Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles

As its Black history month, I wanted to write only reviews of black speculative fiction. This partially because in the last two or three years, science fiction and fantasy’s crisis of race has become more apparent. Although I only joined the science fiction community in relatively recent years, I know that discussions of race have been part of SFF’s slowly growing presence on the internet. SFF’s issues specifically with blackness have not always been so openly discussed. When Fireside Fiction published its Black Spec Fic report in early 2017, I was horrified to find out that only 2.9% of the published science fiction community that published stories in 2016 were black . That’s not just a bad number — its a terrible number.

I’m a white cis lesbian. As Clayton says: no amount of “wokeness” will allow me to decode the nuances of this novel. It is, moreover, not my place to take up space to talk about this novel when there are black reviewers out there far more deserving.

So, instead of posting a review, I’m going to do a quick note on this book.

I wish I had seen more discussion of how this book handled queerness before I read it. This book engages with the Bury Your Gays trope. I started reading this book totally unaware of how this book was going to use this trope, and I wish I had been warned.

The Belles is a book about suffering, pain and cruelty disguised as a book rich with fashion, food and colors. The lavish descriptions, emphasis on physical appearances and adoration of aesthetics were fascinating. The world-building was immaculate. And, while Clayton clearly tried to set up a fictional world in which queerness was normalized, she didn’t quite manage to execute her vision. Two sapphic characters are either publicly ridiculed for their queerness — Camille finds old newspaper articles which mock the Queen for her preference of her female lover over the king, and imply her inability to have a child is a moral failing — or murdered. The third sapphic character is the villain.

As a caveat, this is also a world where slavery is normalized. Perhaps the surface level of “queerness is okay,” only to be dismissed and ridiculed in a more complex system, was part of Clayton’s worldbuilding. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. I just invite queer readers to approach this with caution.


The Politics of a Retelling: Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

When I read a book that I don’t like, I will often seek out the bad reviews on Goodreads. What did other people who only rated this with two or three stars think about it? Why did they think that? And so, when I was reaching the 90% mark on Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I was still frustrated and bored, I thought to check out the other two star ratings.

Big mistake.

Continue reading “The Politics of a Retelling: Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns”

The Problem of the Squandered Female Character: The Tethered Mage

The Tethered Mage, by Melissa Caruso, was not a book on my radar until Liz Burke tweeted about it some time in September. I made a note of it, and moved on. Then, Liz Burke reviewed it; she described it as a “Venetianesque fantasy”, and immediately my ears perked up. As an English Major who grew up predominantly in Oxford, England, cultures steeped in old tradition always fascinate me. Talk to me about your culture’s colonialism, their sea-faring power, and “cosmopolitan cities built on trade and conquest, ruled by an oligarchy with some democratic elements” (emphasis my own, quote from Liz Burke). And then, I found out that the book revolves around Lady Amalia Cornaro, the heir to one of the oligarchies, and Zaira, a powerful fire mage who gets trapped by complicated magic, and eternally tethered to Amalia. It looked like my exact cup of tea; women who learn to support and uphold each other, despite class and personality differences, and ultimately become a fighting duo.

This book disappointed me. Continue reading “The Problem of the Squandered Female Character: The Tethered Mage”