Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

Lately, and quite accidentally, I read three books in a row that involved shapeshifting or similar transformations. I’m going to talk about two of them.

RoAnn Sylver’s Chameleon Moon (kindly loaned to me by Corey Alexander) is a fantasy novel about a trans, queer, and poly found family struggling to survive in a burning city hemmed in by overwhelming surveillance. Nearly everyone left alive in the city has been transformed by the miracle drug Chrysedrine — some people get wonderful, powerful talents, while others get horrible, painful conditions that might as well be magical curses. The story was beautifully built but at times too painfully earnest for me to disappear into like I wanted. Certain scenes were so palpably aware of the presence of the reader: explorations of one character’s newly realized asexuality, for instance, or fierce objections when villain deliberately misgenders a trans family member. The book went out of its way to showcase characters being kind to one another, outside of the demands of plot. I initially read my discomfort as a flaw of the book — as if you’d dropped by a friend’s place casually to say hi and they’d immediately set out the best china and made three of your favorite desserts from scratch. I felt horribly awkward.

Then via NetGalley I received a copy of Masked Possession by Alana Delacroix, a debut in a new paranormal romance series about shapeshifting magical creatures called masquerada who can take on different physical traits and personae, depending on their level of talent and training. The prose is polished and the premise is a novel one for a paranormal. The reviews so far are strongly positive. A lot of people are going to enjoy this book.

I am writing this review for you, the trans reader, wherever you may be. Because I do not think you will enjoy this book. I think it’s going to hurt you and I am writing this review to offer evidence. Continue reading Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

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That Villain Love

“Romance,” says James Scott Bell in Writing Great Fiction: Self-Editing and Revision, “is about the characters trying to get love.”

Every romance writer who reads that will cringe. Getting love? Like it’s a medal you win at the end of a race, or a prize you earn for doing everything correctly? It sounds absurd. It sounds boring. It doesn’t sound like anything I look for when I pick up a romance novel.

This kind of thing comes up over and over, if you read enough books on writing. Here’s Steven James on constructing the opening scene of your manuscript: “If you’re writing a romance story, they [readers] want to see normal life for the young man or woman who’s searching for love.” Again: love as a singular aim. Straight as an arrow. Dull as dishwater.

Off the top of my head, I find it hard to think of many romances where love is the hero or heroine’s one and only desire. “Searching for love” is so painfully vague! On the other hand there are thousands of romance novels where people are desperate to stay away from love—books where a newly blossoming basket of feelings does nothing but cause trouble and mess up everyone’s plans and lives and expectations. Love in a romance is narrative kudzu. It takes root and grows and grows until it engulfs the world.

Think about our favorite tropes: The widowed duke whose history of familial abuse means he keeps his emotions carefully walled away. The governess who simply intends to teach her difficult charge and live a quiet, peaceful life far from the secret scandals of her past. The cupcake-loving heroine who has her hands full running a small bakery and can spare no time for dating. The billionaire who thinks a committed relationship will only slow him down from being a ruthless competitor. Even in that classic romance Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s goal is not really: “search for a loving and worthy partner.” It’s more: “don’t get railroaded into marrying total assholes just to keep from starving.”

It would be far more accurate to say not that romance novel characters are looking to get love, but that love is looking to get them.

Continue reading That Villain Love

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All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

1.

Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it’s holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don’t see it act — we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.

2.

I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. 

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

Did you see the iron filings move?

Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer — Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is “more compassionate.”

But I notice the barista’s still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.

I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I’m not an asshole self-defensive impulse that’s so hard to shake. But even though I’m now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I’ve worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.

Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.

Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.

Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him “wince.” Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more “Hemingwayesque” until he’s left with merely Jane, which, he says, “at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.” Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.

I want to tell you that Saunders isn’t doing this deliberately, even though he’s in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.

Continue reading All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

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Romance for the Resistance: A Primer

It’s so hard to balance principled resistance with self-care and necessary breaks from The Self-Sustaining Dumpster Fire. Sometimes you need direct confrontation with the world, and sometimes you need escape. I’ve been having trouble with purely escapist stuff, though — my brain just seems to slide right off it, sensing the real emergency is elsewhere. I suspect I’m not alone in this, so I’ve compiled the following list of semi-escapist romances.

These are all things I’ve read for fun on my own, so it skews heavily in the direction of m/f historical and historical fantasy — I’ll be adding other lists with broader recs over the course of the year as I dive into my ebook backlog and other places.

  • Daughters of a Nation (Kianna Alexander, Piper Huguley, Lena Hart, Alyssa Cole): This anthology has received plenty of buzz but it’s a privilege to add to the chorus. Alyssa Cole’s Let Us Dream was a personal standout for me (cabaret scene in 1900s New York is my literary catnip) but don’t miss Piper Huguley’s sharp and funny story based on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper‘s real-life daughter and the Washerwomen’s War. I do wish there’d been a content note for sexual assault early in Lena Hart’s opening story — so I’m adding one here.
  • Let it Shine (Alyssa Cole): Civil Rights-era protest romance with a black heroine and a Jewish hero. Heart-wrenching and gorgeous. You know what? Let’s just read all the Alyssa Cole there is.
  • Congress of Secrets (Stephanie Burgis): slow burn historical fantasy romance set in post-Napoleonic Vienna. There is a muzzled press and a secret police and a subplot with an acting troupe that absolutely gutted me. Note: there’s also magical torture that gets reasonably harrowing. I read this right after the election, in that maze of grief and shock and horror, and it was like a thread leading me out of the labyrinth.
  • The Suffragette Scandal (Courtney Milan): an outspoken suffragette with her own newspaper meets a disreputable left-for-dead-once forger intent on revenge. Sparks fly, secrets wound like knives to the gut. Even with my expectations at sky-high huzzah! Courtney Milan! levels, this one surprised and staggered me.
  • Starlight (Carrie Lofty): British-set historical. Astronomer hero. Ignore the gown on the cover — this heroine’s a union organizer in industrial Glasgow. I thought the ending pulled a few punches, but I’m in burn it to the ground mode right now.
  • The Jade Temptress (Jeannie Lin): In addition to being one of my top romances of all time (of. all. time.), this book looks hard at sex work, wage theft, police brutality, classism, and poverty. I wrote a whole spoiler-filled essay comparing this book (favorably!) to King Lear in terms of how it constructs monetary wealth and emotional labor.
  • Blades of the Rose series (Zoe Archer): Four-and-a-novella-book series about a secret society who fights to keep magical artifacts out of the hands of British imperial supremacists. Basically a Victorian Indiana Jones-type arc. Great adventure, sizzling romance, memorable characters (such as brilliant black inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves, hero of book four).

{Disclaimer: I chat occasionally with several of the above authors on Twitter (social media makes fangirling so easy these days) but I was not compensated for any of these recs.}

Updates will be linked here as they appear.

 

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