Book Review: The Year Of Ice by Brian Malloy

A friend of mine recently gave me his copy of “The Year of Ice” by Brian Malloy to read, and it took me no time at all to read it, because I was engrossed.

The story follows an 18-year-old named Kevin Doyle, and it is set in 1978 in the Twin Cities. But what the story is really about is dealing with trauma and psychological wounds, and with secrets.

Let’s start with the trauma.

Kevin is still coping with the death of his mother from two years prior, and he’s also deeply closeted, unwilling and unable to come to grips with his own sexuality. It’s those twin struggles that drives Kevin’s story over the course of the novel.

The author, Brian Malloy, writes with a natural voice and I felt like I was reading someone’s private, inner thoughts. So often, books like these feel like Books, where characters Think and Do Things. The protagonist often has Deep and Profound Thoughts.

That’s not really the case here, because Malloy fully inhabits the voice of Kevin, and it really feels like you’re listening to an 18-year-old’s thought process – often stupid, sometimes maddening, but compelling. I couldn’t wrench my eyes away from the page.

And lest this sounds like I’m damning Malloy with faint praise, let me be clear that what he’s managed to accomplish is a sign of his skill as a writer. Kevin feels real in ways many characters don’t, and so when reading about his pain and heartache, and the process of dealing with guilt, rage, despair, lust, and all these other emotions, the reader is right there with him.

Of course, Kevin isn’t always sympathetic, mind you. He can be a real asshole to the people he cares about, and he takes out his sexual frustration on innocent targets.

Not that those around him are more deserving of sympathy. The other theme, aside from trauma, is how people cling to their secrets, and how those secrets inform their worldview, and the way they treat others. Little by little, secrets are revealed and unveiled, forcing Kevin to rethink his own trauma, his own feelings of guilt and shame, his own emotions towards his dead mother, his deadbeat dad, his fiery aunt, and others.

That said, Kevin isn’t always quite three dimensional, and sometimes the book has trouble maintaining the two threads of thought. Sometimes it feels like it’s on the verge of being all about his repressed sexuality; at other times, it feels more like it’s going to be about his relationship with his parents. Malloy isn’t always successful at balancing the two storylines, and the resolution at the end isn’t quite as fulfilling as I hoped. It just sort of ends neatly, with no real rhyme or reason behind a breakthrough.

(And this is a minor pet peeve of mine, but it is repeated several times in this book: Malloy writes “would of” instead of “would have” or “would’ve” – really? No agent or editor or beta reader caught that?)

Still, this book is very readable, and when it does deal with his trauma well, it’s a compelling read, one that draws a reader in. Recommended to YA LGBT readers, particularly gay ones. It’s an honest, complicated, messy look at the inner life of a teen who’s going through some shit.

Book review: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling of the story of Achilles, from the perspective of a character a lot of people forget about…except those who interpret it in a certain way.

Warning: There is a minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph, but since the spoiler in question is 2,750 years old, perhaps not that big of a spoiler. But hey. If you’re not familiar with the Iliad, and don’t want a certain plot point revealed, you can skip to the paragraph following.

For many, when reading the Iliad, or some adaptation of it (looking at you, Troy), Patroclus is just some random side character, one who dies, and his death so enrages Achilles who then becomes the hero we’ve all heard of. In other words, Patroclus dies so Brad Pitt can have his epic fight scene with Eric Bana, and that’s all we really care about, right?

But many readers of the Iliad saw the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as something deeper than just mere friends (or, in the case of Troy, cousins). Achilles was haughty and arrogant to all, except to Patroclus, to whom he was affectionate. Some interpret it as simply a deep, platonic bond, but many see romantic undertones to it, including William Shakespeare and a whole host of classical and Hellenistic experts, of which Madeline Miller is one.

Her book is told from the point of view of Patroclus, and explores his life and relationship with Achilles. It’s a beautifully told story, tender, and with clear, explicit scenes depicting their feelings for each other. We also get to meet some wonderful side characters, including the centaur Chiron, wily Ulysses, ruthless Agamemnon, and so on.

But make no mistake, this is the story of Patroclus and Achilles.

The biggest flaw I could see in this story is a relatively minor one, and that’s the fact that Miller sort of hurries past Achilles’ interest in Patroclus. She does a great job of showing how Patroclus first notices Achilles, and how his feelings slowly grow over time, but the same can’t be said for the reverse. They have one conversation and suddenly, Achilles likes him more than the other boys. It’s a little abrupt, to say the least.

Having said that, their relationship with each other deepens in real, meaningful ways after that sequence. It then becomes wholly convincing that the two don’t just have affection for the other, but that they truly love each other. And it is here where the book is strongest. Aside from their hurried introduction, Miller luxuriates in the two boys bonding with the other, and using their relationship to see the famous stories surrounding the Trojan War from the narrow point of view of Patroclus.

The story is, as I mentioned, beautifully told and deeply heartfelt.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Is Major Queerbait, And That’s Not Good

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out recently, touted as the 8th Harry Potter book (despite the fact that it is neither a book nor was it written by J.K. Rowling). Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany devised the story, and Thorne did the writing.

Overall, it was pretty good. For those unused to reading scripts, it was probably a very jarring and upsetting experience, but I have no doubt it translated well to the stage, minus a few little tonal inconsistencies.

My big problem, however, has to do with the treatment of two characters. These characters were great individually and together – exceptional together, even. They had verve, they had chemistry. They clearly loved each other – yes, loved, and they would be the first to admit their feelings for each other.

But they never got into a relationship. Why?

Because they were both males.

Had this been a heterosexual dynamic, they would have gotten together (had they not gotten together, that would have been criticized to no end for being totally unrealistic), but because they were both males, the script shoehorned arbitrary heterosexual “attractions” that, had they been completely removed from the story, would not have changed a single thing.

This is the ultimate in queerbait.

BEFORE I GET INTO ALL OF THIS, WARNING: MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

If you want to be surprised by any of the developments in the story, STOP READING. I am not kidding. Spoilers ga-freaking-lore ahead.

Still here? Okay, good.

I am, of course, talking about Albus and Scorpius. Albus, Harry Potter’s son, gets sorted into Slytherin and becomes best friends with Scorpius, Draco Malfoy’s son. What follows is a collection of direct quotes from the script. Individually, each of these could be seen as subtle hints. Taken together, however, it is comprehensive evidence of the love and attraction they felt for each other.

Yes, I am aware there is such a thing as being straight and having an extremely close relationship with someone of the same sex. Platonic love, bromance, brother from another mother, whatever you want to call it, I get it – those are very real. You don’t have to look very far for examples (Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon come to mind).

This is not one of those relationships.

Why does this matter, some of you may ask. It matters because LGBT representation in popular media is underserved. It matters because the depth of feeling that Albus and Scorpius have for each other is blindingly, stupidly obvious. It matters that, despite such obviousness, the script still finds a way to contort itself into nonsensical dimensions, as if to say, “Ah ha, no gay action here! No, sirreebob. None of that queer stuff, wink wink nudge nudge.”

It matters because there are many LGBT people, especially kids, who could really freaking use heroes and role models in major media, and stories like this do an utter disservice to them. It matters because, as you’ll see with the quotes below, the evidence is there but the story willfully taunted its queer audience rather than celebrating it. It matters because J.K. Rowling, who retconned Dumbledore into a gay man, should have known better and insisted that maybe, instead of having a subtext, we make a gay relationship the text for a change.

It matters because, frankly, there is an embarrassing reluctance to make LGBT characters the heroes of stories like these.

But don’t take my word for it. Take it away, Cursed Child! Show us the signs that Albus and Scorpius are totally into each other:

Albus and Scorpius meet for the first time. Note Scorpius gets flustered upon seeing Albus. (Act 1, Scene 3)

Albus: Albus. Al. I’m—my name is Albus…

Scorpius: Hi Scorpius. I mean, I’m Scorpius. You’re Albus. I’m Scorpius. And you must be…

Rose: Rose.

Scorpius: Hi Rose. Would you like some of my Fizzing Whizbees?

Rose: I’ve just had breakfast, thanks.

Scorpius: I’ve also got some Shock-o-Choc, Pepper Imps, and some Jelly Slugs. Mum’s idea. She says (sings) “Sweets, they always help you make friends.” (He realizes that singing was a mistake). Stupid idea, probably.

Harry, worried about Albus. (Note that the “as long as you’re happy…” line is one often trotted out by straight parents to gay children) (Act 1, Scene 4)

Albus: But I don’t need a Ron and Hermione. I’ve—I’ve got a friend, Scorpius, and I know you don’t like him but he’s all I need.

Harry: Look, as long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters to me.

First mention of physical contact. (Act 1, Scene 10)

Albus hugs his friend. With fierceness. They hold for a beat. Scorpius is surprised by this.

Scorpius: Okay. Hello. Um. Have we hugged before? Do we hug?

The two boys awkwardly dislocate.

Later, same scene, Scorpius willingly follows Albus, no matter what.

Albus: I’m going to do this, Scorpius. I need to do this. And you know as well as I do, I’ll entirely mess it up if you don’t come with me. Come on.

He grins. And then disappears ever up. Scorpius hesitates for a moment. He makes a face. And then hoists himself up and disappears after Albus.

Scorpius starts to realize the depths of his feelings. (Act 1, Scene 19)

Scorpius: My point is, there’s a reason we’re friends, Albus—a reason we found each other, you know? And whatever this—adventure—is about… [he then notices a clue for the puzzle they’re trying to solve]

Scorpius feels intense jealousy upon seeing Albus talk to a girl. Worth noting that, later in the scene, he convinces the girl to stay behind while he and Albus move ahead, alone. (Act 2, Scene 4)

Scorpius appears at the back of the stage. He looks at his friend talking to a girl—and part of him likes it and part of him doesn’t.

Scorpius isn’t enjoying the Delphi-Albus double act.

Scorpius tells Albus how much he means to him. (Act 2, Scene 6)

Albus: And then you got [to Hogwarts] and it turned out to be terrible after all.

Scorpius: Not for me. All I ever wanted to do was go to Hogwarts and have a mate to get up to mayhem with. Just like Harry Potter. And I got his son. How crazily fortunate is that.

Albus: But I’m nothing like my dad.

Scorpius: You’re better. You’re my best friend, Albus. And this is mayhem to the nth degree. Which is great, thumbs-up great, it’s just—I have got to say—I don’t mind admitting—I am a tiny bit—just a tiny bit scared.

Albus looks at Scorpius and smiles.

Albus: You’re my best friend too.

When Harry tells Albus not to see Scorpius anymore, it is devastating to the both of them. And it’s obvious to others. (Act 2, Scene 9)

Albus: Just—we’ll be better off without each other, okay?

Scorpius is left looking up after him. Heartbroken.

Even Draco sees it. Think about it – Scorpius CRIED TO HIS DAD ABOUT ANOTHER BOY. SO MUCH TO THE POINT WHERE DRACO WILLINGLY CONFRONTED THE MAN HE HATED THE MOST ON THIS EARTH. If this doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will. (Act 2, Scene 13)

Draco [to Harry Potter]: I’m not here to antagonize you. But my son is in tears and I am his father and so I am here to ask why you would keep apart two good friends.

Even the DAUGHTER OF VOLDEMORT, the guy who knew nothing of love, sensed this. (Act 2, Scene 14)

Delphi [to Scorpius]: You’re best friends. Every owl [Albus] sends I can feel your absence. He’s destroyed by it.

Delphi: That’s the thing, isn’t it? About friendships. You don’t know what he needs. You only know he needs it. Find him, Scorpius. You two—you belong together.

Their reconciliation is the most emotional thing in this play, which includes Harry seeing his parents get killed. (Act 2, Scene 17)

Albus: …you’re kind, Scorpius. To the depths of your belly, to the tips of your fingers. I truly believe Voldemort—Voldemort couldn’t have a child like you.

Beat. Scorpius is moved by this.

Scorpius: That’s nice—that’s a nice thing to say.

Albus: And it’s something I should have said a long time ago. In fact, you’re probably the best person I know. And you don’t—you couldn’t—hold me back. You make me stronger—and when Dad forced us apart—without you—

Scorpius: I didn’t much like my life without you in it either.

Albus: Friends?

Scorpius: Always.

Scorpius extends his hand, Albus pulls Scorpius up into a hug.

Snape, a guy who knows a thing or two about holding a torch, sees this in Scorpius. (Act 3, Scene 9)

Snape: Listen to me, Scorpius. Think about Albus. You’re giving up your kingdom for Albus, right? One person. All it takes is one person.


 

There are several other quotes that I didn’t include here, but this post is getting long enough. One last thing I’d like to highlight is a comment from a person who saw the play:

I saw the play and compared to that, the intimacy was seriously downplayed in the script.

On stage it was way less ambiguous, especially from Scorpius’ side. On the script we don’t get to see the body language, stolen glances, jealousy and all the pining that went on. There were moments after the later hugs where they sort of [disentangled] when still staring at each other faces all close, and the final scene (the Rose one) they were sitting so close to each other they almost were on each other, and that scene had one moment with the boys’ faces just inches from each other.

And the staircase pining scene is just absurdly romantic – it goes on for at least five minutes. The music is on Youtube, it’s an instrumental version of Imogen Heap’s Half Life, that should give an idea of the tone of the scene.

Conclusion

Again, what does it matter? It matters because it’s fundamentally dishonest to draw out the relationship with Albus and Scorpius in such an overt manner, and then not have them end up with each other romantically. Had this been a straight couple, there is no doubt that Albus and Scorpius would have kissed.

But it didn’t happen here, despite the fact that all evidence points to the notion that Albus and Scorpius have strong, deep feelings, and expressed the depth of their feelings in romantic, not platonic, language. As a result, not putting them together is deceptive. It willfully ignores the very real emotional needs of the characters, and worse, taunts the LGBT community with winks and nods when the audience could obviously see through the charade.

These characters clearly belonged with each other. And Cursed Child didn’t give them that satisfaction. Albus and Scorpius deserved better.

Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is about memory. Guy Gavriel Kay says so himself in his author’s note in the book. It’s about personal memory, institutional memory, cultural memory.

It’s about how memories can change, how they shape us, how they define us. It’s about how memories could mean something at one point in our lives, and then over the course of time, come to represent something else completely. The character of Dianora represents this last facet most eloquently.

Dianora, really, is the heart of Tigana, and we don’t even meet her until well into the book.

In short, Tigana is a story set in a land, the Peninsula of the Palm, that has been (mostly) conquered by two foreign sorcerers, splitting the peninsula into two competing factions, and a native son of the Palm wants to rise up and liberate his people.

I’m keeping the description intentionally vague, because to give away too much of the story is to undercut its effect.

The story begins slowly, and the history of the world comes at you hard and fast. It’s difficult to keep up with the names at first – I had trouble remembering which was the name of a person vs. the name of a place, but that all sorted itself out eventually. Stick with it, though. Because it’s worth it.

Because, holy shit, Guy Gavriel Kay can write.

Tigana is beautiful and heartbreaking and romantic and devastating, and no other character does more to exemplify all these qualities than Dianora, a lover of one of the foreign conquerors. By the time you meet her, the story should be well-established and entrenched in your head, and the weight of her character’s decisions, actions, and yes, memories will be what elevates this book from pretty good to sublime.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it made me consider my own memories, my own experiences, and made me think about how these may have changed over time. As a younger man, there have been moments, I am sure, where I thought to myself, “I am going to remember this, because it is perfect.” And, of course, I’ve forgotten these things, whatever they were, but I’ve remembered things I never expected to. Snippets of conversations. The faces of the people I’ve met and loved and fought with. The things I’ve said. The things I’ve not said.

And all of these cumulative memories aren’t static, aren’t like some old photographs that never change or fade with time. They’re still living and breathing, still moving with me, still shifting and changing. The thing I used to remember about a certain day are gone, to be replaced by something else from that same day. For example, when I flew abroad for the first time, it was my first flight by myself. I used to remember and dwell on the faces of my parents as I left them – my mother’s tears, my dad’s proud and melancholic expression. But now I mostly remember that first European sunrise I witnessed after a long, sleepless night when my flight neared its destination, that sense of hope and excitement and adventure that coursed through me.

Tigana’s take on memory, with certain characters, tends to be more institutional, more cultural – which is good! We as a society have a shared cultural memory, and those are all interesting themes that get explored in the book.

But when it comes to Dianora in particular, that’s when the story is at its most personal, its most intimate. Tigana stayed with me after I read it, and it’s largely because of Dianora, her memories, her actions, how her past informed her present and determined her future. I actually finished the book over a month ago, and I’m only now coming to terms with my thoughts and feelings on it.

Like I said – Guy Gavriel Kay can write.

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is one of the hottest novels to come out in the Young Adult space recently. The rights for a film have been made, and Brown himself is getting a ton of glowing press from the mainstream media.

Knowing this, I dove into Red Rising, the first book in the Red Rising trilogy, and at first, I was unimpressed. It follows all the tropes of a typical dystopian YA novel – a strictly hierarchical society (which, once you think about a little more deeply, doesn’t make any sense), a hero from the absolute bottom rung of said society, how the elite are keeping everyone else under their thumbs through cruel and capricious means, how the hero initially doesn’t want to fight the system but a family member gets killed, blah blah blah.

Basically the same stuff that drives The Hunger Games. Or Divergent. Or the Maze Runner. Or a billion other YA novels. This is the book that’s getting such wide acclaim?

Then a funny thing happened.

Then I started to care about Darrow. Then I started to get interested in the book. Then I started to enjoy it. A lot.

Not coincidentally, this shift in my thinking started right around when Brown dispensed with the usual YA dystopian cliches and focused instead on telling his own story, the story of Darrow, a Red who finds himself in the middle of Gold society, and realizing that things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

The first 100 pages are uninspired, mostly worldbuilding and setup, but then Brown dug his claws into me, and soon I realized I couldn’t tear myself away. And that was when I realized why this series is so popular, and why it might become a movie very soon.

Unlike, say, The Fifth Season, Red Rising isn’t a literary book – it is exactly what it presents itself to be – a fun read that’s the equivalent to a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Make some popcorn, get comfortable, and enjoy the ride, because once it starts, you’ll be racing to the finish.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, needs little introduction. Released to great acclaim, for good reason, it marks Jemisin’s authoritative ascendance into the company of elite sci-fi/fantasy writers of our day.

The story follows three women, all of whom are Orogenes, people who have the ability to call upon the powers of the earth. In this world, earthquakes are very common, and whole civilizations have been swallowed by previous quakes. Orogenes are capable of shaping, redirecting, or even causing earthquakes.

Orogenes are also viewed with distrust and suspicion by non-Orogenes.

One of the reasons why I loved this book so much, besides Jemisin’s beautiful writing and her deft plotting, is that it demonstrates one of the great strengths of genre books – its ability to critique and comment on contemporary society. Jemisin, a black writer, draws clear parallels between racial tensions (Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, et al) to the tensions between Orogenes and non-Orogenes. She also conveys what’s it’s like to live as people who have to constantly be on guard, have to watch not just their behavior and language, but also the way they think.

Take, for example, this passage between Syen, one of the main characters, and her mentor Alabaster – who in addition to teaching her the ways of being an Orogene, is forced to sleep with her so that they can make Orogene children for the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum is a school for Orogenes, and children are raised there to master control over their powers:

[Alabaster] rolls onto his back, looking up at the sky, and she thinks that’s the end of the conversation, until he says, “I think you hate me because…I’m someone you can hate. I’m here, I’m handy. But what you really hate is the world.”

At this Syen tosses her washcloth into the bowl of water she’s been using and glares at him. “The world doesn’t say inane things like that.”

“I’m not interested in mentoring a sycophant. I want you to be yourself with me. And when you are, you can barely speak a civil word to me, no matter how civil I am to you.”

Hearing it put that way, she feels a little guilty. “What do you mean, then, that I hate the world?”

“You hate the way we live. The way the world makes us live. Either the Fulcrum owns us, or we have to hide and be hunted down like dogs if we’re ever discovered. Or we become monsters and try to kill everything. Even within the Fulcrum we always have to think about how they want us to act. We can never just…be.” He sighs, closing his eyes. “There should be a better way.”

“There isn’t.”

Being white, I don’t often think about how I’ll be perceived by others, but this is a very real thought process for a lot of black Americans – for many, there’s a constant, unending pressure on them to act a certain way, to say (or not say) certain things. Wanda Sykes makes this point much better and funnier than I ever could. And if you doubt this is true, just take a look at the YouTube comments for that video, always a font of wisdom. Here’s two that stood out for me:

Black people are naturally talented in music. Black slaves were demanded to perform in dinner parties to entertain the white people. It became their natural talent. It’s hard to find a black person who can’t sing or dance.

Or this:

“Ya know what dignified black people hate?   Tapdancin.”  –Wanda Sykes trying to be funny. There are very few dignified blacks.  Learn how to speak first.  And try not to spend the welfare money on booze and cigarettes.

Yeah. Moving on.

The reason I bring this up is because Orogenes have this natural, deep reservoir of power, power that’s controlled by others. The three main characters are all, at some point, have to answer to forces beyond themselves. When they finally do exercise their own powers, the earth itself literally trembles.

The Fifth Season has a lot going for it. You can read it on the surface level, and enjoy it for the story and the fantastic writing alone. It’s easy to read it that way. But like Orogenes, the book’s power runs deep. And that, more than any other reason, is why this is a memorable, worthy read, one that should place it among the firmament of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest novels.

Book Review: Zero World by Jason Hough

The common thread through this whole action-packed sci-fi novel, Zero World by Jason Hough is, in a word, mystery.

Peter Caswell is an assassin who works for a mysterious organization. But he’s no ordinary assassin, because his memory of the mission gets wiped every time, leaving him with no memory – or guilt – of those who he killed. Who did he kill, and why? He doesn’t know – and he doesn’t want to know.

The book begins when his employer assigns him to investigate a spaceship that mysteriously disappeared and has since re-appeared. Its entire crew – save one person – mysteriously turns up dead. And that one person? Missing, of course.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, suffice it to say that it’s a page turner because author Jason Hough is adept at leaving a trail of questions for the reader. As soon as something is revealed, another mystery pops up in its place.

The writing is excellent – it’s simple and straightforward. The characters are fleshed out, and the action scenes are thrilling without becoming sodden from too many details that so many authors love to inject in them. If you start reading this book, make sure you have a few hours to kill, because it’s awfully hard to put down.

Thematically, it explores self-identity. Peter doesn’t want to remember anything about his past life, and another character has to wear a mask in order to survive, and a third character projects to be someone she is not. In each case, they’re forced to confront their own sense of self and their preconceived notions on how things ought to be. Since who they want to be and who they actually are come into conflict, it helps drive the plot. Hough gives us just enough of this element to make his characters feel developed and three-dimensional, but not so much that it drags down the story.

Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book via giveaway. If I didn’t like the book, or thought it was just all right, I wouldn’t be leaving this review. This book is legit, y’all.