City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault | Review

Pages: 375

Genre: high fantasy, lgbt

TW for the book (from author): “abuse (physical, emotional, mind control — seriously, if depictions of abuse trigger you, please be very careful when approaching this novel/avoid it.), torture, homelessness, child abandonment, police brutality, racism, family death, memory loss, death by fire (mention) and hanging.”

My thoughts

I went into this book with little expectation or knowledge outside of it being a lesser-known fantasy book with many queer characters. All that was very true! All the characters are queer; bisexual, demi, pan, poly, gender fluid, agender, asexual, aromantic is all represented in an overall ruthless and amazing magical city. It is also a very ethnically diverse group. I just found out the author is the person behind the “Aro ace database” and it’s ownvoices for aro-ace.

The writing caught me from the very beginning;

Arathiel had grown tired—tired of not feeling rough wood under his hand, tired of not smelling the salty sea or earthy autumn air, tired of not tasting even allegedly spicy meals. Tired of being alone, a shadow, always one step removed from the world. One day, he would need to face his family.

I might have a big weakness for main characters who take the time to observe the world around them, is a thief or assassin, but also cares deeply for their friends. Also in general I find that there is way too little focus on platonic love, friends and friends as found-family in fantasy and young adult books (which is what I mainly read when it comes to fiction). And this book truly had all of those things, to the point where the few boring parts where the pacing gets a bit too slow is overshadowed by the good and unique elements for me. This book just gave me a lovely, fun and exciting experience reading it with characters I squeal over, but also feel comforted by. Without sacrificing any of the heavyness or high fantasy elements usual to the genre.

Tonight, however, he had a more mundane activity in mind: a game of cards with the two precious friends he’d managed to make. Way more stressful than sneaking into an inhabited building during the day, locating his target, and slitting his throat before anyone noticed him. Not to mention, Cal wanted to invite a new player today. Worse, he wanted Hasryan to do it.

Fantasy centered in a city and its politics with merchant families and rivalry, it’s just great. It highlights the many tough, quick choices characters have to make, magic making everything more complicated somehow as well. And the plot builds so naturally on the personalities and choices made by these characters and their lives intertwining by living in the same city. It’s not a very extended world-building and I think here’s where the fantasy book would’ve had more potential to build on. There is very many characters to keep track on through multiple POVs, but personally it was okay, even if a bit difficult to understand or relate to all of them just by the sheer amount. It is just a book that tries (and succeeds) to do a lot in under 400 pages. The morally gray aro-ace wizard-in-training Nevian is suffering under an abusive mentor. Arathiel is a mood, as they say, as he’s been gone from the city for 130 years after disappearing while looking for a cure for his ill sister. He’s back to a completely changed city and deciding on whether to claim his right as a noble or keep this anonymous new identity as the keeper of a homeless shelter of sorts. And I loved Cal of course. I’ve highlighted too many quotes of him talking about cheese to not love that character.

Cal climbed into it, then stared at Larryn, his legs dangling. Expecting something. Larryn cleared his throat, hurried to his pantry, and retrieved several types of cheese from it. He had bought so many yesterday, and it would be delusional not to admit guilt had played a big part in it. He had no intention of cooking with this

This will be a book I return to reread and I need to get a physical copy as well. And I’ve yet to read the next book, which I’m excited for! I always need more personality-driven fantasy books with lots of politics in my life, but especially when they have such a queer cast and focus on friendship and found families.

a long-delayed gender crisis

tldr; gender is strange and complex, and so is mine ..?

SO. I’m bisexual, which was something I did not realize before a lot later than most, and when I definitely did I went like – “we’ll put that off for later”. Now, during the whole of COVID-19 being a major thing in my life, for twelve long months, I’ve been putting off somewhat of a gender crisis.

I’ve definitely used the time to make up some thoughts around it, but it took me a year and a half being around mostly guys to realize it might be not just my sexual orientation that makes me feel set apart from other women. For most of my daily life these days, gender is just not something I think about when it comes to myself. My pronouns (she/her) are fine, for now. But if someone does point me out as a girl or woman, it much more often than not makes me have a real internal freak-out. A good example is someone pointing out I’m the only woman in the room (as I study physics, it happens more often), usually another girl, and I’m physically uncomfortable no matter how well or casual they mean it. I think it took me a while to separate the issue of speaking about women in STEM, of which I have thoughts because I grew up as one, and me being identified as a girl. Like I can speak to having certain experiences as being perceived as a woman, but that does not mean I go around thinking about how I am one, if that makes sense. I recently heard a trans woman say “I was fine with being a boy, but not a man”, and that makes very much sense. And come to think of it, the reason I am to a degree comfortable right now without major changes is because – without having explicitly dicussed it – the friends around me (mostly guys) goes out of their way to brand me in a neutral way. A classic example is friends of friends coming over and using me as an example as a girl in their conversation. Immediately my guy friends, from the most masculine one to the gay one, tells them I’m both a bad example of a girl/woman and a shitty example of a human being in general. (A bit of hazing comes with the territory. They mean well.) That’s a bit on the light side, but in general they have enough time to come up with arguments towards me being split into the neutral/guy-ish category, no matter if I’m sitting there with a bunch of other girls in the room, wearing something very feminine like a dress or my boyfriends is there. And they don’t know the extent, but it means a lot.

It’s fun watching nonbinary & genderqueer people explaining their experiences online and then switch to me sitting alone in a corner of my room going like “same, same”. True facepalm moments, trust me. Going forward, I think my gender questions will be on standby while I feel it out. Maybe I’ll experiment with some clothes, as I sometimes like being very feminine and sometimes want to be very much more masculine presenting. For the most part, and this has been pointed out to me multiple times – my clothing and appearance just does not in any way express my personality anyway. It’s probably bad in meeting new people, but hilarious and also helps in this gender question in a strange way. I do really switch between liking my boobs and hating them intensely, but I cannot fucking wear a binder because I already have serious lung problems. That would probably be the first step I would’ve taken, otherwise.

There’s also this one issue I need to sort through soon, which is that I look most feminine when I’m truly going through a difficult period of time. It’s a bit darker and more complex one. A good dash of it is something about how we view gender, like I have chronic illnesses where I lose weight when they flare up and that makes me look a certain way. (Btw, the critique of The Queen’s Gambit main character’s breakdown as being too glamorous made me laugh bc I’ve looked my worst and best at truly awful periods of time. It all depends.) Maybe I do more skin-care then, because I find it soothing. There’s also more fun reasons, like loving anything that sparkles more or jewellery or colorful dresses/skirts because they give me a needed moment of joy. But then there’s also being more alone and dealing less with new people who will perceive me as a girl based on a dress, which do bother me, I just don’t know to which extent yet. If we were to delete the whole gender thing fully and think of it as at the very least more in less/more masculine/feminine with no harsh boundraries, I would feel a lot better. Like all the nonbinary-questioning tiktoks say; mostly I want to look feminine, but like guys can. Or pirates. Ah, to be a 17th century type of pirate, only now. Maybe that’s the aesthetic goal I should go for.

So in conclusion, I’m doing the same thing with my gender as I did with my sexuality; realize when I was young it was something different and then repress it without truly knowing. My mom grew up a tomboy and gave me all the freedom she could for me to do what I wanted; which was to have friends that was girls, but then get bored and run away to play football. I hated my body changing when it did, then just arrived accepting that this body is what I had to deal with and now is somewhat uncomfortable yet again. Still, I do think accepting there’s something genderqueer here is the right step. But also that how I present now is somewhat comfortable enough.

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller | Book Review

Pages: 352

Genre: young adult fantasy, lgbt; gender fluid mc

Synopsis


Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive. 

My thoughts

Rating out of five: three stars (in doubt)

I very much feel like this is the queer & that way better version of Throne of Glass with its deadly auditions to become the Queen’s new assassin. What was a pleasant surprise was how the main character never was very vicious in their thought-process or tried to defend their actions, their reasoning behind taking lives were very business-like and unapologetic. It was a hard life, the would-be assassins knew partly what they were signing up for and people were going to have to die. The problem this brought with it was that Sallot wasn’t a very likeable main character, I always felt like I never got to see their whole reasoning or that it was just very shallow. They were smart enough to make it somewhat reasonable how they got out of deadly attacks, and without the smaller, cute and helpful moments with their servant Maud none of it would’ve worked towards the end. Otherwise the book is very built on cheesy, typical fantasy plotlines. The queer characters makes it better, especially Sallot using he, she and they pronouns based on how they present, but I would only recommend this book as a Throne of Glass alternative. The YA fantasy part of it was very obvious, in a not good way. I’ve since learned it was a debut, and I’m not very surprised as I felt it was half-finished.

The writing was very mediocre, especially I found myself struggling to care about the fight scenes and plotting scenes for traps, which I usually adore, because of the writing. There’s so much potential in the characters, the magic and them being masked, but it just doesn’t end up somewhere. Even though I’m really not a big Sarah J. Maas fan anymore, she does bring a certain fire to the motivations behind the characters, which was lacking here without anything to replace it with other than shallowness. If Sallot had been a true sociopath I would’ve nearly prefered that, as it would’ve brought an interesting element.

I read this book right after finishing “Ship of Smoke and Steel” by Sjango Wexler, which was extremely similar as far as the protagonist’s voice went. While that book was lacking in many of the same ways, except it handled the queer aspect a lot worse, that book built parts of a truly interesting world powered by magic. Here there were just no world-building except the knowledge that Sallot knew how their entire country had been destroyed and wanted revenge for it. It should not be a surprise when that’s not enough as a reader. But for anyone disliking this book for its protagonist being nothing special except gender-fluid; fuck off.