“Spinning Starlight” an Imaginative, if Inconsistent, Sci-Fi

The author of Stitching Snow, (Snow White in space with cobbled-together droids as the dwarves, a deeply underrated favorite of mine) returns with an inventive science fiction fairy tale retelling in Spinning Starlight, an alien-rich, portal-traveling take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.”

Though the tale lacks the conviction and focus of Stitching Snow, R. C. Lewis still has a truly promising eye for the weirder staples of sci-fi and where they fit. For various reasons, teen sci-fi tends to play it pretty safe: for a long stint in the early 2010s, the niche was taken up by fairly grounded dystopians in step with The Hunger Games, and later in the decade, when space adventures saw a small boom, things were similarly tame––aliens were limited, concepts for worlds and technology didn’t stray too far from the expected, and weirdness was rather solidly contained.

This, like every ebb and flow in publishing, produced some wonderful books, but I found myself longing for the truly zany, something like what you’d find in the vast, chaotic, oddball universe of Star Wars, with a comfortably familiar hero’s journey framework set against the strangest of supporting characters and set pieces.

Spinning Starlight, for all its faults, is at least that: where we start isn’t all that strange, but the later setting boasts a galactic milieu, with quirks in worldbuilding that veer towards the abstract and a space-opera sensibility that shines through even when we’re standing still.

The fun Lewis has in crafting the world of Spinning Starlight is the book’s greatest asset––besides, of course, the clever integration of the fairy tale. (With just a few tragic missteps, alas!)

For a popular story like Cinderella or Snow White, the twists and subversions are there to enrich every reading experience, but here, the reflection doesn’t come into full relief until you get your hands on the source material. Where “The Wild Swans” features a princess who must free her brothers from a curse (and can’t speak in the meantime, at pains of putting them in danger), Spinning Starlight swaps the princess for a tech heiress in Liddi Jantzen, and in place of a curse, traps her brothers in limbo between dimensions with a malfunction in the conduits, a system of efficient interplanetary travel.

What’s really of note, though, is how the elements in the middle of the fairy tale, not integral to its setup nor strictly necessary for its resolution, find their place here in turn. In “The Wild Swans,” the princess finds herself in a soaring mythical kingdom, bound by a not-entirely-honest relationship to its king, and the shifting trust between them makes a fascinating appearance in the middle of Spinning Starlight, with an ethical and spiritual dilemma that heightens the tension between Liddi and an intriguing supporting player. Instead of a crown, Lewis gives him a position of power on different terms, forcing him to grapple with the accompanying responsibilities in a way that both comments on and enriches the third-act threat in the original fairy tale.

Sadly, though, some weaknesses are carried over in the retelling as well: Liddi’s brothers, though they all have names in this version and there are eight instead of twelve, blend together in their limited page time into a dull character soup. There are some attempts made, in interludes of flashback, to give us glimpses of the specific brothers and reinforce the bond Liddi’s supposed to feel with her family, but they’re clumsy, brief, and jarringly different in style from the rest of the prose. I didn’t skip any on my way through the book, but they felt utterly skippable.

Lewis’ take on the Evil Queen, a character who is only mentioned and never shown in “The Wild Swans,” is mercifully sparse, but her flatness and lack of life is so potent that it sucks almost all the vigor out of Act III. Not entirely surprising, as villains tend to be the Achilles’ heel of these sorts of things (Queen Levana of The Lunar Chronicles comes to mind), but Lewis’ noble effort to make the distant conflict in the fairy tale an immediate conflict in the retelling results in a deafening irony: had Spinning Starlight followed its inspiration and pushed the Evil Queen to the background instead of bringing her to the fore at the opening and end, it would’ve benefited by what is ostensibly a structural weakness.

In contrast, “The Wild Swans” does something unconventional yet deeply satisfying with its ending. Where most fairy tales in its stride come full circle and confront the bringer of the original curse, “The Wild Swans” is more interested in the heroine’s place in her new world than a triumph and return to order in the old one.

The princess’ story hinges not on her defeat of the queen who put her brothers under the curse, but on the trust of the new kingdom where she makes a life in the middle of the story. Her greatest danger lies in the fact that her subjects will turn on her if she doesn’t dispel the false charges brought upon her by a misunderstanding––the belonging she risks losing in this is Andersen’s chief concern as a storyteller.

Spinning Starlight bucks this opportunity, likely for the very good reason that readers would find it frustrating to watch a main character fight for the respect of her love interest’s home above that of her own, but Lewis’ vision of that world far outshines the one we start with, and things dry up as soon as we step back through the portal to face the Evil Queen.

Much of the tale, of course, is skillfully adapted, but that one omission comes at a steep price: Spinning Starlight, for all its imagination, fumbles the ending. And if you know fairy tales, you know that that’s fatal.

“A Crown of Wishes” Is Almost Unfathomably Lovely

In the kingdom of Bharata, a tyrant reigns. His sister, the Princess Gauri, is prisoner in the neighboring land of Ujijain, her fate in the hands of Prince Vikram, who faces a captivity of his own, in the question of his right to rule. If A Crown of Wishes were a cunning novel of political intrigue, the setup would end there, but Roshani Chokshi opts instead to put these circling not-quite enemies at the heart of a fairy tale.

In answer, the fairy tale is every bit as fierce as our leading pair: by magical invitation, they travel to compete in a deadly Tournament of Wishes, a contest that, if they win, will grant them each a wish. Gauri plans to use hers to wrest her kingdom from her brother and free a close friend from his grasp, and Vikram seeks the chance at agency as Ujijain’s rightful king.

But wishes are tricky things, and so, too, is the magic of the realm where our leads seek their fortunes. To succeed, they will have to suffer their worst fears, unite with an unlikely ally, and confront a a terrible truth: that of their feelings for each other.

The particular prose style of a work like this isn’t usually the element of most note––that honor usually goes to the dynamics of the hesitant lovers or the worldbuilding around them––but while Chokshi’s work in both these areas is superb (more on that later), it’s her narration that makes A Crown of Wishes such a treasure. Gauri and Vikram don’t just live through a treacherous and beautiful fairy tale; the writing truly reads like it’s sampled from a storybook in turn, from the dialogue spoken by the mystical inhabitants of Chokshi’s beautifully-rendered otherworld to the lush descriptions of food, finery, and feeling we find there.

Chokshi’s word-smithery never fades elegantly into the scene at hand, but where this quality might make a work dense or cumbersome, it instead makes A Crown of Wishes something to be savored, a painting where the intricacy of the brushstrokes is as vital as the image itself.

What’s brilliant about this artistic choice, though, is its resonance in terms of what A Crown of Wishes means for the world it’s set in at scale. As a spinoff sharing a universe with Chokshi’s debut, The Star-Touched Queen, it takes a slightly different path in showing its mortal protagonists in concert with the supernatural: where Maya, the first book’s lead, feels like she truly belongs in this unearthly magical realm in The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes is careful to show Gauri and Vikram as merely visitors, and as such, delineates them from their surroundings using the subtle tool of speech. Their dialogue is “higher” in phrasing than truly grounded, real-to-life speech (they are fantasy characters, after all), but even still, there are notable differences between their voices and the voices of the otherworld around them, in a delicate effort by Chokshi to use even the faintest of fiction’s tools to the utmost.

As we explore the magical world through the eyes of these outsiders, getting brief glimpses at its dangers and wonders, we slowly discover the fading state of magic in their ordinary one, and the novel becomes as much an elegy for the vanishing supernatural as it is an exploration of its riches. This premise is not an unfamiliar one in fantasy, nor is the idea that the mystical, once it is closed to humanity by the dawning of a new age, will be remembered in story a surprising answer, but Chokshi has this unwavering earnestness as a storyteller that makes the well-expected a revelation, here and in our love story alike.

There’s no question that Gauri and Vikram, with their uneasy alliance, lingering gazes, and witty banter, are meant to be, but that takes nothing from the joy of watching them hide their hearts from one another as various trials push them closer to revealing their desires. Chokshi, skilled in romance, knows precisely how to make the most of pining: forcing them to fake a marriage to enter the trials, dwelling on every instance of falsified intimacy, and using every instant of danger to draw their vulnerabilities into the light.

As a contrast to The Star-Touched Queen, they don’t feel like fated lovers so much as fellow contenders, bound together by their wants and a shared willingness to fight for them. To be fair, Maya and Amar (from The Star-Touched Queen) are a wonderful pair in their own right, but it’s the warring hesitancy and conviction that make A Crown of Wishes such a finely-wrought love story, and an even more impressive feat compared with Chokshi’s first.

I would be remiss, though, if I neglected to mention the supporting characters (both major and minor) who are a defining factor in the lingering spell Chokshi’s fairy tale casts. Aasha, one of the vishakanya, a group of women from the mortal world who feed on desire and are poisonous to the touch, is certainly a standout, wrestling as she does with the alienation of losing the mortal world and longing for its delight, but elsewhere, Chokshi gives us smaller but just as tantalizing glimpses of stories unfolding just out of view.

The ancient Serpent King and the river goddess Kapila for instance, appear for hardly a chapter, but Chokshi uses that time to give us the sense that there’s a rich drama hiding behind them, just like there’s one in Aasha, just like there’s one behind Nalini and Arjun, the friends Gauri had to leave behind in Bharata, and just like there was one behind Gauri in her brief appearances in The Star-Touched Queen.

Anyway, in terms of storytelling advice, it’s hard to go wrong in creating side characters with the maxim that they should all feel like they’re getting their own spinoff novel, and it certainly reads like that here, to impressive effect: A Crown of Wishes is a wealth of stories all its own, like a treasury of fairy tales hiding in plain sight.

The only downside to this, of course, is that I now yearn for Roshani Chokshi to write them all.

“Gretchen and the Bear” A Botched Experiment in Genre

Where science fiction and fantasy meet, there is an estuary of richness to be had––whether it’s industry making waves in a world of magic (The Legend of Korra, Shadow and Bone), sorcery that works like science (Trial by Fire), or vice versa (Crewel), these genres aren’t quite as at odds as it would initially seem––in fact, they pair quite well.

The premise of Gretchen and the Bear, the third novel by Carrie Anne Noble, holds such allure for this very reason. Set in the far future, it depicts an Earth reclaimed by faerie kind, where warnings about the dangers of faerie food are transmitted across futuristic comms and our protagonist, Gretchen, arrives in a woodland realm pulled straight from Arthuriana by airship.

Gretchen is in these woods because she has to find her sister, who set off from the colony months ago and has since dropped off the face of the Earth. As soon as the airlock lifts, however, and the latent magic in these parts starts messing with Gretchen’s tech, we enter a paradigm where this setup becomes entirely irrelevant, and, save for the dates under chapter headings, we might as well not have bothered to step into the future in the first place.

If the slight sci-fi angle were just a brief interlude before we stepped through the portal, that would be fine (albeit a sad spate of missed opportunities), but Noble moves like she’s going to set the rest of the book on faerie lands, only to pull a midpoint reversal and catapult us back into the future. Though the first half is shallowly archetypal, undeveloped, and suspenseless, this pivot, while ostensibly the right move in fulfilling the book’s early promises, is what ultimately puts it on the rocks.

For one thing, it’s clear from Noble’s debut, the charming and vulnerable The Mermaid’s Sister, that her style doesn’t aim for extensive worldbuilding, instead opting to play with the known in a way that focuses on the characters. We can see her doing this when she crafts the world of the faeries, using familiar tropes and existing mythological creatures to get the reader up to speed quickly. Even the book’s central conceit, faeries who can shift into bears at will, known as Bearfolk, is a familiar fantasy idea.

This makes a world of magic easy to step into, even welcoming, but when it comes to crafting a futuristic society…no dice. The colony where Gretchen comes from is familiar in the same way that the fae are familiar, but here, that approach utterly backfires, as Noble gives us a distant future that is at best a bland imitation of the recent past. Our characters live recognizably contemporary lives, with similar priorities, and our best hope of a villain is a one-note conniving politician who, by the way, is up for re-election in the most generic, unimaginative sense of the concept. Where unicorns, gryphons, and giants can get you where you need to go in terms of small scale, fairy-tale fantasy, the same cannot be said for wrist comms, scanning devices, and airships in service of sci-fi.

What’s more, the sci-fi second half and its first-half fantasy counterpart share in woefully mismanaging the stakes at hand. The promise at the beginning is that Gretchen will find her sister and return to the colony with her in tow, but the plot veers drastically off-course rather early on, and as a result, Gretchen and the Bear feels aimless, whatever could’ve been gained by its restlessness lost in its lack of direction.

It’s obvious that the forbidden romance between Gretchen and Arthur, one of the Bearfolk, is the heart of the book, but that doesn’t then relieve it of the need to follow through on everything happening upstage: Gretchen’s initial goal of rescuing her sister is resolved flippantly and hastily, a prophecy introduced early on meets much the same fate, and the makings of the novel’s climax exist only in mentions until we meet them too late to truly get invested.

These plot weaknesses don’t exist in isolation; in fact, they work to weaken the central romance. If the obstacles keeping our lovers apart are flimsy, their motivations are the very same. If their respective repressive societies are weakly built, the taboo that’s supposed to cause them angst never comes off as more than a minor annoyance. If not enough attention is given to them as individuals within their respective worlds, they amount to nothing together.

All of this is, of course, is why it’s generally a better bet to stay a steady course instead of hopping from one book, effectively, to another between the covers of a single novel. There is one reason, though, why a setting should be so neatly split between one half and the next, with two complete B-plots unfolding one after another, and if Gretchen and the Bear had happened to have it, there’s a good chance it would’ve fared better: a structure like this only works effectively as a study of character.

With that central uniting thread, the attributes of one world become the foils of another, both of them working at the main character’s heart, the central question being which one she’ll choose.

There’s a historical fiction example of this in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, but in a work looking to straddle genres like Gretchen and the Bear is, the possibilities are endless, and the missed opportunities are a bitter disappointment. If you’re going to put a girl of the far future in relief against the mythology of the distant past, why not do something with her relationship to modernity? Why have her chafe against her life in the colony in only the most superficial ways? Why not offer deeper flaws to the fae world to complicate her obvious choice?

Because Gretchen and the Bear‘s problems, though numerous, all amount to this: in the face of an underdeveloped pair of settings, the central dramatic question evaporates. The romance loses its significance. Whatever choice there could’ve been between these two worlds, is rendered, in the end, not much of a choice at all.

“Wings of Ebony” A Promising Idea That Can’t Take Flight

You’ve likely heard a story with the makings of Wings of Ebony before: girl has hidden godly and/or magical heritage, crisis sends her past careening into the present, magical world welcomes her with varying degrees of open arms, all is not what it seems. A setup like this is a perennial refrain in young adult fantasy lit for a reason, however, and J. Elle’s entry into the archetype manages to stand out amongst a flock of look-alikes, even considering its shortcomings.

For one thing, even though the archetype offers a powerful temptation to turn to wish fulfillment instead of truly interrogating the flaws of one’s fantasy world, Wings of Ebony keeps its eyes turned on inequity, both in Ghizon, the fantasy setting where our heroine, Rue, discovers her powers, and in her home neighborhood of East Row, in Houston, where unsettling connections exist between a recent uptick in violent crime and Ghizon’s seedy inner circle.

In fact, we return home in Wings of Ebony more than you might expect, and it’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre where the prerogative is often to escape the sorrows of our contemporary world instead of facing them. But J. Elle makes an admirable point of emphasizing the fact that the “real world” is not all sorrow and its magical counterpart not all wonder.

Rue, informed by her experiences as a Black girl in an under-served community, certainly knows hardship, but the book also pays credit to that community and its value. In fact, it offers as its central tenet the necessity of defending such a community, with the defining feature of its antagonist being a refusal to acknowledge it for its worth.

That much remains to the book’s merit, but some issues in execution bar it from making the most of its brilliant setup. First and foremost, it makes the mistake of focusing Rue’s character on unwavering conviction as opposed to substantial development. It’s not that Rue goes from the first page to the last with all her attitudes about Ghizon, her family, and her past completely unchanged, but it’s only those attitudes that change.

Rue starts the book, for instance, with a deep resentment of Ghizon, and by extension, her father, who left her as a child to return there, and comes to care about her heritage more when she learns its history and her place in it. No essential thing about her, though, responds to the circumstances in kind. She gets superficially stronger, as she gets a better grip on her powers, but because the groundwork isn’t there, her victory has thematic rather than personal significance. Armed with the same tools and information, she would’ve managed the same feat and acted in the same interest on page one.

This is one area where Wings of Ebony might have actually benefited from taking the ordinary fantasy path, specifically where it pertains to deepening the relationship between Rue and the magic she learns to wield. Elle makes a bold choice in setting the novel not right when Rue is whisked away to Ghizon, but in the months after, showing her first interactions with magic (and the accompanying training) only in flashback. In many ways, it’s a choice that serves the trajectory of the story and saves it valuable page time in skipping the magic-school formalities. But the book does lose something in neglecting to show Rue in the process of learning the ropes, especially where that ever-important character engine of failure is concerned. Having a character contend with the magic they’ve been alienated from all their life and hit a wall in the process is often the primary ingredient in turning a finale into a triumph––and its absence in Wings of Ebony removes suspense to its detriment.

Here, as foreshadowing for a second-act revelation, we get one brief scene of Rue trying the magic for the first time and discovering that she’s preternaturally good at it. The scene in question has multiple important thrusts––one even subtly interrogates Rue’s Ghizoni friend, Bri, and her immediately suspicious response to Rue’s talent as a product of racism––but it fails as a tool for enlivening Rue’s bond with her magic.

What’s more, that same second-act revelation makes way for everything Rue knows about Ghizon, including its magic, to be challenged, but even after the other shoe drops, the book still denies her the chance at growth through trial and error. Even when the magic is directly out of reach, only external forces prevent Rue from using it, facing her with an immediate limitation, and not a loss that has anything to say about Rue’s flaws or failing strategies. It’s an opportunity eschewed, in other words, and it’s a big part of the reason the third act falls flat.

The other major factor is the antagonist, who stays concealed until about halfway through the book, but once revealed loses all intrigue. Elle’s worldbuilding keys very skillfully into a hunger in contemporary fantasy for magical institutions established under false pretenses, and though that goal is obvious from the beginning, it’s still satisfying to watch the truth come to light, but in crafting the antagonist, she falls on the easiest, least challenging option––that goes both for the premise of the character, and for their simple, straightforward defeat.

In fact, the central conflict at large feels like a betrayal of the book’s complex aims. Instead of leaning into the systemic nature of Ghizon’s abuses, the book pins it all on a few authority figures our heroine has only to defeat to resolve. While it is made clear at the ending that there’s a substantial amount of work ahead for Ghizon, it’s still frustrating that the text chooses to rest injustice on a few bad actors in the end where it’s otherwise abundantly clear that widespread complicity is its primary enabler.

Wings of Ebony opts for the fast and easy ending, ultimately, where the slow and arduous is more suited to the occasion: in character, in magic, and in conflict. Because these areas are so crucial, the work as a whole misses the mark, despite its noble goals. There is much within it to be exited about, of course, but one can’t help but wish for more.

“The Price Guide to the Occult” Is A Witch Story Sapped of Magic

In The Price Guide to the Occult, Leslye Walton tell us exactly what the curse is right away.

This isn’t exactly a problem for Walton, whose 2016 novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is all the more rich for its detailed backstory and family history––we don’t meet the titular character until nearly a hundred pages in, but by then we’ve been endowed with an intimate understanding of the dismal fates of all her ancestors, and are bracing ourselves for whatever ironic/magical/heartbreaking conclusion the future has in store for her.

Walton returns to her multi-generational roots in The Price Guide to the Occult, a rain-soaked contemporary fantasy tale set (again) in the Pacific Northwest. Here, she substitutes a quick-witted prologue for chapters of setup, where a new arrival to the aptly named Anathema Island, Rona Blackburn, under threat by settlers who believe she’s a witch (she is, but that’s beside the point), binds herself to the island to take refuge in its magic, and in effect curses all her descendants, right down to Nor Blackburn, of the present day. No member of the Blackburn lineage has been a proper, spell-casting witch since Rona. Instead, every new daughter is saddled with a specific supernatural Burden: Nor’s grandmother can heal, and Nor herself hears the thoughts and feelings of plants and animals. The curse also extends to the Blackburns’ romantic lives: they’re all doomed to short-lived love stories with (mostly) tragic endings.

Things unfold rather slowly (a misstep, considering the story Price Guide is aiming for), but the book essentially follows Nor as her estranged mother, Fern, makes a very public return to magic. One day, during a routine shift at Anathema Island’s kitschy occult shop, The Witching Hour, a book offering Fern’s mystical services arrives, and within weeks, she commands an army of devoted followers, which Nor watches her amass from a distance, with horror.

But The Price Guide to the Occult‘s iffy attempts at suspense do quite a number on this plot line. For one thing, the threat, even when it arrives in the sickening perfect form of Fern Blackburn, seems distant, unreal, and superfluous at every turn. Nor, at one point, has to go so far as to duck into hiding, but even with all of Walton’s specific gory details, no monstrous thing about Fern comes to life, no part of her sway over her devoted followers is made visible, and so the reader is left not terrified, not fascinated, but baffled––baffled by the power that Fern really has no compelling reason to have, baffled by her influence, her persistent absence for the story, her framing as a villain, her vagueness.

The main ensemble, composed of Nor, her bubbly best friend Savvy, a high school crush named Reed, and his brother Grayson, is similarly sapped of narrative energy, but in a way that’s quite the opposite. They’re almost aggressively normal––Nor, the only would-be witch of the bunch, overwhelmingly so. She’s depicted as fleeing to normalcy, in response to the heavy price and corrupting qualities of her family’s magic, but beyond that, her substance is rather sparse. She just runs and recovers from things and wishes her powers would disappear. This alone isn’t a mistake for a work of fantasy to commit to doing, but there has to be something in the magic itself that truly frightens the main character. It has to show her some dark, demented part of herself she’d rather cower from all her life than see. Here, though, the fuzzy possibility of becoming like her mother is enough to drive Nor away. Away from what, it isn’t really specified, because her Burden, as it appears for most of the book, is a dull thrum too inconsequential to deserve notice most of the time, and magic as it appears otherwise is a pretty passionless affair. When it isn’t conjured in passing, it’s described in the same plainclothes terms as any other mundane task, which almost begs the reader to wonder why it’s regarded as feared or fearsome in the world at all.

Ironically, the best writing in The Price Guide to the Occult arrives in its tragically short flashbacks––the prologue at the beginning, and a few tales of past Blackburn daughters scattered through in scenes and paragraphs when there’s time. Walton is brilliant with flashbacks: she keeps just enough distance to mire the characters in their own ironies and define them with the sharp, fast strokes of a caricaturist. Against these cleanly-crafted silhouettes, details really pop––Walton can make a convincing case for love bringing her characters to their knees in a fraction of the time as it takes for most stories to do so, with just a few carefully-curated images and a discerning gaze that allows her to regard them with distant, narratorly pity.

However well this approach makes for the past, though, it almost repels the present day. Walton gets around this in Ava Lavender by making the story as much about the other residents of the town as it is about Ava, so much so that several characters get this treatment and the whole book feels vividly recounted, rather than lived in real time. But in The Price Guide to the Occult, it’s all Nor, and Walton’s ending-the-curse approach to the plot forces her into Nor’s head, dulling the power of her narration. She tells us often that something terrifies Nor, that Nor shudders to imagine something, that something makes Nor’s pulse race––and it suddenly snaps the book into the past, where it makes much more sense to tell us that a character is frightened than it does to give us the culprit.

It seems, every now and then, like concept and form are at war within these pages. Leslye Walton wants to tell a story about a girl who fights off the dark allure of magic: her choices and her ability to rise to the occasion defeat a deadly force––and she, in terms of movers and shakers, is alone. But her writing, suited to swift and well-defined portraits, and casts of characters that tug and snap at each other more than they effect disaster in the real world, seems to want to tell something entirely different.

I Still Love “P.S. I Still Love You”

Jenny Han’s widely loved To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before introduces us to hopeless romantic and scaredy-cat Lara Jean Song Covey, who moons over her crushes in secret, terrified of little more than to have her feelings known. Letters, her charmingly analog method of wrangling her heart’s desires, are in order for every object of affection. Never to be read, they contain her vulnerabilities, longings, and deepest, most embarrassing secrets. They remain hidden in a hatbox, nestled in the recesses of her closet. Until they aren’t. Chaos ensues.

In the fallout of this disaster, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before gives us fake-dating goodness, high school nostalgia, and a really genuine instance of character development––as Lara Jean emerges from her shell, we really want to root for her, and though a lot of her growth is romantic, it also manifests elsewhere, yielding a full portrait that, along with Han’s conversational, detail-oriented writing, feels real, albeit in a reality with brighter colors, warmer feelings, and far fewer dark nights of the soul.

By the time of P. S. I Still Love You, set in January and February of Lara Jean’s junior year (To All The Boys starts in September), Lara Jean is dating one of the recipients of the forbidden letters (Peter Kavinsky, a lacrosse player), close friends with another (Lucas, who she danced with at homecoming freshman year), and has reconciled things with a third (Josh, her neighbor, and sister’s ex-boyfriend). One letter met the wrong address and has since returned, but another’s whereabouts are still unknown, addressed to one nerdy and subdued John Ambrose McClaren, yet to garner a reply.

Some tension in the first act of the book arises from romantic misunderstandings between Lara Jean and Peter––for one thing, he’s still rather close to his ex, Genevieve, and for another, there’s a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s first for-real kiss going around on social media, and the rumor mill has latched onto word that it went beyond kissing, smacking the two with looks of suspicion from classmates, unsolicited words of advice from adults, and campus meme status, which, Han, for all of her allegiance to slightly outdated popularity- and mean girl-based school politics, manages to depict pretty faithfully.

This subplot, which was bumped back to the third act of To All The Boys in the 2018 film adaptation, provokes some petty drama among the characters that can feel trite on occasion, especially with regards to Genevieve, but Han often takes care to make sure it comes from a deeper place, and paints insightful pictures of all the interactions that build up to a big spat––all the little decisions Lara Jean makes when she’s with Peter, to let things slide, to swallow her objections––and it’s ultimately really convincing when the consequences of these moments add up, and boil over.

But the tension in P.S. I Still Love You, possibly as a symptom of YA’s early-2010’s love triangle boom, is at its best when yet another love interest is added to the mix, in the form of the missing fifth addressee, John Ambrose McClaren.

He enters the happenings rather late for a supporting figure so crucial, but the way Han offers him as a foil for Peter is well-suited to the task at hand, both in terms of personality, as a more observant, mild-mannered alternative to Peter’s boisterous, jockish sensibilities, and in terms of relationship progression, offering a squeaky-clean, early phase relief from the complications time has given Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter.

How Han resolves these contradictions makes sense for her goals and for Lara Jean’s needs as a character, but she neglects to give both relationships proper time for their culminations. Instead, the third act of P. S. I Still Love You feels like it’s been slashed through the middle and hastily stitched together in the aftermath. After making a key decision, Lara Jean has time to feel only fleeting regret before going back on it, her connection with John doesn’t have enough space to mature, and things overall get resolved in a hurry, as if P. S. I Still Love You is trying desperately to alienate itself from uncertainty, even though that same uncertainty is what made its predecessor so rich.

But it has one particular element to its name that does give it an ever-so slight leg up. With John Ambrose’s reply comes the bitter pang of nostalgia––Lara Jean, Peter, John Ambrose, and Genevieve all used to be friends back in middle school, and Han pays the most compassionate, delicate attention to the painful fraying of these bonds, particularly for someone as prone to living in the past as Lara Jean. As in everything else that makes this series so delectable, it’s all in the details. The buried time capsule. The friendship bracelets. The words left unsaid.

Tell me what you think! Hit me up in the comments
Next week: I go off about Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“Elatsoe” Is Required Reading for Anyone Who Likes Ghosts, Sleuthing, and a Good Time

In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.

At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.

When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.

In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.

Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.

Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.

The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.

Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.

The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.

The Brilliance of Beth Revis’ Final “Across the Universe” Book

In Shades of Earth, a hundred-year interstellar mission finally comes to fruition––stranding its passengers on an unwieldy new planet with no way to reach home. Credits for the above collage are here.

What happens when a centuries long mission to an exoplanet finally arrives? In Shades of Earth, the final installment of Beth Revis’ sci-fi epic, for one thing, Earth has long since beat the colonists to it––and their prospects on this brave new world don’t look good.

The trilogy’s first two installments, Across the Universe (yes, after the song) and A Million Suns, explore a society formed on a generational ship, the Godspeed, over hundreds of years in isolation: various crises with no assistance from home have bred a tightly-regulated micro-dystopia, with drugs pumped into the populace to keep it docile and incendiary truths tightly guarded from view. The Godspeed has no captain, only a succession of absolute power through generations of clones who hold the title Eldest. Tensions come to a head, though, when the original members of the mission, scientists and military personnel who agreed to pass the centuries until arrival in cryogenic slumber, start mysteriously waking, and Amy, the daughter of a colonel, falls in love with Elder, a young leader-in-waiting who has yet to learn the worst of his regime’s secrets.

As it turns out, Godspeed has been parked at its destination, a habitable exoplanet dubbed “Centauri-Earth,” for some time, and as the ship falls into disrepair, disembarking emerges as the only path to survival. But Shades of Earth shows us a Centauri-Earth riddled with dangers––aside from the sharpening tensions between the ship-born inhabitants of Godspeed and the Earthlings just awakened from sleep.

Revis’ worldbuilding is a tightly-wound coil that never stops unfurling: personal drama is aplenty, but the past and its glaring omissions lend the trilogy most of its suspense. Every plot twist emerges from the ashes of history, in both earlier books and Shades of Earth, so it’s no surprise that Centauri-Earth is hardly what it seems. Layered under the struggle for survival in this volume is a deeper, sustaining mystery: the question of circumstance, and the truth of how it came to be. With both elements, the terror of an alien world and the whiffs of vague past catastrophe and possible conspiracy, Revis creates a stomping ground for her sci-fi that antagonizes the colonists in multiple ways, yielding a survival story that really uses its surroundings, not just as a force to struggle against, but as a source of revelation. It’s illuminating to dig in Revis’ sandbox and find the treasures she’s buried there––even more so that some of them take the whole book to uncover.

Those more stubborn details build to an even more powerful conclusion: when the real culprits, conspiracies, and causes are hidden, it is all the more compelling when the monster at the reader’s feet scurries away, and a deeper growl from above prompts them to look up, and meet the real one.

In Shades of Earth, power is cleverly nestled in its designs and machinations, sending the characters immediate threats and keeping them in the dark about its true nature. The structure Revis creates for this in her plot is layered, so rife with complete shifts in paradigm that the final reveals are a rousing breath of release. Though they may read as deus ex machina to some, these sudden, all-consuming realizations have a surprising thematic utility, one that can be found in the likes of Doctor Who. (It’s reasonable to infer that the show had a a direct influence on the work––the author’s notes in her short story anthology, The Future Collection, cite it directly.)

Doctor Who has boundless faith in human beings, so much so that its greatest heartbreaks happen when people fail to act as their best selves in situations of crisis that demand it, from paranoia in the episode “Midnight” to trigger-happy dealings with another species in “The Hungry Earth” and “In Cold Blood.” (All three of these are magnificent episodes, by the way.)

There are echoes of this in Shades of Earth, with devastatingly authentic depictions of peace gone awry. The book is defined by compassion when it comes to unpacking the unproductive tensions between ship-borns and Earth-borns: compassionate not only in understanding and forgiving their motives but also in terms of emphasizing how devastating this animosity is for everyone involved, and how it pulls attention away from the real source of harm. Here, Revis writes the ultimate tragedy: human beings too beholden to their nature to recognize the institutions and authorities that actually pose a threat. It has all the trappings of free will, with the tart smack of inevitability.

Revis does this especially well with Amy’s father, the Earth-born Colonel Martin, who reacts to the hostile environment and the ship-borns foolishly yet predictably. He has a compassionate side––it shows very obviously in his interactions with his daughter––but it isn’t enough to resist paranoia, and, in the tradition of tragic flaws, gets warped under pressure. It’s heartbreaking in him because it’s heartbreaking in everyone else. Shades of Earth genuinely believes its characters are better than this. It gets its gravity from the painful fact that they very often aren’t.

A Dystopian Trek in Ally Condie’s “Crossed”

Ally Condie’s YA dystopia, Crossed, and how it works as a sequel to the sleek, sanitized, Giver-esque world of Matched, its predecessor. (With a touch of poetry!)

Crossed, the second book in the Matched trilogy, sees Cassia, a heroine who only until recently trusted the word of her overbearing government, in a journey through the wilderness, in search of love, freedom, and a rebellion. Credits for this illustration are here.

Ally Condie’s 2010 YA dystopian, Matched, takes place in a highly-regulated, warped paradise of job assignments, planned deaths, and compulsory conformity, the workings of a faceless, monolithic Society in the far future, Giver-style. The Matching ceremony, the day on which the government presents to each citizen their predestined partner, plays a key role in getting Cassia, a familiar subdued, brunette, mostly complicit dystopian heroine, to question the system that’s kept her life safe and predictable lo these seventeen years, but by the end, she’s taken a second look at everything. The Society’s destruction of previous cultures. Its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. And, most urgently, at the end of book one, its swift and hushed deployment of her boyfriend, Ky, as a prop of its vague and unspoken war.

Crossed, book two, is the fallout of the possibility of resistance. In Matched, we follow a relationship mutually acknowledged to be doomed. In Crossed, where both Ky and Cassia are on the run, they have to deal with disagreements about the future they only recently realized they could have. What’s more, Cassia hears word of a rebellion brewing on the edges of the Society, the very one in which Ky, jaded by his family’s past, long ago lost faith.

It’s subdued and rather uneventful as far as sequels go––the Society, in Crossed, is more of a looming presence than, as it is in Matched, a mounting threat. In Crossed, Ky and Cassia, along with a few incidental others, trek through the wilderness to find each other, and, eventually, to find the already gathering forces of a rebellion, the Rising. This setup forebodes a laggy, unimportant middle chapter, but Crossed has a utility in doing what a plot summary would cast as useless loitering. It holds all the themes of Matched while taking some time to let the immediate danger of being pursued by authority air out in the wilderness. The same stakes are ultimately at hand, but they are examined here in a deeply personal lens. What’s more, the monotony of the Society ripens with an example to pair it against. Where the Society does appear in Crossed, Condie inextricably associates it with the destruction of the natural world, further codifying its slick, sterilized aesthetic: just the foil for the naturalism, figurative language, and poetry that defines her main characters, and their deeply-held, almost unconscious, need to rebel.

As either consequence or catalyst of this, Condie’s prose style is of the earnest, flowery variety, sparse yet heavy with metaphor: so much “ash and nothing into flesh and blood,” so much “a thought flitters into my mind like one of the mourning cloaks, the butterflies that string their cocoons along the twigs,” so much “my mother painted with water, and my father played with fire,” as to render it trite, cliché, and unbearably cheesy, but her characters are so fervent and her argument for agency so entangled with poetry and passion that it registers with striking clarity. The key to Condie’s invoking such drastic lyricism is commitment.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that she chose to set Crossed in the dramatic landscape of a canyon, the Carving, where bright red cliffs exist in stark relief beside dark, rushing waters, and consequently where her lofty prose style feels most at home. Ky, the melancholy, poetry-reading love interest, also happens to harmonize with the landscape––Condie makes it the site of his childhood and the tenuous middle ground of the issue that comes to define his newfound tension with Cassia: to, or not to, join the Rising. What Crossed does with the debate is a cut above the expected. Yes, it’s a dystopian trilogy, and the rebellion is a given, but where Cassia’s all in, Ky is rather uneasy, and what’s more, the Rising is far from the “natural” side in Condie’s natural-unnatural dystopian lexicon, and she foreshadows some discord between the Rising as a restrictive institution and the beliefs of the people who turn to it for hope. Two salvaged poems, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” play a key role in the series, Cassia and Ky reciting parts of them like mantras. The Rising, however, has co-opted the metaphorical figure of the Pilot from Tennyson’s poem for use in their own propaganda, and it is only Ky’s suspicions––with his symbolic ties to the natural, the expressive, and the artistic––that put dents in the Rising’s promises before the thing itself even appears.

Cassia, on the other hand, is earnest and hopeful about this matter, nursing wholehearted faith in the future––and meets heartache when Ky doesn’t share her vision. She isn’t fully realized as a novel or startling heroine, but she is a fully-realized reflection of her upbringing, the Society’s purported ideals of justice and equality activated when they meet their authentic counterparts. The point is that she embodies the average of her circumstances reacting to a chance encounter with freedom, just like Ky embodies his ostracism, and reflects the want of creative freedom once had, and lost. This doesn’t make them boring or flat; it makes them painstaking extensions of their worldbuilding.

Likewise, Crossed‘s muted and internal nature doesn’t make it a pointless victim of middle book syndrome; it makes it a refreshing departure from a genre that demands armed conflict as resolution, and very rarely shifts all or most of its focus into how its characters feel about the matter. It’s a volume of careful thought and sustained commitment to its role as a meditative interlude. High-octane expectations gave the book mixed reviews upon its reception in 2011, but after YA’s wave of dystopian popularity has crashed, it’s worth revisiting what Crossed does with setting, character, and art: it takes a long, introspective trek through a canyon, as opposed to the straight and narrow path.

Thank you for reading! My name is Pippin, and this blog is my passion project for all things bookish (and, to be frank, mostly young adult sci-fi). I’d love to chat about this book, or anything else, really, in the comments: am I blinded by my teenage nostalgia for this book? Am I missing a killer dystopia that more people should read? Is Ky Markham too angsty? Tell me below!

Scott Westerfeld’s “Specials” Ends With a Flashy, Unnecessary Bang

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops.

Young dissidents hide (and hoverboard) in the ruins of the 21st century throughout Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It becomes an especially important staging ground as the resistance gains momentum in the finale, Specials. Credits for this illustration are here.

This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.

The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.

Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.

The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.

Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.

This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.

The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.

Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.

This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.

With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.

The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.