What I Read In November

Happy December, everyone! I hope you’re all having a wonderful end to your reading year and rounding out looooong favorites lists. This month gave me some great reads, and I can’t wait to share them with you!


97. The Ivies by Alexa Donne

Alexa Donne’s first foray into the thriller realm is as salacious as it is scathing. Following a clique of teen saboteurs jockeying for spots at elite colleges, The Ivies pairs the fun of a rich, ruthless boarding school setting with the kind of critique everyone who’s been paying attention craves. Pay-to-play admissions, falsified applications, and general wealthy fuckery are front-and-center, and Donne is careful to keep the class tensions in mind as she crafts friendships, yielding a contemporary more status-aware than plenty in recent memory. The dialogue and execution occasionally veer into cheesy territory, and some of the murder suspects are a tad easy to eliminate, but taken as a whole, it’s timely, keen, and bitingly fun.


98. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

This classic play follows Nora Helmer, a young housewife and mother, as a dangerous secret from her past threatens to upend––and forces her to re-evaluate––her marriage. It’s subtle and rich in its investigation of the power imbalance between husband and wife, but it’s also, crucially, generous with Nora’s characterization, as potent an argument as any that one can be happy in moments; content as a mother, even, and still live in a household built on false pretenses. The play also boasts a couple standout side characters, a solid and intelligent use of foils, and a class-sensitive handling of the cast’s circumstances. I eagerly await my next opportunity to see it staged.


99. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

It would be folly to expect anything to outdo Holly Black’s utter banger The Wicked King (reviewed here), and, indeed, its follow-up and concluding volume, The Queen of Nothing is not *quite* so brilliant––but it’s still very good! While Black never managed to have me on the edge of my seat, she gave Jude one of the most satisfying character arc conclusions I’ve ever read, soothed my weepy heart with a lovely ending, and managed the stakes with excellent care. In a choice between the two, I’d opt for the controlled, fastidious third volume over the bombastic one, and The Queen of Nothing will forever be my reason why.


100. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor’s exquisite novel Strange the Dreamer is a gorgeous example of fantasy at scale: she combines the history of a textured, lived-in world with strong visuals and spellbinding concepts for a book that invites awe above all else, and its sequel, Muse of Nightmares, is more than apt to bear the torch. This tale of a librarian and a lost city––of dreams and citadels, destruction and love––is one you can vanish into, and for five hundred wonderful pages, I did just that. Dense in prose and heavy with lore, this duology asks much of your attention, but it rewards you with an utterly magical reading experience that it almost pains me to imagine missing out on.


101. The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Following a young woman who finds herself in a battalion of magical warriors after being uncovered as a demon, this vivid West-African inspired fantasy has everything. Training sequences that are more than just a montage and handwaving? Check. A late-stage reveal that turns our entire understanding of the world upside-down? Check. Excellent fight scenes? Check. With the exception of its somewhat rushed conclusion, The Gilded Ones is never not firing on all cylinders. If you like the girl-discovers-powers, girl-becomes-soldier school of YA fantasy, Namina Forna’s contribution to it is among the best, and I endorse it heartily. (Reviewed here.)


102. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

I rather enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so I can’t imagine what must have changed in advance of my starting its follow-up. Regardless, I had an awful time: the jokes (including one trite and overlong gin-n-tonic gag that I will remember forever) tested my patience, the characters tested my ability to tell them apart, and all-in-all the book was longer than a 250-page mass-market paperback has any right to feel. Restaurant is one of the universe’s more miserable offerings, as far as I’m concerned––Total Perspective Vortex included.


103. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

This is an erstwhile favorite of mine, so I can hardly be prevailed upon to provide a crystalline first impression, but I can say this: I’ve seen the play in-person twice, watched the taped Julie Taymor version and the ballet, and even had a minor role in a production as a kid, and it still hasn’t gotten old. Shakespeare’s comedies are sparkling examples of great subplots and even greater ensembles, the dialogue is absolutely dripping with poetry, and every line is a delight. Wow I love this play.


104. Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

This space opera follows the human clone of legendary Royal Fleet Captain Thao Argentian, as she struggles under the weight of her predecessor’s mantle and manages the awkward transition from contemporary teen life to active intergalactic combat. Tina herself makes for a snarky yet complex lead, but Victories Greater Than Death isn’t quite as lucky with the rest of the ensemble. After introducing them all at once, it fails to cut to the heart of all but two, leaving the found-family aspect feeling rushed and underdeveloped. In worldbuilding and ideas, though, the book has indomitable prowess: Anders crafts a resonant large-scale conflict, her aliens are inventive and fun, and her universe feels vast and storied, begging to be explored. Even if it weren’t for Elza, my favorite supporting character, and her upcoming perspective subplot, I’d be eyeing the sequel’s promises to take us to the Royal Space Academy and the Firmament with curiosity, and no shortage of temptation.


105. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

While not quite as elegant a story as North and South, Mary Barton, a social drama set against working-class life in Manchester, definitely has its moments. Gaskell uses her two love interests––one exorbitantly wealthy and one restricted by poverty––to moving effect, and the climax of the novel, which takes place during a murder trial (!!!) is engrossing and well-paced. But, as Gaskell’s first (published in 1848), it shows a heavy-handedness in writing about the poor that holds her back from fully considering her characters, and it ultimately shies away from full-bodied social critique, leaving the theme aspect lacking. Gaskell made some solid points, but she needed to make them much louder.


106. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen

There will always be a place in my heart for anthropomorphized fantasy mice, and the first book in David Petersen’s Mouse Guard graphic novel series is no exception. As an artist, Petersen picks dynamic and vivid setpieces (you get to see a guard mouse use a leaf as a boat; it’s great!) and his illustrations have a memorable, rustic charm. Story, however, is more of a mixed bag. The good: Petersen understands the scale of his medium, and adjusts cast size and plot accordingly. The build is steady, the world is fleshed-out but not overwhelming, and he doesn’t try to plumb depths he can’t reach. The bad: the villains and their motives are ill-defined, limiting the potency of the conflict, and the climax feels a bit emotionally lacking. Tentatively, though, I think I’ll continue on.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your November for books? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

“The Gilded Ones” Is A Viciously Good Fantasy Debut

In a quiet village on the edge of an empire, a girl carries demon blood.

She doesn’t know it, of course––Deka, like every other girl in Otera, hopes she’ll be found to bleed red and “pure.” The Gilded Ones opens on the day all of this is to be revealed, and as such things tend to go in the first chapter of a fantasy novel, there is no red blood to be found in Deka. Instead, she bleeds gold: the mark of an alaki, a female demon with supernatural abilities, and, at least as far as the Oteran Empire is concerned, no prospects beyond death…or war.

From this, Namina Forna crafts an engrossing girl-meets-magical-combat story with a keen eye on the political and no shortage of gory details, courtesy of the book’s monsters, the sonically fatal deathshrieks. The joy of this book is in its many subtle triumphs: a charming supporting cast, excellent reveals, rich West-African-inspired worldbuilding––and, with precious few exceptions, every element is at the top of its game and basically never leaves it. Some of it, you’ve admittedly seen before, but I’d wager that it’s been quite some time since you’ve seen it done so well.

When Deka is brought to the capitol to train in an elite battalion of alaki, for example, her quest hits a familiar beat in YA fantasy, but what makes Forna’s approach to it stand out lies in what is both obvious and deceptively easy to omit: the actual training.

Forna doesn’t just use Deka’s training as an excuse to bring her closer to the action; it is a stage of the journey all its own. The Warthu Bera, the elite training complex where Deka learns to harness her talents, is incontestably the most crucial and vividly-rendered set piece between The Gilded Ones‘ covers, both in the literal, actual details, and in the elusive emotional ones. With a paradigm shift as drastic as the one Forna puts into play later on (no spoilers, but it’s impressively foreshadowed and deeply satisfying), it’s easy to let the implications taint the training of the first and second acts, but she strikes an excellent balance that allows the reader to look back and see the foreboding signs while also regarding that time with fondness. [And fondness, mind you, is a very powerful tool. Half the reason Leigh Bardugo has me by the throat like she does is because of how fervently I love the Little Palace, and, uh…the Warthu Bera might just be my new Little Palace.]

Beyond the Warthu Bera, however, things are just as exciting. Otera is a rare treat of a fantasy world whose secrets are delicately kept until necessary. Forna, also a screenwriter, controls and reveals information with the timing and precision her second craft requires, much of it entangled with memorable, cinema-ready imagery. The Gilded Ones, frankly, has too many iconic/notorious scenes to name: hidden temples, deathshriek raids, monstrous encounters, and vivid deaths, all of them positively begging for an adaptation. (Pretty please?)

Also––another thing I’m sensing as a screenwriter strength––Forna never wastes a side character. Deka’s journey from complacency to action is plausible, well-paced, and inextricable from our understanding of her world as readers, but it rests on a cast of distinctive, diverse, and well-thought-out supporting players, and that under-sung strength is as important as a great lead.

For Deka’s peers, Forna is careful to inject some complexity into their girl-to-warrior journeys. Even though Deka finds liberation in gathering warlike strength, not all the alaki feel the same way, and those who don’t are present, too, which keeps The Gilded Ones from falling prey to conflating weaponry with women’s rights in an all-too-common 1-to-1 conversion.

In some way, all the alaki are carefully thought-out responses to the world of Forna’s creation. They’re compelling in a literary sense, as much or even more than they are lovable human beings to root for, and strength in those areas combined is what truly rounds out a solid cast of peers.

Things really get interesting a little higher up in the ranks, however. With the Karmokos, elite teachers at the Warthu Bera who all share a background as assassins, Forna toes the line between dangerous and trustworthy, letting us waffle in uncertainty as Deka senses sedition in her immediate superiors, and is torn on what to do about it.

This applies most heavily to one character whose identity it is a spoiler to reveal, but there are glimpses of it in the other Karmokos; enough to make what would otherwise be an innocuous training scene in another fantasy novel feel deliciously heightened. (My favorite minor character, Karmoko Huon, only gets the spotlight for one scene, but boy, is it memorable.)

While the novel’s conclusion, sadly, is so heavy with exposition that it’s a slog to the rest of the book’s impeccably smooth sailing, The Gilded Ones is, by and large, exactly the thrill its premise promises. With a sequel on the horizon and a gorgeously expanded scope to accompany it, this budding trilogy is definitely one to watch. The Merciless Ones comes out in May of 2022, and there’s already an empty space on my shelf waiting for a copy.


Have you read The Gilded Ones? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕