When I Cast Your Shadow, by Sarah Porter

❧ Title: When I Cast Your Shadow
❧ Author: Sarah Porter
❧ Publisher: Tor
❧ Publication date: 12th September 2017
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦✦✦
Dashiell Bohnacker was hell on his family while he was alive. But it’s even worse now that he’s dead….

After her troubled older brother, Dashiell, dies of an overdose, sixteen-year-old Ruby is overcome by grief and longing. What she doesn’t know is that Dashiell’s ghost is using her nightly dreams of him as a way to possess her body and to persuade her twin brother, Everett, to submit to possession as well.

Dashiell tells Everett that he’s returned from the Land of the Dead to tie up loose ends, but he’s actually on the run from forces crueler and more powerful than anything the Bohnacker twins have ever imagined…
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❝In A Nutshell❞
when I cast your shadow✎ Dead brother appears to his sister in a dream and asks her for permission to possess her, although his method of both asking and opening the doorway leaves much to be desired and Ruby doesn’t realise quite what she’s let herself in for.

✎ Drug-addict brother who’d been clean for six months before his overdose, difficult to love and troubled deeply, and depending on how you read Dashiell he might have been bipolar or something similar. (I chose to read him this way, but it may or may not be canon or intentional!)

✎ Creepy ghosts wanting passage and a foothold in the world of the living, will do pretty much anything they need to make it happen.

✎ Ruby is grieving her brother, hard, and she’s trying her best to reconcile what happened to her brother with the hell Dashiell put his family through before he died. She doesn’t know how to grieve for a brother who was so emotionally unavailable, and Everett isn’t much better, struggling to both understand and quantify his own grief and desperate to convince himself he doesn’t care–about Dashiell or anything, perhaps even himself.

✎ Diverse 🚫 (no clear diversity on the page – I chose to read Dashiell as perhaps having been bipolar, but this isn’t explicit (or even really implicit, for that matter), and it feels ungenuine to say When I Cast Your Shadow represents the marginalisation of MH or NDV, if it actually doesn’t, clearly do so. For all it’s possible that Dashiell was struggling with mental health issues, the fact that he was an addict doesn’t necessarily equate with MH or NDV.)

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❝What I loved❞
✎ The prose is unique and engaging and makes for an engrossing, completely unputdownable read. Between Dashiell being (strangely) utterly enchanting to read and the weirdness of the Land of the Dead and its ghosts, When I Cast Your Shadow is one of the most compelling, different books of 2017. Parts of it are so terribly sad, while others are incredibly poignant and heartfelt, and as the reader, you are given a crash-course in Knowing Dashiell. It’s a pretty different experience to love a character who is already dead, one who has very evidently been hurtful towards his family and yet so charming and capable of so much unconditional love at the same time. We see Dashiell’s actions through several peoples’ points of view, often just anecdotal, and we are given a heartbreakingly wonderful and terrible picture of someone deeply troubled.

✎ I adored most things about this book, but the way it’s written is just so wonderful and so very lyrical and magical in places, whilst being utterly raw and hard in others, and both these styles really shouldn’t go together so well – and yet they do. Part of that makes this book so very, very delightful is the strangeness of it. This book is strange and unusual and I, myself, am strange and unusual – so we got along just fine.

✎ Honestly, I don’t even know what to tell you guys about this book. It’s so … *gestures vaguely yet expansively*. When I Cast Your Shadow is just so utterly yes, filled with heart and darkness and so much unyielding truth, that I couldn’t help but completely fall in love with it. It is like no book I have ever read before and the prose, guys, the prose just delighted and thrilled me and I adored Dashiellthe hurting, broken, wonderful thing that he is. I loved absolutely everything about this book and absolutely wish I could re-read books (I can’t), because this is one I want to read again and again and again.

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❝What I didn’t love❞
✎ No diversity on the page. Always a minus. (Usually I absolutely do not give out five-stars to books without even a lick of diversity in them, clearly stated, or by a marginalised author, buuuut I really did adore this book very, very much and a lot of important themes were handled devastatingly well, and eh, I have these Letting Stuff Slip cards that I get to hand out, and When I Cast Your Shadow was so enjoyable and wonderful, that I didn’t find myself alienated from the story by lack of being visible (in one shape or another), so it gets the card.

 

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 ❝If you liked this…❞
…you might like: As I’ve said, this is a fairly unique book and the prose is what sets it apart, but there’s a somethingness to it that kept me turning the page in a very similar way to Laure Eve’s The Graces, which I absolutely adored but have yet to review, because I am a terrible adhd spoonie thing and my review backlog is longer than Dante’s Inferno.
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[Friday Flash Review] The Blazing Star, by Imani Josey

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❧ Title: The Blazing Star
❧ Author: Imani Josey
❧ Publisher: Wise Ink
❧ Publication date: 6th December 2016
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦.5  (3.5)
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Sixteen-year-old Portia White is used to being overlooked—after all, her twin sister Alex is a literal genius.

But when Portia holds an Egyptian scarab beetle during history class, she takes center stage in a way she never expected: she faints. Upon waking, she is stronger, faster, and braver than before. And when she accidentally touches the scarab again?

She wakes up in ancient Egypt—her sister and an unwitting freshman in tow.

Great.

Mysterious and beautiful, Egypt is more than they could have ever imagined from their days in the classroom. History comes alive as the three teens realize that getting back to the present will be the most difficult thing they’ve ever done. Stalked by vicious monsters called Scorpions, every step in the right direction means a step closer to danger.

As Portia and the girls discover that they’re linked to the past by more than just chance, they have to decide what it truly means to be yourself, to love your sister, and to find your way home.

blazing star❝In A Nutshell❞

 

✎ Time-travel back to Ancient Egypt with magical powers and twins, one of which is very selfish (she is!) and the other constantly pressured into “twinning”. Though the tables are a little flipped/evened out when they are both sent back in time and Portia discovers she has magic. Basically the less “special” twin is cast into the spotlight where she gets to discover more about herself.
✎ Black teenage girls in Ancient Egypt, generally being pretty awesome.
✎ Diverse ☒ (race #ownvoices)
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❝What I loved❞
✎ The setting! Ancient Egypt is one of those settings that is woefully underused, and often when it is visited, it’s usually in movies and ends up being pretty terrible.
✎ The characters. Well, Portia and Selene were my favourites. Seeing Portia claim her own identity and strike out for who she wants to be was one of the best parts of the book. She needs that independence from the twinning and through the events of the book, she begins to realise the courage to go it solo when she wants to.
✎ The plot was engaging and full of intrigue that kept me turning the page. It was fast-paced (for the most part–more on this below) and fun.
✎ Three black girls taking absolute centre stage and owning it and a cast full of women.
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❝What I didn’t love❞
✎ The pacing was great, and then slow and saggy, then great, and then slow and saggy again. There seemed to be whole swathes of the book where nothing happened, then everything happened at once. There was no urgency overall and it made the book less exciting to read than it first started.
✎ The old theme of person gets taken back in time (to Ancient Egypt of all places!) and still keeps up the insistence that there’s some kind of “misunderstanding” or prank going on, instead of actually accepting the rational explanation of, when it looks like you’re in Ancient Egypt, maaaaybe you’re in Ancient Egypt! It didn’t last that long, but long enough to be a little irritating and unrealistic. It felt like a series of scenes from a cliché movie which didn’t work for me.
✎ We’re in Ancient Egypt, but… we could honestly be anywhere else in the world, because I didn’t really feel that we were in Ancient Egypt at all. There seemed to be no descriptions, no depth to the setting. Just costume and occasional set-dressing. I feel that with the short length of the book, we could have really been invited to see more of the setting, especially as that’s what I was looking forward to the most.
✎ The potential love interest/relationship was just… it felt tacked on because, oh, look, gotta have that romance! It didn’t work for me. Not every story needs a romance and this was definitely one of those.
✎ I was inexplicably irked by the constant use of “the freshman” instead of Selene’s name. You don’t just go around referring to someone as the freshman when you know their name. It stuck out in the narrative and was just irritating as heck. You’d say the lieutenant” or “the captain” or even “the priest” etc, but not “the sophomore” or “the freshman” every other word when talking about the character. It happened a lot (or seemed to) which is what made it noteworthy for me. I think it was most annoying because it felt as though a strange distance was being put between Selene and Portia, when that wasn’t expressed in the story itself, so it stood out even more. I mean, it’s a tiny thing, but hey ho.
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❝If you liked this…❞
…then you might also like: Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time. More historical time-travel with great diverse characters, lots of myth and history and so much heart.

Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard

Title: Truthwitch
AuthorSusan Dennard
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication date: 2nd January (US) 14th January (UK)
Rating: ★★★★★

Truthwitch-UK-coverTruthwitch, by Susan Dennard, is the first book I read this year. OK, technically, I read the majority of it last year, since I was kindly given an ARC via NetGalley and started reading it immediately. Fast-forward a few months and add in the old and boring blah-blah-chronic-illness-sucks spiel, and I only just finished it, two weeks ahead of the UK release. (It still counts as an ARC review, OK?! It does!) Anyway, I’d been reading it whenever I could, devouring it—if somewhat less speedily than I’d have liked.

But at least this way I can testify that no matter how you tackle the goodness that is Truthwitch—quickly, and with lots of mocha to get you through those small, wee hours (and the following morning!) so well known to readers who just can’t put a book down; or savoured over time, nibbled and sipped, secreted away in the bathroom over lunch or hidden under your desk when you should be actually at your desk—does not disappoint. And furthermore: the hype is real.

As Dennard said when I interviewed her for Fantasy Faction, the publicity team soon realised that there was already a natural hype building up around Truthwitch, even before the inception of the Witchlanders and Street Teams. I think everyone who sampled even a little piece of Truthwitch, like a tiny piece of cake that makes you go oh my god, knew it was going to be something special. Something big.

And it is. The hype is real.

In Truthwitch, we meet Safiya and Iseult, two Threadsisters—which is going to be the new word everyone is using for BFFs this year—who are so closely linked to one another as to be kin; they are sisters as well as friends as well as a thousand things between. Both are witches—both Aetherwitches—and both are going to change the world.

When one of Safi’s wild schemes goes awry, it doesn’t take long for the girls’ entire worlds to tip upside down, but nothing can prepare them for what lies ahead. Thanks to the tangled and secretive plan her drunk of an uncle is hatching, Safi finds herself at the centre of a very dangerous chain of machinations. She perhaps wouldn’t mind so much (well, she would), if she wasn’t always worried about her secret being discovered—especially when she could be killed for that secret.

Safi is a Truthwitch. She can tell truth from lie, and even though she knows the limitations of such a witchery, the world holds Truthwitches as all-powerful; tools for furthering power and discovering the secrets of their enemies. The last Truthwitch was killed, and Safi will do anything to make sure she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

But thanks to a botched plan of her own, on top of which her uncle has the audacity to dump his own agenda—which doesn’t involve Iseult—Safi finds herself launched into a flight for not only her own survival and freedom, but also the future of an entire nation. Never mind that important things like peace and the world are also at stake, one way or another. Safi has her plate loaded to toppling, and it might just be that she’s alone for the hardest parts.

Iseult is different; not only is she lacking as a Threadwitch, she is Nomasti—hated and reviled for her dark hair and moonlight skin. People guard themselves from evil as she passes, afraid and disgusted by her supposed demon-like pallor. Wherever she goes, she knows she must be careful, remain hidden. So when Safi’s plan goes awry, it is Iseult who pays the heftiest price. Suddenly alone, Iseult is forced to flee from a powerful new enemy, one who might track her to the edge of the world. So she does the only thing she can: she goes home.

Only, things have changed since Iseult last entered the Nomasti camp, hidden beyond a treacherous trail to keep outsiders where they belong. And before long, she is forced to run again—this time, for her life. When the girls eventually reunite, everything has changed and nothing will ever be the same again.

Between a betrothal, the hunting gaze of a fabled Voidwitch and the fate of an entire nation resting on Safi, thus begins a thrilling journey to get Safi to where she needs to go, with or without her consent. With a naval Prince desperate to save his people and a Carawen monk who sees more in the girls than she says, Safi and Iseult might not be in the best of hands.

But one thing is certain: Safi must follow through with her uncle’s plan, else everything could be lost. Caught at the heart of a web she only partially understands and hunted from all sides, Safi must place what little trust she can spare in this bad-tempered Prince and his crew, even if that means giving up everything she and Iseult ever wanted.

However, nothing is ever as it seems, and before long, Safi and Iseult discover that their friendship might just be something the world has been waiting for.

Truthwitch is, above all, a story of friendship and the strength of the bonds we form with one another. It seamlessly expresses the struggles of conflict and responsibility, whilst poignantly exploring difficult issues such as racism and how we see the other, whether through Iseult and her race, or through the presumed evil of magic drawn from the Void.

The characters are extremely real and so relatable. They display real emotions in a way that you should find in every single book ever, but actually often don’t. It’s difficult to present real people as real characters, because sometimes that means said characters saying or doing things entirely out of spite or anger or whatever else is the guiding emotion at the time. But Dennard writes each character seamlessly, like she’s been at this game for years and years and that this isn’t her second series. It reads like it’s her seventieth. Exciting and gripping and with a very deep and tangled plot mixed in with the main storyline of Truthwitch, set to continue on into the rest of the Witchlanders novels, it is a solid foundation for the series. Instead of this being “book one” that starts building the world upon which subsequent books will stand and build further, there already is a world here; vast and colourful and engaging. In many ways, Truthwitch doesn’t even read like a first in a series: it feels like the world has always been here and it is so colourfully presented, so richly woven a tapestry, that we might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve always known the Witchlands.

JBI 5 star chibiTruthwitch is yet another novel that demonstrates the growing power and quality of YA SFF. With diversity and honesty at its heart, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Truthwitch and its characters. Dennard manages to take a could-be complicated and difficult system of magic and politics and makes it all as familiar to us as if we’ve always been privy to the adventures of Safi, Iseult and those they meet, not only creating a tangible world you could almost reach out and touch, but setting the stage for an epic series to follow, with characters you immediately fall in love with.

This whole book is magic.

 

Of Metal and Wishes, by Sarah Fine [Of Metal and Wishes #1]

✎Title: Of Metal and Wishes (Of Metal and Wishes #1)
Author: Sarah Fine
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 5th August 2014
Rating: ★★★

17303139Of Metal and Wishes, by Sarah Fine, is a supernatural-y (or is it?!) ghost story (or is it?!) that immediately introduces a diverse setting with a reimagined Asia. Wen, the daughter of a doctor who works for the owners of a meat factory where immigrant Noors are used as cheap labour, is forced into work at the same factory as her father following her mother’s death and the difficult financial times that follow. At the factory she begins work as her father’s assistant, putting her mother’s carefully-taught stitching to good use as she substitutes fabric for flesh and begins to consider a future in medicine herself.

There is a legend within the factory—the story of a ghost. This Ghost, the spirit of a worker who died on the killing floor seven years ago, is said to grant wishes when an offering is placed at his altar. Wen, of course, does not believe this. She doesn’t believe in the Ghost to whom everyone leaves offerings and speaks their most secret wishes and desires.

But when one of the Noor workers crosses the line and humiliates Wen, she makes a rash wish and demands the Ghost impress her. The Ghost answers her wish in a far more brutal fashion than Wen could imagine. There is blood on Wen’s hands now, even if it was the Ghost who caused the Noor boy harm.

Wen does what she can to help, aiding her father and making sure there is medicine to give the Noor, whose treatment at the hands of Wen’s people is appalling at best and vile at worst. She soon regrets ever making the rash wish. Only, there is a connection forming between Wen and the Ghost whether she likes it or not. Before long, she is discovering the surreal truth about the Ghost—and just why he now haunts the darker places of the factory.

Meanwhile, one of the factory bosses as his eye on Wen: she’s young and pretty and he soon decides to abuse his power and put her in an uncomfortable position out of which she can’t easily wriggle. And Wen’s father is no help, caught up in the cycle of debt that working at the factory creates. She is on her own.

Except that she isn’t… not any more. On the same day that Wen demands the Ghost impress her, a Noor boy catches her eye and soon Wen is finding excuses to see him. Of course fraternising with the Noor is forbidden, but Wen can’t seem to think of the Noor the same way those around her do. She sees into their hearts and past the colours of their skin and hair. She soon realises she might be getting in over her head.

But not before the Ghost takes notice and shows signs of jealousy.

In this eerie and strange retelling of Phantom of the Opera, Wen is forced to grow up and accept adulthood very quickly indeed. Between fending off the unwanted advances of one of the bosses and learning more about the Ghost and his secrets, Wen is falling hard in love—and with someone she could never be with.

Trapped in her situation by her father’s debt to the factory, her own dwindling resources and wracked with guilt over her wish, Wen finds life at the factory difficult. When the Ghost raises the stakes and a terrible murder occurs, she must choose her side and make a stand, lest she regret it forever. And with one lot of blood on her hands, she’s not sure she could stand to face herself if more is spilled.

Of Metal and Wishes is atmospheric and compelling, but I was hoping for more of a supernatural feel to the book. Wen is likeable and relatable, but she is ultimately a little bland and lack lustre. The romance doesn’t really feel very developed, yet neither does it fall entirely flat. The resonances with The Phantom of the Opera are intriguing, but I would have wanted more. More of the Ghost’s obsession with Wen and more eeriness surrounding the Ghost and what he can do. There was something a little lacking in the ending. Ultimately, the book fell short for me because I was expecting something far more haunting and atmospheric.

We are presented with a stark illustration of racism and the commentary is both accurate and repulsive—which is always a sure sign that the topic is being handled correctly.  If reading about racist themes and characters in a book doesn’t make you angry, then the writer isn’t doing it properly. Sarah Fine is. The issues are handled perfectly and Wen’s own views morph and change throughout the book, which is a fantastically realistic of showing how taught views and opinions can shatter and change through one’s own experiences.

Of Metal and Wishes was a good read, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting and I was left a little disappointed in the end. I wanted a ghost story and I didn’t get one. Still, it is deserving of its three stars and highly recommended.

Stolen Songbird, by Danielle L. Jensen [Malediction Trilogy #1]

Title: Stolen Songbird (Malediction Trilogy #1)
Author: Danielle L. Jensen
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Publication date: 3rd April 2014 (UK)
Rating:★★★★

StolenSongbird-144dpiStolen Songbird, by Danielle L. Jensen, is precisely the kind of book I’ve been waiting for from Strange Chemistry. I’ve read urban fantasy, I’ve read science fiction, I’ve read paranormal romance and I’ve read the weird in-between mysteries. But what I’ve not really sampled yet is a really, really excellent fantasy that sweeps me away to another time and place entirely. Stolen Songbird represents the reason I started reading in the first place; books that open up another world and invite you to step right in. Jensen gave me what I’ve been waiting for—she even gift-wrapped it in layers of intrigue, implied mythology and folklore and a genuine insta-hate-insta-love relationship that not only made perfect sense, but was utterly, heart-poundingly addictive.

Cécile is the would-be damsel in distress, kidnapped from her home and her life and taken deep below ground, under a cursed mountain and into a city that she never even believed still existed. Forced into a union against her will and told there is no hope for escape, Cécile finds herself in the delicate position of having absolutely no power, no knowledge to aid her, and nobody to turn to. Until, of course, things slowly begin to change. Soon, Cécile finds herself caught up in a web far larger and vaster than she could ever have imagined and with her options limited, she must learn to play a game of politics so intricate it will take all she has to even learn the basics. All she wants is to escape, but when she realises she might just be the only hope of an entire race she thought were monsters or never existed at all, Cécile begins to reassess her whole life and what she thinks about everything—including her future and that of the very same monsters who keep her captive.

But I said “would-be” damsel in distress. Nothing about Cécile says wilting flower and before long she takes control of her own captivity, devising her own plans and putting into play her own machinations and plots. Cécile does happen to be yet another fiery redhead in YA (what is it with the whole redhead = fiery/feisty equation?) but I’ll overlook it because she totally rocked the show. She is smart, savvy and incredible. She easily adjusts to whatever situation she finds herself in and despite going through all the silly motion that become the pitfalls of stereotyped YA heroines, Cécile admits her silliness, her mistakes, and takes charge of whatever solution is at hand.

On the subject of stereotypes being bent and remoulded, Tristan is a veritable dream when it comes to reminding people that boys can be self-conscious and insecure and feel the weight of expectation and pressure. He isn’t as cold and as strong as he acts and at Cécile’s side, whatever iciness makes up the façade of his exterior is melted away, leaving only that which must remain in order to remain true to plans embroiled in a lifetime’s worth of delicate scheming.

And boy, if this book isn’t packed full with delicate scheming. It has more angles than a protractor set. During her time in the city, Cécile meets people and her opinions begin to change, spiralling out of control until she can do nothing but apply herself to the same cause as Tristian. Except… there are secrets Tristan keeps close to his chest that Cécile cannot fathom, creating an impasse between what they both want and are both working towards. They may think they are working towards the same outcome, but are they sure that they both want exactly the same thing?

When Cécile discovers more about herself than she ever imagined possible, everything changes. There is a fight ahead, a struggle for what she most wants, what she most desires. But to achieve anything, she must do the impossible—she must do what the trolls have failed to do for centuries. But the curse must be broken and now that Cécile knows how, she will stop at nothing; because sometimes, one must do the unthinkable.

I adored this book. It helped that in Tristian, I saw a lot of Cassandra Clare’s Will Herondale, a character I’ve been sorely missing since The Infernal Devices ended. It’s not that the characters are the same, but that the same elements that made me love Will are present in Tristan. And in Cécile, I found my Tessa Grey again. It’s a good feeling and one that made me love Stolen Songbird all the more fiercely, because it felt like returning to the embrace of friends.

I don’t usually coo over romance—sure, I love love—but I don’t go gooey-eyed over couples and their ups and downs often. But Tristan and Cécile hit the spot, pull you in and refuse to let you go. Reading Stolen Songbird saw me just as trapped as Cécile and the trolls under the mountain. The pacing, delivery, the everything was utterly captivating and excellent and even though it’s only January, I can see this book being way up there at the end of the year. The cover is stunning—dark and emotive and the colour scheme is perfect; the hint of architecture in the background; the rose!—and is one of my favourites. I read a paperback ARC of this, but let’s just say this baby is getting bought and shelved, because it’s so pretty and so, so good. Achingly good. In fact: this book hurts it is so perfect.

If you’re looking for a YA fantasy full of magic and mystery and intrigue and romance and wonderful, heartfelt characters that you could easily accept to be trapped under a mountain with, then don’t just read Stolen Songbird—inhale it. Deliciously written in two POVs that are deep and personal and completely intertwined with one another, this book is at once like hot chocolate on a rainy day with a cat on your lap, and a shot of something wicked when you’re feeling wired. There’s nothing I even remotely disliked, and a list as long as most Welsh train station names of things I loved.

Stolen Songbird was a dream to read, a dream to adventure through, and a nightmare to leave. I didn’t want to wake up—and neither will you.

Guest post: Identity in SFF: Appearance Vs Identity – The Pirate’s Wish Blog Tour, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke, author of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish talks about identity and self-image, and whether the latter has to matter in relation to social conformity. In this post she talks about her protagonist and how she falls outside of the usual boundaries set by many legions of thin, pretty YA heroines and social expectations of a particular image. This is a great topic to cover; a gentle reminder that self-image and worth are intrinsic, regardless of gender. Naji has issues with his appearance; Ananna does not. It’s a great turning of the tables and I’m incredibly happy to have Cassandra here speaking about it.

20130528-180249.jpgThe main character of The Assassin’s Curse books, Ananna, possesses several noticeable traits: She speaks with a distinctive voice. She’s brave. She’s impulsive and doesn’t always think her actions through to their logical conclusions. But there is also another detail that perhaps isn’t as obvious as the others, since I’ve not seen anyone comment on it: She’s kind of fat.

I conceived of Ananna as a character who doesn’t quite fit with in with her society’s notions of physical attractiveness. She talks about being large for a woman, and about how the courtier’s dress she wears at the beginning of The Assassin’s Curse doesn’t fit her right, and how her betrothed’s mother doesn’t think of her as a beauty. But it was important to me that, although she acknowledges these things, she doesn’t hate herself for them. There’s no makeover or weight loss narrative to turn Ananna into someone desirable, because it’s not necessary: people like Ananna are in fact considered desirable every day, all over the world. So while I wanted my heroine to be “average”, I also didn’t want it to be a Thing.

Now, I have seen a lot of people talk about Naji’s appearance—my friend told me about a review (I try to avoid reading them myself, so I’m afraid I don’t know who wrote it) that said Naji had all the low self-esteem of a typical YA heroine. And while I didn’t actually intend that when I wrote him, it’s a pretty accurate assessment! With Naji, we have a character who was at one point extremely handsome in a conventional way, and who feels he lost that handsomeness when he was scarred by wayward magic. In this sense, Naji is Ananna’s opposite: his appearance is a major part of his character, and a major part of his identity.

The idea that appearance might be a part of our identity is a concept that makes some uncomfortable, but it’s certainly a reality for a lot of people. Actually, I’m not certain it’s even appearance itself that can define our identities, but rather how we view our appearance, and how appearance is defined for us by the outside world. Furthermore, falling on the peripheries of “acceptable” can really elucidate that connection—your appearance becomes part of your identity whether you want it to or not.

That forced connection between identity and appearance was a concept I tried to explore with Naji. Other characters react negatively to both his scarring and the fact that he is an assassin, and he takes those reactions as the truth. He sees himself as a monster because that’s how other people see him. The reality, of course, is far more complex, and his appearance ultimately has nothing to do with it.

For Ananna, the connection between her physical appearance and identity is more of an undercurrent than a defining feature, but it’s still there, as it is for most (arguably all) people, to one degree or another. As as I said, I didn’t want her appearance to a Thing, but it does influence her behavior on occasion throughout both books, particularly with regard to Naji. I included it because that sort of thing happens with real people, all the time—if we’re told enough times that we aren’t desirable, we start to believe it.

And ultimately, that was something that I wanted to accomplish with The Assassin’s Curse novels: to show that characters don’t have to be conventionally beautiful in order to fall in love. The notion that love can only be acquired by way of physical beauty is an insidious one. It was important to me that I show it’s also a lie.

Thank you, Cassandra, for taking the time to post today. Your contribution is awesome!

For those of you familiar with Cassandra’s work, The Pirate’s Wish is due out next week (June 6th) and is the second part of The Assassin’s Curse duology. If you’re new to Ananna and Naji, The Assassin’s Curse, the first book of the duology, is already out and available at all good bookstores. And if you just can’t get enough of the world of The Assassin’s Curse, two short e-book stories are available: The Witch’s Betrayal and The Automaton’s Treasure, both of which are incredibly cheap and incredibly good. (Reviews for both e-shorts are pending, where both will be reviewed in the same post.)

Zenn Scarlett Blog Tour: Guest post – Identity in SFF

As part of the Zenn Scarlett blog tour, I’m genuinely thrilled to have author Christian Schoon talking about Identity in SFF, given just how much I loved Zenn Scarlett and just how big a deal I’m hoping this YA science fiction adventure will be.  -Leo

First off, thanks to Leo for being part of the Zenn Scarlett blog tour and for giving me the chance to spend a little time here with his readers. Much appreciated!

ZennScarlettSo: identity in SFF and the role of the female protagonist. What a fascinating subject, not only in the worlds of speculative fiction, but across the entire spectrum of the current literary and entertainment environment. At one end of the YA SFF spectrum, we’ve got Twilight-style narratives (I’m talking about the first book here): the needy heroine, heavy inward-directed angst, magnetically drawn to the dreamy but distant, mysterious male interest. And at the other end, the Hunger Games girls, externally oriented, competent, focused, less interested in tortured, dewy-eyed boys than in living until the end of the book. And, of course, a range of titles spanning the extremes that combine characteristics of both. Disney’s Brave comes to mind, where Merida’s journey leads her to combining traits from both ends of the continuum by movie’s end. My own heroine, Zenn, falls well toward the Katness side of things, but with elements of Brave’s heroine in learning to take responsibility for her actions.

Invoking the name Disney, naturally, brings us to the much-discussed Princess/Tomboy divide in literature and film. And, as mentioned, there are plenty of books and films that tilt pretty convincingly to one or the other extreme of this dichotomy; in the Disney vein, think of the poles apart-ness of the protagonists in Snow White vs Snow White and the Huntsman.  But I’m glad to say that more and more, we’re seeing storylines that bridge this expanse. Hermione-OOTP-hermione-granger-1354673-428-285So, you can have a Hermione who’s brilliant, but not so Ivory Tower that Ron can’t aspire to meeting her down on level ground. Or, someone like Pullman’s Lyra, who is total tomboy and not above a bit of manipulation, but who still displays a sensitivity to the emotional aspects of her life.

As for Zenn, her past experiences have directed her down a path that emphasizes both the necessity and desirability of looking at the world with a decidedly analytic mind. She also grows up with a fearlessness regarding physical danger coupled with a deliberate, built-in reserve when it comes to emotional peril.  The people she’s counted on in her life are now absent. Her reaction to this isn’t to find a guy who can replace them, or someone comfort and protect her. Instead, she chooses to “cowboy up,” thicken her psychological armor and get on with pursuing the dream that drives and empowers her: to survive her novice year of training and continue on to become an exovet like her mother. In the novel, this manifests in a variety of ways. You don’t wear a slinky evening dress when making the rounds of the cloister’s pens and pastures to treat alien animal patients. And a sexy, midriff-baring look that shows off your tats isn’t going to cut it when you’re harnessed up and climbing onto the snout of an 80-foot whalehound to conduct a medical procedure. Zenn wears hand-me-down coveralls and spends less time worrying about her appearance than whether her veterinary backpack is stocked with the equipment and meds she’ll need to accomplish that day’s chores.When Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, expresses pretty obvious interest in her, Zenn’s first reaction isn’t to be instantly mesmerized and all “Gee, a guy likes ME! And he’s so cool and bad-but-in-a-good-way!” — instead it’s “This is odd and distracting and I don’t have the luxury of trying to figure out what this means right now because I have end-of-term tests to pass.”  In fairness, it needs to be mentioned that Zenn’s armor isn’t seamless; there are gaps in her mental sheathing and Liam, while no sparkly, archetypal dreamboat, is no fool. He understands how to get through to Zenn and will give it his best shot. Will it work? That’d be telling. But it’s safe to say it doesn’t turn out exactly how one might expect.

As for why the heroine of my book is reasonably-bad-ass but-in-my-humble-opinion-still-credibly female instead of male, it’s because that’s how Zenn presented herself to me when I had the first “ah ha!” moment of realizing I had a story to write. From that point on, this resourceful, no-fears, independent character was female in my mind. Plus, our own veterinarian, who became a good friend of ours here on the farm, is an amazing woman who is awesome and strong-willed and super-confident and wrestles giant pythons, so… there’s that.

In the final analysis, Zenn is simply the kind of protagonist that my story required, and she told me this in no uncertain terms right from the start of the writing process. And, I’m very pleased to note: powerful, skilled, self-sufficient female characters like Zenn are becoming increasingly common in the stories that inspire us, bind us together as a culture, and inform the identities that we construct for ourselves and see in others.

AUTHOR PIC AS SMALL JPG 1 INCHBorn in the American Midwest, Christian started his writing career in earnest as an in-house writer at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, California. He then became a freelance writer working for various film, home video and animation studios in Los Angeles. After moving from LA to a farmstead in Iowa several years ago, he continues to freelance and also now helps re-hab wildlife and foster abused/neglected horses.  He acquired his amateur-vet knowledge, and much of his inspiration for the Zenn Scarlett series of novels, as he learned about – and received an education from – these remarkable animals.

You can find Christian on Goodreads, Twitter and over on his own site, as well as the Strange Chemistry siteZenn Scarlett releases today in the US and Canada in print, worldwide on eBook and in the UK on 2nd May (2013, unless you’re in a time-loop. If you are… good luck!)