Review: Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

KaleidoscopeTitle: Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
Editors: Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 437
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy and science fiction stories.

What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage life.

Review: Science-fiction and fantasy are my favorite genres, but I’ve been painfully aware of how few people like me survived an apocalypse, let alone got to be the main character. So it comes as no surprise that I did a mental fist pump when I came across “A Note From the Editors” in Kaleidoscope:

“…in some ways this is a purely selfish drive: we want to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read. But it’s not limited to that; we also want everyone else to have the chance to see themselves, and we want to see stories about people who aren’t like us.”

Oh, does Kaleidoscope deliver. It’s filled with all sorts of diversity—racial, ability, sexuality—and several stories feature characters who are diverse in more than one way. There are people of color who have disabilities (“Signature” by Faith Mudge), LGBTQ characters who deal with mental illness (“Ordinary Things” by Vylar Kaftan), and a host of other intersectional combinations. Many of these stories don’t have their diverse characters exist in isolation, either. Throughout the 400+ pages of this anthology, the writers have resisted the white/straight/cis/able-bodied-character-as-default way of thinking and have created rich, vibrant worlds that are much closer to representing the real world in spite of the SFF trappings than many other books I’ve read.

Perhaps the best part about this Kaleidoscope is how genuinely entertaining these stories are. Editors Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios did an excellent job of curating this anthology. There are dystopian societies, time-travelling, parallel universes, superheroes, mythology tie-ins, aliens, and more. Chances are, if you’re at all interested in SFF, you’ll find a story in here that you’ll love.

As in all anthologies, not every story is perfect. Some stories simply don’t linger once you’re finished with them, but I don’t remember disliking any of them in particular. My personal favorites were some of the darker ones: “The Legend Trap” by Sean Williams, “Krishna Blue” by Shveta Thakrar, “Walkdog” by Sofia Samatar, and “The Day the God Died” by Alena McNamara. Some of these stories have triggering content, such as suicidal thoughts, violent deaths, or homophobic slurs (“Celebration” by Sean Eads is set in a conversion therapy center). I should note that the anthology as a whole is not all grim—it has a good mix of fun, lighthearted stories, too.

Recommendation: Buy it now. (Or, if you have a U.S. mailing address, you could enter to win a copy below.) Kaleidoscope features a great mix of twenty stories with diverse characters. The variety of stories is a great thing for people who like to read widely in the SFF genres, as I do.

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Mini-Review: Hungry

hungryTitle: Hungry
Author: H.A. Swain
Genres:  Dystopian, SciFi
Pages: 372
Publisher: Fiewel and Friends
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In the future, food is no longer necessary—until Thalia begins to feel something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. She’s hungry.

In Thalia’s world, there is no need for food—everyone takes medication (or “inocs”) to ward off hunger. It should mean there is no more famine, no more obesity, no more food-related illnesses, and no more war. At least that’s what her parents, who work for the company that developed the inocs, say. But when Thalia meets a boy who is part of an underground movement to bring food back, she realizes that most people live a life much different from hers. Worse, Thalia is starting to feel hunger, and so is he—the inocs aren’t working. Together they set out to find the only thing that will quell their hunger: real food.

Review: I admit that the premise of Hungry sounds both interesting and a bit far-fetched at the same time. The concept of having meal replacements is not a new concept in science fiction, but it is one that if the science isn’t done right can be very unbelievable. In her novel, Swain almost makes it work. She provides the science of how it works; society takes a substance called Synthamil that is calibrated for every person’s specific nutritional needs. The reason for the Synthamil is that there was a war over food, hence food shortages, and Synthamil was the answer. Therefore, one can assume that in Thalia’s world there has been a population explosion which immediately made me wonder “what about the poor folk?” And this is where Swain’s premise gets deep and the book becomes less about the fact that people don’t eat food but the social inequalities that exist because of it. At it’s core, Hungry is a study of the “Have” and the “Have Nots” as Thalia learns that the privilege life she has lived comes at a cost. By becoming involved with Basil (one of my critiques was the food names for people) Thalia is able to see how the other-half lived and really see how controlled her society has become.

While I enjoyed the novel and felt that it moved at a good pace, I was thrown out at times because I questioned a bit of the world building. I wondered how far into the future the novel took place because based on small clues given, it seems like Thalia could be my future granddaughter’s generation. If that is the case, some of the science Swain includes, such as Thalia’s genetic mutation for hunger, doesn’t work. In fact, Thalia’s mother is the inventor of Synthamil therefore making the product a fairly recent change. Because of that, I couldn’t believe that a society could completely change from one dependent on food (and the controls that went with it) to one without. I feel with Synthamil being so recent in Thalia’s world, that more people would be resistant and still feel hunger. I feel that Swain’s premise was an interesting one and attempted to ask questions about fairness and privilege, but her science just didn’t fully work. And when one is writing a science fiction/dystopian novel, one’s science really needs to work.

Recommendation: Borrow it

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Review: Of Metal and Wishes

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Title:  Of Metal and Wishes
Author:  Sarah Fine
Genres: gothic, romance
Pages: 320
Publisher:  Margaret K. McElderry Books
Review Copy: the publisher
Availability: August 5th, 2014

Summary: There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her … for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her … and she might go down with it. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When I first started Of Metal and Wishes, I had to stop after three pages. Within those few pages, I was so strongly reminded of the 20th century Chinese stories and dramas I had to read in college that I couldn’t continue — it was that overwhelming feeling of reading nostalgia (that’s a thing, right?). I didn’t resume reading until a week later. When I did, I sat down and burned straight through it.

In Of Metal and Wishes, Wen struggles to adjust to her new life living in the factory compounds with her father, as a shipment of Noor workers arrive. When Wen’s wish to the factory ghost goes horribly wrong, Wen discovers that there is so much more to the factory, and the Noor workers… The writing vividly evokes the life Wen lives in the Gochan One slaughterhouse, both through voice and imagery.

Now I have to admit that this book hits all of my weak spots — ghosts, mechanical spiders, and family. And a gothic retelling of Phantom of the Opera? Sounds good to me. I came for the ghost story and stayed for the, well, detailed world building, multi-dimensional characters, and political conflicts. Issues of discrimination and labor rights are woven in among the drama of Wen’s encounters with the ghost of Gochan One, and her budding romance.

Who Wen will fall for is obvious from the get-go. She locks eyes with Melik, the mysterious jade-eyed Noor, and you know they’ll be in true love soon enough. It’s very much in the proud YA tradition of love-at-first-sight between a girl and the mysterious hot guy who stands out from the crowd. Of Metal and Wishes is advertised on the back cover as a “love story like no other,” but, to my mind, it wasn’t the most compelling aspect of the book.

In recent years, I’ve grown weary (and wary) of “Asian inspired” fantasy and sci fi books that end up being 70% cultural appropriation and names straight out of the dictionary. I was relieved and happy to find that Of Metal and Wishes is, as far as I can tell, not one of those books. Research has gone into this book and it shows, through subtle details and solid writing.

 

Of Metal and Wishes is definitely a book to put on your to-read list. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel (!!) when it comes out. 

Recommendation: Get it soon (er, when it comes out on August 5th, 2014 anyway)

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Book Review: Rebellion (Tankborn #3)

Rebellion FCTitle: Rebellion (Tankborn #3)
Author: Karen Sandler
Genres: Fantasy/SF
Pages: 396
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: June

Summary: In this final installment of the Tankborn series, Kayla has been kidnapped by the group that has been bombing GEN warehouses, and she must pretend to sympathize with them in order to escape.

In the wake of a devastating bomb blast, severely injured Kayla has been brought to the headquarters of the organization that planted the bomb-and many others like it in GEN food warehouses and homes. Her biological mother tells her that Devak is dead and that Kayla must join her in the terrorist group, which is ramping up for something big. Now Kayla must pretend that she embraces this new role in an underground compound full of paranoia as she plots a way to escape and save her friends. Meanwhile, Devak has emerged from his healing in a gen-tank, only to be told that Kayla is dead and his family has fallen from grace. Can he overcome his grief at the loss of his power to see the clues that point to Kayla being alive? As Kayla and Devak overcome the multiple obstacles put between them while trying to free GENs without further bloodshed, the Tankborn trilogy rushes to a thrilling conclusion!

Review:  Being the third and concluding book of a series about teenagers working to over throw a system of oppression, I expected Rebellion to be about the big battles of a revolution, but instead it is more of a story about two people fighting for their love against the individuals who wish to keep them apart. I was quite surprised that the ending of the Tankborn series was actually not about a global revolution but a personal fight for freedom; the ability to make one’s own choices.  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but as I continued to read and get more involved with Kayla’s and Devak’s struggle, I enjoyed the change from a “rebel against society” to a personal rebellion. Both Kayla and Devak have been manipulated by two different factions, the FHE and the Kinship respectively, who want to use the teens for their own means. Instead, because both Kayla and Devak are smart, neither really trust what they’ve been told and set out to discover the truth. This sets in motion the personal rebellion by each to find the other. This key change, this personal struggle for freedom, made me really enjoy Sandler’s novel. In a landscape of books about teens challenging and winning against an corrupt government, to have two young people who just want to be together and work hard to achieve that goal was refreshing.

Sandler doesn’t make the journey easy for both Kayla and Devak and both experience setbacks in their search. Maybe I’m sick and like to see characters suffer, but if the journey to find each other had been to easy (as the love story is in some books) then the pay off would not have been worth it. Through the first two books Kayla and Devak learned that rebellion against society is hard and comes with a price, and in Rebellion, both learn that the same costs come with fighting for one’s own freedom. Both experience some losses, but their determination to be free from the organizations who wish to use them and be able to love each other, is what keeps them fighting. I loved that aspect of both of their characterizations and it felt realistic. It took them two books to realize how much they love each other and in this book, they were willing to do something about it. I really loved this aspect of the story and rooted for Kayla’s and Devak’s happy ending.

Like the other two books, Sandler’s world is just as engrossing as ever. In Rebellion, the story takes on a broader scope and we travel with Devak, and Kayla to a certain extent, to the outer areas of Svarga and even spend some time in the Badlands. The way Sandler writes her world, it feels so real, that when I was done reading I wasn’t ready to leave Kayla and Devak. In fact, I’m hoping that Sandler is willing to write a fourth book, or even another book set in this unique world. The way she describes Svarga, including all the little details, makes me imagine that Kayla’s & Devak’s world actually exists somewhere in this wide universe of ours.

Recommendation: If you haven’t read the series, go buy it and if you’re anxiously awaiting Rebellion – get it as soon as it comes out.

P.S. I just adore the cover. I could stare at it all day. It’s just that beautiful.

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Review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

ashalaTitle: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (The Tribe #1)
Author: Ambelin Kwaymullina
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: the lovely library
Availability: April 8th 2014 in the USA, July 2012 in Australia

Summary: The Reckoning destroyed civilisation. Rising from the ashes, some people have developed unique abilities, and society is scared of them. Guided by the ancient spirits of the land, Ashala Wolf will do anything to keep them safe.

When Ashala is captured, she realises she has been betrayed by someone she trusted. When her interrogator starts digging in her memories for information, she doubts she can protect her people forever. Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: True to its title, Ashala Wolf is a captive of a detention center that holds Illegals like her — people with abilities such as changing the weather, causing earthquakes, starting fires, and healing. After the Reckoning that destroyed the environment and civilization, a new civilization arose — one that attempts to maintain the Balance to prevent yet another Reckoning. In the name of maintaining the Balance, the government tests, targets, and captures children with certain abilities. As leader of a tribe of young Illegals, Ashala Wolf is determined to save her tribe and survive her interrogation.

Reading The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, I almost forgot it was about a dystopian future. The detention centers, the illegal status of certain people, and the political machinations reminded me of current issues — illegal immigration, deportation, discrimination and so on. It was a harsh reminded that fiction holds up a mirror to life. Dystopias are not such a stretch, when you take a good hard look at injustices today.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a breath of fresh air in YA dystopia land. Instead of the usual white-girl-vs-the-government, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is casually populated with people of all skin tones. The mentions of nature, such as the Tuart forests, and the Saurs, add dimension to the setting. And the worldbuilding is strong and believable, with just the right hint of the ancient and supernatural to get things going.

While The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf relies heavily on flashbacks to tell the story, it actually works — I read straight through the whole book in one sitting. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the sequel.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

And the author Ambelin Kwaymullina addressing whitewashed covers

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Book Review: Grim

grimTitle: Grim
Author: Julie Kagawa, Malinda Lo, Ellen Hopkins, Amanda Hocking & More
Genres: Fantasy/SF
Pages: 474
Publisher: HarlequinTeen
Review Copy: Purchased by Amazon
Availability: On Shelves now

Summary: Inspired by classic fairy tales, but with a dark and sinister twist, Grim contains short stories from some of the best voices in young adult literature today.

Review: Short story anthologies are becoming popular again, specifically YA, as many readers of series are now getting used to authors publishing short stories or novellas between books. These short stories allow readers to spend more time in the world the authors create, thus a market has been born in the YA world for short stories. HarlequinTeen realized this and gathered a group of authors together to write around a common theme – the stories by the Brother’s Grimm.

Unlike the Disney versions of Grims Fairy tales, the short stories in this anthology are anything but fluffy. Some very dark themes are explored such as incest, death, dark magic, and deals with the devil. There is even a story about skin eaters, which…was quite gross. Anyway, it’s somewhat hard to review an anthology because there are some stories that I liked more than others, but overall the fun of reading these stories was how each of the author’s turned their Grims fairytale on it’s head. Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Beauty and the Chad” was a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” where the “Beast” was clearly a spoiled California surfer dude and “Beauty” was from a different time period. Their misunderstandings, and especially Chad’s characterization, had me giggling. Julie Kagawa’s “The Brother’s Piggett” was the Three Pigs, but with a twisted ending that shocked me. Let’s just say, I really felt for the wolf. “Untethered” by Sonia Gensler” was a beautiful story about death and moving on. My favorite, however, was Saundra Mitchell’s “Thinner Than Water” that just knocked me in my gut but had me cheering for the main character at the end. Many of the stories in Grim delve into the darker parts of the human psyche and explore the murky aspects of humanity much like the original Grimm stories did. I love that in all of these stories, made for a YA audience that is usually coddled, do not hold back on the darker themes that teens experience. While these are re-tellings of fairy tales, they did not seem “Disneyish” in the least.

My only wish for this collection, and other anthology collections such as the dystopian anthology titled After, is that it had more diversity in it. First, there were only 2 authors of color represented, which is disappointing, and with the opportunity to rework Jacob’s & Wilhelm’s immortal words, very few authors decided to build diversity into their worlds. To know that there was potential here for authors to stretch themselves, make one of the princess or even the princes a character of color, or set the world in a non-European historical period, is disheartening. All of these authors are excellent storytellers, do not get me wrong I enjoyed all the stories, it’s just I wish in 2014, a book that is all about the re-imagining of classic fairy tales, was reflective of the diverse lives of its readers.

Recommendation: I’m not too sure. If you like short stories and fairy tales, Grim is one to pick up. If you don’t then borrow it.

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