the plot shines golden, and I give it three and a half stars.