Diversity Done Right: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Full Disclosure: To avoid spoiling the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, this blog post will be vague in parts. Sorry. Go read the series!

I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing, but all to real for readers of color. When I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I made the mistake of not clearly reading the physical descriptions of the character Akiva. I was enjoying the story, inhaling the gripping twists and turns that I did what many readers do – defaulted in my mental picture of Akiva (i.e. White guy). It wasn’t until I was reading the last book of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, that I realized my error. There was a description of him that brought me up short. I stopped, read the line again, and my mental picture changed. I grabbed the first book in the series and scanned looking for physical descriptions and bam, found my error. I had read the words, but did not truly take in what skin tone the descriptions meant.

I imagined this….

Because I'm a HP fan.

Because I’m a HP fan.

Now I picture this….

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While I can’t fault the author for my misinterpreting, I think if she had included a few more physical descriptions, I think I would have caught my mistake earlier. She clearly described the main female character, Karou, many times so the reader could create a full mental picture, but with Akiva, the descriptions are few and somewhat vague. It is really easy to see how in this instance, a reader could default. There have been many discussions about how much description a writer should use when writing a character of color; the debate being giving too much description or is it “othering” to only describe characters of color. I am in the camp of that a writer should be specific in their descriptions and to repeat a few times throughout the novel. Let us be aware of what the characters look like, otherwise we will default to the Eurocentric standards of beauty.

In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Laini Taylor changed up her tactic and spent more time giving character descriptions, repeating them sometimes in beautiful ways to make sure the reader know that the characters that inhabit the world of her story are very diverse. The novel takes place in different places in our world and on an entirely different world, but all the people in both worlds are made of a variety of colors. By making sure both her worlds were reflective of the racial diversity of our world, the book felt more grounded in reality (as much as she can make it). This attention to detail in her character descriptions made the book extremely enjoyable to me. I liked knowing that in a major event in our world, all the people would be represented, and that even in a different world, the different colors are all represented as well.

Another aspect of the novel, a “Diversity Surprise” moment, was that Taylor also made one of the major characters a Black woman. I actually sat up and read the description twice because I was so happy to see this character included. I loved that a Black character was included in the ensemble and that the focus was not on her being Black, but other things which I can’t say because….

River-Song-Spoilers
But I will say that Taylor wrote her character to perfection as she was a real character where we learned more about her fears, her hopes, her dreams, instead of focusing just on her race. When authors ask “how do I write a character of color,” the aspects of the character’s personality is what they should focus on, not just a character’s race. A writer still should address it someone, after all, race does color how one views the world, but do so sparingly as dealing with racial issues is not something a POC worries about 24/7. For example, Taylor has Eliza describing her interactions with a hostile co-worker, she writes, “Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, and because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan”. Talk about your intersectionality laid out in one sentence! Taylor has lines like this peppered throughout out Eliza’s narrative, but it is not the focus of her story, it is just Eliza’s observations that she has from time to time. Those little moments, those small comments, will show that a writer has done his/her homework when creating a character of color and will make the character read like a real person instead of a stereotype.

I’m sad that Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series has come to an end because I really did love its epic story. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who also loves plot twists that keep you reading well past your bed time, and characters that make morally gray decisions in order to survive. The story is gritty in it’s realness in regards to war and doesn’t hold back with the darkness just because it’s considered a YA novel. I fully respect authors who don’t insult the intelligence of the teen reader and my respect for Laini Taylor has grown three-fold with her creation of a truly diverse world.

Seriously, go buy this series.  You will not be disappointed.

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December Releases

On Mondays we usually post New Releases for the coming week, but to allow for a brief break, today I’m posting all of the releases that we know of for the rest of the month. We will resume our regular New Release posting schedule in January. Watch for these upcoming titles throughout the month.

CyCy in Chains by David L. Dudley
Clarion Books

Release Date: Dec. 17th

Summary: Cy Williams, thirteen, has always known that he and the other black folks on Strong’s plantation have to obey white men, no question. Sure, he’s free, as black people have been since his grandfather’s day, but in rural Georgia, that means they’re free to be whipped, abused, even killed. Almost four years later, Cy yearns for that freedom, such as it was. Now he’s a chain gang laborer, forced to do backbreaking work, penned in and shackled like an animal, brutalized, beaten, and humiliated by the boss of the camp and his hired overseers. For Cy and the boys he’s chained to, there’s no way out, no way back. And then hope begins to grow in him, along with strength and courage he didn’t know he had. Cy is sure that a chance at freedom is worth any risk, any sacrifice. This powerful, moving story opens a window on a painful chapter in the history of race relations. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

ControlControl by Lydia Kang
Dial/Penguin

Release Date: Dec. 26th

When a crash kills their father and leaves them orphaned, Zel knows she needs to protect her sister, Dyl. But before Zel has a plan, Dyl is taken by strangers using bizarre sensory weapons, and Zel finds herself in a safe house for teens who aren’t like any she’s ever seen before—teens who shouldn’t even exist. Using broken-down technology, her new friends’ peculiar gifts, and her own grit, Zel must find a way to get her sister back from the kidnappers who think a powerful secret is encoded in Dyl’s DNA.

A spiraling, intense, romantic story set in 2150—in a world of automatic cars, nightclubs with auditory ecstasy drugs, and guys with four arms—this is about the human genetic “mistakes” that society wants to forget, and the way that outcasts can turn out to be heroes. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

warriorWarrior by Ellen Oh
Harper Teen

Release Date: Dec. 31st

Warrior (Kira, the yellow-eyed demon slayer who protected her kingdom in Prophecy, is back . . . and her dramatic quest is far from over. After finishing Ellen’s first novel, Prophecy, School Library Journal said they were “ready for a sequel.” Well, here it is Filled with ancient lore and fast-paced excitement, this page-turning series is perfect for fantasy and action fans.

Kira has valiantly protected her kingdom–and the crown prince–and is certain she will find the second treasure needed to fulfill the Dragon King’s prophecy. Warrior boasts a strong female hero, romantic intrigue, and mythical creatures such as a nine-tailed fox demon, a goblin army, and a hungry dragon with a snarky attitude. — cover and summary via Indiebound

real as it getsReal As It Gets by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
K-Teen

Release Date: Dec. 31st

She can uncover the biggest celebrity secrets. But now Maya Morgan’s hottest story ever is way too up-close-and-personal . . .

For once, everything in Maya’s life is falling perfectly into place. She’s getting serious media cred uncovering the source of a new designer drug doing major glitterati damage. And the new man in her life is giving Maya all the cool bling and attention she craves off-camera. But the truth behind her scoop is about to cut too close to home–and put Maya and her family in the crosshairs. Soon, she’ll have to decide just how far she can afford to go to save her family, her career. . .and herself. — Cover image via IndieBound & summary via Amazon

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Review: Sorrow’s Knot

Sorrow's Knot

Title: Sorrow’s Knot
Author: Erin Bow
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 342
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: At the very edge of the world live the Shadowed People. And with them live the dead.

There, in the village of Westmost, Otter is born to power. She is the proud daughter of Willow, the greatest binder of the dead in generations. It will be Otter’s job someday to tie the knots of the ward, the only thing that keeps the living safe.

Kestrel is in training to be a ranger – one of the brave women who venture into the forest to gather whatever the Shadowed People can’t live without. It will be Kestrel and her sister rangers who stand against whatever dark threat might slip through the ward’s defenses.

And Cricket wants to be a storyteller – already he shows the knack, the ear – and already he knows a few dangerous secrets.

But something is very wrong at the edge of the world.

Willow’s power seems to be turning inside out. The ward is in danger of falling. And lurking in the shadows, hungry, is a White Hand – the most dangerous of the dead, whose very touch means madness, and worse. —(Summary and image from author’s site)

Review: I fell in love with this book from the second page, which is such a rare experience for me that I actually had to reread the opening scene to make sure of my feelings.

The world of Sorrow’s Knot is a fascinating and ahistorical creation that borrows from Native American, Celtic, and Japanese folklore. Erin Bow did a lot of research in order to build this world, and the effort shows in everything from the food to the houses to the descriptions of the drums and drumming. Perhaps what I love most is that Bow trusts the readers to learn from context anything that’s unfamiliar instead of assuming they won’t get it.

That allows Bow to focus on the actual prose, which is spectacular. There were times I wanted to stop and read the book aloud, just so I could hear the rhythm of the words. Stories and storytelling are of major importance in the book, and Bow wrote a book that sounds like old fairytales, if that makes any sense. (You can read an excerpt here.) This is a book where you can really luxuriate in the world and the atmosphere the author creates for you. The descriptions of the scaffolds and the dead (particularly the White Hand) are all the right sorts of eerie, and I appreciated how wide and full of unknowns the world felt.

Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket are a fantastic power trio who are all competent, intelligent, and courageous. Their banter—and Kestrel and Cricket’s romance—was adorable, and I had no trouble believing that these were friends who would break taboos or go to the end of the world for one another. The depth of their trust, love, and respect for each other made the first half of the book compelling despite the comparatively slow build of the plot. Most of the other important characters felt like people in their own right and not just accessories to the main trio.

In other books, I would probably complain about the relative lack of explicit rules for the magic, but the magic meshes well with the world and the storytelling style. While the solution to the story was a bit too simple for my tastes, I was ultimately satisfied by the characters’ trials, journeys, and sacrifices that made that solution possible.

Recommendation: Buy it now. Sorrow’s Knot was easily one of my favorite books this year. (With Christmas around the corner, there are people on my shopping list who may very well end up owning this book.) The world is rich, the characters are believable, and the prose is moving and mesmerizing. I’m definitely looking forward to future works by Erin Bow.

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Review: The Bitter Kingdom

Bitter
Title: Bitter Kingdom
Author: Rae Carson
Genre: Epic/Heroic Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 433
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Review Copy: Edelweiss Digital ARC
Availability: August 27, 2013

Summary: The epic conclusion to Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she’s never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads.

Background Info: If you haven’t started this series, here is a video that will give you an overview of the first book and the general direction of the series.

Review: In the first book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa is a tentative sixteen year old trying to figure out how to be “the chosen one” for her people and wondering if she’s up to the task. There is also a significant amount of romance involved. In The Crown of Embers, Elisa’s confidence increases as she takes on more leadership and continues to grow into her responsibilities, her abilities and her relationships. Finally, in The Bitter Kingdom, Elisa’s country has been brought to the brink of a civil war. Within the conflict, Elisa has the opportunity to show her many facets: Queen, Godstone bearer, the chosen one, sorcerer, woman, friend, lover, and horse thief. By the way, that last one is not really something Elisa enjoys since horses are one of her fears, but she will do whatever it takes to achieve her goals.

Elisa has many talents, but she is not perfect by any means. She makes plenty of mistakes along the way – typically due to her impatience. Fortunately, she loves to learn and most importantly she has a close circle of companions who watch out for her and help keep her on track. What really stands out in all three books is the relationships both romantic and otherwise. Elisa and her travel companions trust each other to the point that they have meaningful conversations that are open and painfully honest at times. Over time, Mara, Elisa’s handmaiden, becomes much more than a servant. They become confidants. This is a tight-knit group, but they are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of those around them and they don’t just ignore a misstep. Hector, the man Elisa loves, is not above questioning Elisa when he fears her impulses are in control. They also show their faith in each other, pointing out and applauding strengths.

Though the adventures and discussions are often serious, Carson also allows room for humor. Elisa does sarcasm well and there are even some awkward and funny moments amid the romance. Speaking of romance…wow! I can’t tell much for fear of spoiling things, but if you have read the first two, you know that Carson writes romance beautifully. She balances very realistic situations and concerns with a healthy dose of sensuality. What sets her apart is how she manages to do this without making it all about sex. The focus remains firmly on developing the whole relationship. The physical aspect of the relationship is certainly significant, but it does not overwhelm the other parts.

Unlike some trilogies, this series started out very good and then each book was better than the last. The Bitter Kingdom is a fast paced adventure with chases, fights, sorcery, erupting volcanos, and much more. Rae Carson shared intriguing characters that draw readers into the story and keep them wanting more.

Recommendation: If you have already read the first two books, you will want to get this as soon as it is available on August 27th. If you haven’t, you need to grab The Girl of Fire and Thorns to go ahead and get started. Probably you should just get all three because you are likely to want to read them in quick succession. For fantasy lovers, this is a must read.

 

 

 

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Review: Prophecy

prophecyTitle: Prophecy
Author: Ellen Oh
Pages: 312
Genre: fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: library
Availability: January 2, 2013

Summary: Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope… Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king. [Summary and image via Goodreads]

Review: When I read the little blurb on the cover (“One girl will save us all.”), I couldn’t help hearing Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender’s voiceover. Prophecy, like Avatar, is pretty epic. And like Avatar, world-building is definitely one of its strengths.

The fantasy setting of Prophecy is a refreshing change from the usual dime-a-dozen medieval European setting. Prophecy is set in Hansong, which is inspired by ancient Korea. Hansong, as one of seven kingdoms, is drawn into conflict with other nations such as Yamato when the demons begin to invade. With the heroine Kira as cousin to the prince of Hansong, you get to see the royal court at work. The only issue I had was with the politics, which was a little overwhelming at first, but once I got into the story, I figured it out.  From the setting to the tone, Prophecy has a rock solid setting for Kira’s journey.

Kira herself is fantastic. It’s always great to see a heroine at the center of an epic fantasy. The plot — fulfill the prophecy! find magical treasures! — is nothing new, but Kira brings it to life with her spirit and determination as she fights to protect the prince and the kingdom. And I love the addition of the trusty dog Jindo. Every quest needs an adorable (and surprisingly clever) dog along for the ride.

With its tightly written fantasy setting and fierce heroine, Prophecy is a great addition to the fantasy genre. I look forward to reading the sequel next year.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you love fantasy.

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Review: Vessel

VesselTitle: Vessel
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Genres: Fantasy, Heroic
Pages: 424
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books
Review Copy: Received as a birthday gift
Availability: September 11, 2012 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice: She must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate — or a human girl can muster some magic of her own. –(Summary and image via the author’s site)

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed Vessel, and that was largely due to the world building and Liyana. Durst did an excellent job of creating a desert-dwelling culture, and the book was sprinkled with fun details about the tents, clothing, animals, critters, and food. (I will admit that the food wasn’t always fun, but I suppose eating snakes is a better alternative to starving.) This attention to detail—from the embroidery on Liyana’s dress to the preparations our heroes take for incoming sandstorms—grounds the world and makes it feel lived in. This is especially helpful since there’s a bunch of mystical stuff going on. In addition to Korbyn, the tribes have magicians of their own, and this world is one filled with wolves made of sand, dragons made of not-actually-glass, monstrous silkworms, and the Dreaming (afterlife/world of gods). Some of these mystical elements and their impact on the plot are more fuzzy/arbitrary than I’d like, but I could accept them.

Liyana and Korbyn, and even the Emperor to some extent, make the world even richer through the sharing of fairytale-esque stories (which, since this is a fantasy book, are not entirely made up). Many of the stories are about the desert gods, but some are about the empire’s gods or even mortals. Some of them were pure indulgence; others revealed characters, world building, or history; and yet others were used by the characters to teach or debate within the book. I loved these stories.

Durst spends a lot of time on the nature of the vessels and their sacrifice, and these moments are particularly poignant. Some vessels are fanatically devoted to their god and their tribe; others are terrified and don’t want to die. Liyana falls along “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line—she’s not thrilled to die, but she knows that her tribe needs her goddess, Beyla, in order to survive the Great Drought. It’s particularly wrenching when Liyana says goodbye to her family or whenever she thinks about the extra time she’s been given only because her goddess has disappeared.

I have one major complaint about the book, and that would be the last moment romantic rival—and it’s not even really a rivalry as Durst avoids any competition/jealousy between the boys. Much of the book is devoted to the kind-of-sort-of-not-vocalized romance between Liyana and Korbyn. (Things are complicated—Korbyn is Beyla’s lover, but a mutual attraction between him and Liyana grows over the course of the book.) I was taken by surprise when a certain character expressed interest in Liyana, though that plotline won me over by the end due to a combination of 1) already enjoying that character and 2) the sheer practicality of it all.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Liyana, Korbyn, and the other main characters are an enjoyable and complicated ensemble, and the world they inhabit is as magical as it is dangerous. I loved the world, and the story was a solid quest with fun characters, lots of peril, a not-too-angsty romance, and occasional armies.

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