Certain Dark Things

Vampires.  I think that’s the one monster everyone has an opinion on as they relate to media. The general feeling seems to waver between “gimme, gimme” and “kill it with fire”. I am somewhere in between where I’m not terribly against the concept, but I’m not entirely sure that there is anything new to say about them.  That was until I read this book and hot damn was I blown away by it.

This is my first book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia but better believe it won’t be my last. Certain Dark Things is gritty, thoughtful and original in all the right places.   Mexican narco vampires.  Let that description marinate for a second to realize how cool it is.  Of course, it helps that the author brings a superb level of authenticity to this concept.  I’ve never been to Mexico City (would like to rectify that some day), but the author makes me almost feel like I took a trip there anyway. The setting is the fangs of the story that hook in your neck.  The characters are the blood rushing out of you.  

Atl is what I imagine most male authors are actually trying to achieve when writing “strong female leads” but utterly fail at doing. She’s every ounce of hardcore, but comes with heaping amounts of vulnerability. She’s not afraid of a fight even while she rather do whatever she can to avoid it.  That particular detail was such a good one to me as it seems too often characters of her type are just itching for a fight and take all kinds of unnecessary risks. Solving the problems as opposed to punching in the nearest face made Atl that much more impressive when she finally did decide to go to violence.

Domingo wasn’t exactly a shining example of intelligence and at first, for whatever internalized reason, that annoyed me about him.  But as the story progressed, I began to realize what he may have lacked in formal education was made up for by his empathy and his knowledge of survival in a world that cared nothing for him. Because I damn sure wouldn’t have a clue how to survive in his situation. But that grit along with his unfailing hopeful naivete carry the heart of the story and he truly becomes a special character by the end of the book.

Bernadino was by far my favorite supporting cast member.  A badass old man out there living in his own private spot and not wanting to fool with the world just resonated with me. Maybe these are secretly my own old man goals.  I don’t know, but either way Bernadino is on point and I wouldn’t mind getting some of his backstory.

I won’t talk a great deal about the plot because I don’t want to spoil anything, but everything pulls together in probably the only way he could have.

Great book.  Great characters. Silvia Moreno-Garcia deserves a much larger platform, but I’m confident she’ll find it.  Has certainly made a new fan out of me.

If the author comes across this, one quick question.  And I’m probably so dumb for even asking this, but is the title of the novel from the Pablo Neruda poem?

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Labyrinth Lost: #Ownvoices Magic

Brujas caught my interest for the first time when I actually saw the male version in True Blood (and boy am I glad I actually did research outside of that). But the idea of cultural specific customs, rituals and what not related to magic has always piqued my interest because it demands that we look outside our normal conceptions of how ideas work. I’m a huge fantasy reader and the magic when I was growing up usually went one way. There wasn’t a great deal of variety in the magic systems, the rituals attached to them and who actually got to use this magic.  Even today, while things are much better, I have to make active efforts to find books that exist outside these norms. LABYRINTH LOST is such a book and the brujas in it are interesting as hell.

Alex is the main character through which we view the world. She’s not exactly enthused about her powers and is in fact looking out of ways to have them at all. As this is a YA story, it’s not surprising that the main character feels a bit awkward and like a freak amongst their family. But it doesn’t feel rehashed or dry in this story. Her anxiety is actually based in some very real concerns that I think a lot of children in single-parent homes can relate to. She does a lot of growing up in this book which is of course expected in YA, but this maturation feels earned. Alex really does go through some things to come out stronger on the other side.

Lula kind of starts off a bit trope-ish too with the pretty, older, popular sister thing she has going. That particular trope has always made me snarl a little because I’m the oldest and was never any of those things, but that’s just a personal thing.  Anyway, Lula definitely defies that trope in some interesting ways. She’s really invested in the bruja way of life and is trying desperately to instill that same kind of belief into her sister. From Alex’s POV, Lula seems well adjusted to things but I don’t think that’s the case. In many single parent homes, you find that the oldest child can sort of take on the secondary parent role. I think Alex has done that and her seeming “ease” with the bruja life is just her trying to step up to the plate and take responsibility where one parent has failed. And you can see how much having to take on that responsibility bothers her in how easily she lashes out at Alex for refusing it.

Alex’s Mom isn’t on the “screen” a whole lot in this book but it doesn’t take much for us to get a full idea of who she is.  I see in this woman so many of the single mothers that populate my life. They work tirelessly, love their children endlessly and spend too much time hiding their pain. All of these things are peppered here and there throughout the story, but it makes the Mother such a powerful background figure. The love she has for her children isn’t something that we as the readers have to just assume.  It’s put right there on the page for us.

Nova is the bad boy love interest that we have seen so many times in so many different ways. But to this book’s credit a couple of different things are done here.  Yes, he’s alluring and attractive but there are some very ugly parts to this guy and the story never lets you forget it.  Just when you start to get misty-eyed about him, he does something that reminds you of his complexity and not to just romanticize him.  There’s a lot about him to ponder and most important of all, his place at the end of the story isn’t typical to where you see characters like his end up.  Definitely towards the end of the book, you can feel the story’s defiance of the trope he would usually represent.

Rishi is the light of this story.  She’s really at its heart and is such a breathlessly diverse character. Like she exists and I love it.  Her identity unfolds beautifully throughout the text and there’s such a genuine warmth to her.  I don’t think the hero’s journey in this book would have carried half as well without Rishi around. She’s beautifully intersectional and I just want more characters like her to flood every YA book.  I can hear some screaming “identity politics” in reference to this character, but screw those people.  Rishi is exactly what we need more of.  She isn’t a bruja but that is precisely what makes her so important to the narrative.

The Devourer is a case of power gone wrong.  She’s symbolic of the everlasting need of the powerful to always seek more power. Her corruption is absolute and she seems to be completely aware of this hunger she will always have. But like an addict, she can’t help herself but to want more no matter how much damage it’s doing to her.  How timely and fitting is that in today’s present world where we’re having to deal with a President who seems intent on destroying everything around him.

But if this story is any kind of beacon, it’s that even when things seem to be right at their end and there’s nothing good left, hope finds a way. I highly recommend this book and can’t wait for more stories set in this universe.

Serpentine: The Nuance of #ownvoices

Full disclaimer up front, I think Cindy Pon is an awesome person and I heart her across the board.  She’s full of take no crap, eagerness for change and a “you can’t stop me” spirit.  I’ve had the pleasure of getting to hang with her in person just having regular convo (how many of us get to do that with legit authors?).  So yea now that my gushing is out of the way let me get to my thoughts on the novel.

SERPENTINE has many of the classic YA elements with its confused teenagers going through growing pains, physical awakenings, new loves and the likes.  Which is all what you expect from a YA book and Cindy pulls off each of those with the skill of someone well seasoned in the genre. She’s a pro and it shows.

But what makes the novel soar for me is the authentic nature of the culture presented and the voice given to it.  This is the thing I think the “you can write whatever you want” crowd fails to realize. Yes, you can and should write whatever you want but certain things have to be experienced to get the real flavor of them. They have to be endured to make it come to life on the written page. This novel is full of those moments that I think someone with an “outside gaze” would not have been able to pull off.

One part of the novel in particular really struck me as an #ownvoices sort of moment.  The enigmatic character of Stone with his immortal powers was able to change the garments of the main character, Skybright.  She notes that the fancy garments she’s been given are a century out of fashion.  How many people not engrossed in this culture would know what’s in and out of style for people hundreds of years removed?  That is an intimate detail.  You don’t come across that with a quick Google search.  It was a couple of lines but it added such a richness to the story.

There’s also a bit of subtext here about the collusive nature of religion in regards to keeping society in a certain state which I enjoyed a good bit. It didn’t get preachy and really is just simmering under the surface, but I caught a sniff of it.  I enjoy that kind of subtle takedown in a work.

In short, this a story with layers.  It doesn’t try to be flashy with its cultural elements and that’s because it is coming from someone who actually engrossed in it.  That’s the difference.  Those of us with marginalized identities treat those identities with normality and not something to be gazed at with wonder.  SERPENTINE is all the better for it.

 

 

Lullaby for a Lost World by Aliette de Bodard

Upfront, this story is very gothic and puts me right into the mindset of The House of Usher. There’s dark magic at play, people who are isolating themselves from society, an innocent victim.  Though unlike that particular Poe story, the victim at some point decides it will no longer be one.   A terrible sadness permeates this entire story because the victim here is a young child.  Only the darkest of individuals can feel nothing when a horrid event strikes the most innocent among us.

And believe me this child has something horrific done to her in order to maintain the safety of a family that seems pretty reprehensible. I feel like the “master” in this story serves as a symbol for what the entire household is like.  He’s a terrible man who’s built a wall of justification around himself to keep doing what he does.  His good intentions have created a pseudo-Hell for all of those residing in this household.

My one minor gripe with this story is that the child didn’t read like a child. And that makes me wonder if maybe she wasn’t a child at all and I missed something though the doll clutching certainly made me assume child.  But this narration felt like a very intelligent, capable adult.  I tried to rationalize it out as maybe the child’s spirit growing in maturity, but nothing in the story really indicated that either.  But honestly, it’s a small thing I can get over when matched up against the beauty of the prose.

A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap

This story is just thick with the idea of sacrifice. What would you give for the person you love?  Who would you traverse with?  Literature is full of stories of people giving up something consequential to save someone they love.  One could probably argue that to be one of the prime plots of all fiction.  Much like the Moon in poetry, it’s a topic often touched upon. But this story handles this well-treaded ground in beautiful, haunting fashion.

Makino’s depiction of grief is so well-done and raw. I think too often we like to think of grief as this burst of emotional energy that just keeps on firing off rounds until it’s exhausted itself.  But in this story, grief is static.  It lives Makino trapped in this sort of perpetual, glacial sadness. And for my money, that seems to be a more succinct expression of the emotion, especially when considering the circumstances of her husband.

I also like that the author avoids making the husband this really attractive guy. That would have felt too much like a poem.  Instead, we get a pretty ordinary guy who through his *gasp* personality and loving spirit manages to get this gorgeous woman to fall in love with him.

The Kappa is a thing of pure sensory in this story. Every time he comes on the page, the author just drowns you in these ideas you can touch, taste and feel.  I swear after reading the story, I can know what the exact texture of this creature is like.   Without that degree of focus on making you sense Makino’s movements against the supernatural entity, I don’t think it would have been half as haunting. The author knew exactly where to spend her literary coins in this story and thus knocks it out of the park.

This story lingered after I was finished and I have a feeling it will linger much like the Kappa’s love for a long time.

Half-Resurrection Blues: A Masculinity that Isn’t Afraid to be Raw

Urban fantasy is a genre I feel should probably dominate more of my reading list than it actually does.   Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel will forever hold special places in my heart.   So when I hear of The Dresden Files, I always find myself intrigued, but it like so many other urban fantasy books don’t get me to take the leap into actually reading them.  If I had to be honest, the space strikes me as something exclusively white with white authors dabbling in the cultures and aesthetics of POC but never really bringing us to the table.   Even with my loves of Buffy and Angel, I think that critique applies.  Often in these stories, you can count on one hand over the course of seasons/books the number of POC that are given major roles.  It’s irksome and I’ve never really been able to move past it.

Shadowshaper was actually my first Daniel Jose Older book, so with that one under my belt I felt pretty damn confident going into Half-Resurrection Blues that a good story would be delivered.   Older embraces cultural uniqueness with a natural cadence that I think fails many other writers and for my money, that’s because they’re not really willing to accept the uniqueness.  Sure, they want you to think this “random brown god from a mythology I looked up on Wikipedia” is unique, but they don’t have the wherewithal to actually learn the intricacies and nuances. Older breathes these nuances and intricacies through the lenses of both race and gender in Half-Resurrection Blues.

Look at Older’s handling of masculinity within Half-Resurrection Blues.  The main character, Carlos Delacruz (sidenote:  ummm can someone slide the cover model my number?  Because….damn!!) is vulnerable in so many ways.   Physically he’s wounded and has to make use of a cane, a happy departure from your Greek god specimen heroes of UF.  Mentally, he’s having to deal with the fact that he doesn’t know anything about his life before his half-death.  Emotionally, he finds himself falling in love and what more vulnerable state is there than that?  Carlos isn’t some beefed up Chosen One figure and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.   His normality (outside of his model status fineness which I ain’t going to complain about) is refreshing in a way I didn’t know I needed.

Now in typical hyper masculine fashion, you would think that Carlos would be having all the ladies swoon at his mere presence and all the guys wanting to dap him up right?  Let’s all have a long, slow clap for that not happening here.   There are plenty of characters in this story at various points who let Carlos know he ain’t shit and they’re not pressed by him.  And this is ultimately where some of that intersectonality comes in.  Certain POC cultures don’t mind ribbing you out of love.  Someone isn’t really your friend if they’re not giving you a hard time and Carlos falls square into that. A male hero that not everyone is falling over?  Tell me more.

One of the most provocative pieces of Carlos’ portrayed masculinity for me was his sexual vulnerability.  There was a part of the book where after having spent a night of genuine connection with his love interest, Carlos went home and masturbated.  I remember reading that and being sort of shook out of the story.  Not in a jarring way, but in a “oh man this is it” kind of moment.   I already knew that Older was a different kind of author, but that particular detail just solidified the notion even more.   I cannot think of any other SFF book in recent memory that has male masturbation as something completely natural, worthwhile and nothing to make all that big a deal about.   In our wider culture, the act is often met with immature humor, deflection and degradation.  So to see it slid into the narrative without so much as a peep really impressed me.

So let’s talk about that love interest.  Carlos doesn’t win her over in Shakespearean fashion.  He actually has to get to know her instead of popping out his pecs.  He has to make her laugh and show her that he’s worth her time.  Basically, he has to earn her.   What a notion right?  That a guy actually has to really prove himself worthy of a woman?

It shouldn’t have been so breathtaking.  It should have been expected, but this is the work folks like Older are out there trying to make happen.  He challenges these notions of masculine supremacy with Carlos and has given me something to look forward to in the world of Urban Fantasy.