Space Gaze: Roll Initiative

 

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A long, thin banner of a dark wooden tabletop. There is a blurred feather in the foreground. The focal point of the image is a set of black D&D dice with elaborate red accents. Surrounding the dice are several leatherbound books.

Welcome to the fourth installment of Space Gaze, a blog series in which two librarians review the best (or worst) queer sci-fi and fantasy has to offer. If you haven't checked us out before now, take a look at our previous installments here: Space Gaze  |  Space Gaze 2: Electric Boogaloo  |  Space Gaze 3: Failure to Launch

Otherwise, pull out your dice, brush off that character sheet, and get ready to read some epic queer lit!

 

 

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Image of a pair of crossed daggers

If you're a rogue, why don't you try....

 

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Foundryside cover art

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett [2018]

Mercedes: This series is so good; the first book centers on a fantasy heist and the second book starts with fantasy corporate espionage, all grounded in a totally unique magic system—what's not to love?? In all seriousness though, Sancia carries this book on her poor, overworked shoulders and I love her for it. It's absolutely delightful to watch her stumble into both a heist and a growing group of—friends? Allies? Whatever. Either way, I feel like I can't even talk about my favorite characters without hitting you with spoilers. So I'll leave you with this: no matter what you expect going into this, it's going to be even better. The descriptions don't do Foundryside justice, really, and it's completely worth the read. 10/10. 

 

Rachael: IT'S A HEIST! Did I watch Ocean's Eleven at an impressionalbe age? Perhaps. Have I secretely always wanted to be an international art thief? What's it to you, you a cop or something? Whatever the reason, I LOVE heists. And Foundryside has everything you could want from a good heist and more. An unlikely band of characters forged together in common purpose against an overwhelmingly powerful and cruel ruling class. Overly complicated plans and madcap, desperate schemes that fall apart at the last second, leading to even more madcap and desperate schemes. And of course, the most important element in any heist, that good-good found family. All backed by an inventive system of magic and some truly fantastic world building. The only negative thing I can say about Foundryside is that the finale of Bennett's intended trilogy hasn't been published yet, which means I will be left waiting on tenderhooks until at least 2022.

Nevertheless, this book gets a 10/10 from me as well. 

 

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If you're a bard, why don't you try...

 

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The Magic Fish cover art

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen [2020]

R: Nguyen deftly weaves five distinct story lines together in this gorgeous exploration of the challenges faced by two generations of a Vietnamese-American family. Between three distinct Cinderella retellings, Nguyen develops the inner lives and struggles of Hiền, a young mother coming to terms with what it means to be so far from her home and family in Vietnam, and her son Tiến, who's searching for the right words to tell his parents that he's gay. Despite the challenges faced by both Tiến and his mother (and some of the more gruesome aspects of the Cinderella retellings), the overall tone of the novel is one of gentle, aching, bone-deep love and acceptence. Hiền's love for her family absolutely radiates off the page, and Tiến's literal starry-eyed first crush is one of the sweetest depictions of puppy love i've ever seen. Do not miss this book, but be prepared to tear up as you go. 9/10

 

M: I don't even know where to start with this one. I've been recommending The Magic Fish to everyone, from Rachael to my classmates in my storytelling class (and now, spoiler alert, to y'all). It interweaves Tiến's story with his mother's and three separate retellings of Cinderella. I love everything about this book, from Tiến's gentle friendships to the use of color to depict different storylines and time periods. I didn't even realize, at first, that the stories told within the story were versions of Cinderella; they're so unique and refreshing that I spent the whole time enchanted. And I'm not one to read end notes, usually, but the author's explanation of costume/design choices and the use of color was absolutely fascinating, I would definitely recommend spending another few minutes on it. 10/10

 

 

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If you're a ranger, why don't you try...

 

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The Bedlam Stacks cover art

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley [2017]

M: Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, but I was hooked on The Bedlam Stacks even before the more fantastical elements were first introduced. But oh man. Oh man. You know how I was talking about focusing more on characters than the plot? Yeah, this one takes the cake. Merrick is a more morally gray version of my much beloved gently sad fictional men, and I would do anything, anything for Raphael. And beyond that, I love the care the author takes when describing Peru and the people of Bedlam, and the way she weaves fact into fiction.

I saw a review that compared this book to the hand flex scene from the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie, and. Yeah. I am left breathless and yearning, in the absolute best way possible. 10/10

 

R: I hadn't heard about the hand flex review before, but it is incredibly, painfully, accurate. The Bedlam Stacks is 18 pounds of overwhelming, life altering, pure, and uncut emotion (don't ask me which emotion. It's all of them) somehow packed it into a half pound book of quiet gestures and small acts of service. Think one character bringing another a cup of coffee can't make you cry? Think again. Pulley is an incredibly talented and presise writer and The Bedlam Stacks is, in my opinion, her most impressive work. The characters are complex, dynamic, and beautifully flawed. The setting is at times achingly familiar, and at others remarkably alien. The plot? Oh boy. I can't give too much away, but I will say this. You have no idea where this book is headed. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite book on this list and one that has stuck with me for a long time. 10/10. Read this book.

 

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If you're an artificer, why don't you try...

 

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Dead Space cover art

Dead Space by Kali Wallace [2021]

R: Locked room murder mystery. IN SPACE! I am a huge fan of the 'and then there were none' format to begin with. Throw in some queer representation and set it in space? I'm sold. Dead Space is a fun read you can burn through in just a day or two. It's got very cool action scenes (I know i'm supposed to be more articulate than that, but giant explosions shut my brain down and 'man that was cool' is about all you get from me), a compelling mystery to solve, and just enough backstory and emotional conflict to make it interesting. One of the strengths of Dead Space that actually took me by suprise was the complexity of its seconday characters. Hester herself is a bit of a sad sack at the beginning of the book, but the introduction of her fellow investigators more than makes up for her occasional moping. There's nothing about Dead Space that's going to change your life, but it's a perfect chill with some popcorn on a rainy day adventure. 7/10

 

M: This is a solid, solid murder mystery in space. I know Rachael always likes a mystery with a closed pool of suspects, so I think she probably enjoyed this one even more than I did (...scores notwithstanding), but it was a fun read that I gobbled up in little more than a day. This sci-fi setting feels realistically gritty and it doesn't shy away from the dark sides of humanity, but not so much that I felt the whole solar system was irredeemable. Our main character, Hester, was so emotionally removed for the majority of the plot—maybe as a result of trauma? Who knows—that I didn't connect to her in the same way I connect to most protagonists. That being said, while I feel like Rachael maybe could've seen the Big Twist coming—she's genre savvy like that—I was so caught up in Hester and the secondary characters that I was completely blown away.

There's nothing inherently groundbreaking about Dead Space, but I had a good time and it was a quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for the same. 8/10

 

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Or


 

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The Space Between Worlds cover art

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson [2020]

R: I am so conflicted about this book. There were elements of it that I absolutely adored (the multiverse system, Cara's growth over the course of the novel, the blistering class commentary), but they were mixed in with elements that I had a really hard time with. Johnson comes down much harder on the 'nuture' side of the nature vs nurture debate than I do, and the idea that a character's life experiences could change their personality that dramatically was hard for me to swallow. In addition, the depictions of Cara's relationship with the character Nik Nik were.... difficult to accept. That being said, The Space Between Worlds is a full throttle, no holds barred adventure that grabs you on page one and doesn't let go. Cara's drive to survive no matter the cost is a throughline in the novel, and her determination and grit are palpable. Which is good, because she needs both to dig herself out of all the messes her bad choices land her in. This is certainly not a book for everyone, but anyone looking for high-octane sci-fi set in an inventive world(s) need look no further. 7/10

 

M: This book made me say a lot of words that can't be published in this review but like, in a good way. Maybe I can't see the forest for the trees, but The Space Between Worlds hit me with a twist by page 30 and then just didn't let up for the next three hundred pages. And I loved every second of it. I loved the world walking and the ways in which Cara sees herself reflected—or not—in these other worlds. I would say that I agree with Rachael about the nature vs. nurture bit, and about Nik Nik (I have a lot of mixed feelings about all the different Nik Niks), but neither of those were enough to turn me off of the awesome worldbuilding and Cara's constant evolution as she fights her way through each new obstacle. That being said, the longer I've sat on this review the less happy I am with the ending, because it was just a bit too neat for my tastes. But the rest of the story was certainly worth it. 7/10

 

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If you're a paladin, why don't you try...

 

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Winter's Orbit cover art

Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell [2021]

M: If you haven't picked up on it by now, my reviews tend to hone in on character relationships and more or less ignore the plot. Which makes Winter's Orbit perfect for me, because while the political thriller-esque plot fell a little flat, the characters more than made up for it. I fell in love with Kiem and Jainan from the first moment I met them, and that only continued as I got further into the story. Kiem is so kind and genuinely interested in the people around him while still managing to miss some pretty obvious cues, and Jainan, cut off from his family and his home planet, has to figure out if he can trust him after his last partner died suspciously. Add to that the tension of a treaty that's set to expire and might not be renewed in time, and *chef's kiss*. Now that I've gotten a taste I want all the science fiction romances. 8/10

 

R: Mercedes found the perfect phrase to describe this book with sci-fi romance, but I would put the emphasis there on romance. The main focus of Winter's Orbit is unquestionably the growing relationship between the two main characters, and the sci-fi political intrigue sub-plot is thrown in more for flavor and tone. Not being a huge fan of romance books (understatement), I was less invested than I might have been had Maxwell spent more time establishing the universe, background characters, and technology (especially since the glimpse of the wider universe we do get seems cool as all get out). That being said, both Kiem and Jainan are compelling characters, and watching them tentatively forge a relationship despite their flaws and trauma was lovely. Fans of romance or 'angst-with-a-happy-ending' stories will love this book, but readers more interested in the 'sci-fi' side of sci-fi romance might find it sweet, but a little lacking. 6/10 

 

 

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If you're a druid, why don't you try...

 

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The Jasmine Throne cover art

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri [2021] 

R: I love love love this book! Buckle in for some gushing, because I don't have a single negative thing to say here. The first thing to know is that this sucker is HEFTY. Clocking in at at 533 pages, The Jasmine Throne is a huge, sprawling, high fantasy epic of a novel. The world building is *chef's kiss* utterly fantastic. Suri drops you right into a complex, colorful, messy universe of conflict and magic, and then brings it to life with lyrical prose and characters that are just as complex, colorful, and messy as the world they inhabit. It is utterly impossible to be neutral about any of the players or choices they make. This is a love or hate situation, people. Or I guess I should say love and hate? Because just as much as you'll adore the protagonsits in this novel, you will completely loathe the villians. You the know the author has created a steller bad guy when you want to reach through the pages yourself and [REDACTED]. This is absolutely a book you can lose yourself in. I cannot wait to see where Suri takes it from here. 10/10

 

M: The Jasmine Throne gave me some pretty strong Priory of the Orange Tree vibes—I mean, the covers alone look similar at first glance. But even though there were some similarities, The Jasmine Throne is wholy its own book, and an excellent one at that. The changing relationship between Priya and Malini, our two protagonists, hit me in all the right spots, and developed in such a way that kept me wanting more when lesser books have lost my attention. The world building is gorgeous and lush; I always love non-Western centric fantasy, and this one has that in spades. I'm so bummed that I have to wait forever for the next two books to come out, but this one was definitely worth the long queue on Libby! 9/10

 

 

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If you're a sorcerer, why don't you try...

 

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Fireheart Tiger cover art

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard [2021] 

M: I picked up Fireheart Tiger because I saw it being compared to The Goblin Emperor, a book that I absolutely adore, but I can't say it lived up to the comparison. This one felt... fast, and not in the good way that some novellas manage to pull off. I loved Thanh and her struggle to live up to her mother's expectations while dealing with the lingering trauma of nearly being burned alive in a foreign palace. Her relationship with Eldris—the princess of that foreign, ever encroaching state—was less compelling for me, but part of that may have been the constraints of the format. I would gobble up a full length novel that detailed Thanh's time in Eldris's home, if only for the angst, but the events of Fireheart Tiger just didn't quite do it for me. 5/10

 

R: I definitely liked this book more than Mercedes did. Although the story is short and straightfoward (leaning more toward short story length than novella length), there were just enough embellishments to the setting and characters that I found it an enjoyably charming read. Although it's not a book that's going to change your life, it's not a bad way to spend 45 minutes. Thanh's quest to find self-worth in a world that sees her as worthless is heart-rending, and her quiet demeanor made the moments where she stood up all the more satisfying. I would not, however, read a full length novel about Thanh's time in Eldris's home because, and I cannot stress this enough, Eldris is the worst. The WORST.

Fireheart Tiger is a sweet, streamlined story about a young woman finding her voice, and the beautiful worldbuilding alone does make it worth a read.  7/10

 

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Or

 

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The Chosen and the Beautiful cover art

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo [2021]

M: I made the mistake of saying I didn't like historical fantasy and then we ended up reading two historical fantasies this go around. Figures. Even worse, I absolutely loathed The Great Gatsby when we read it in school. But despite both of those things, The Chosen and the Beautiful drew me in slowly, like when you stand in the ocean and the water pulls the sand out from under your feet a little at a time. Vo's prose is lyrical and sensual, and I love to see a New York with magic curling around its edges. Jordan's perspective was so interesting—unrelatably wealthy, but still a queer Asian woman in a time of increasing xenophobia and paranoia—and the way that shaped the narrative was great. Also, she managed to make me actually like Nick, which is something the original novel utterly failed to accomplish.

Of course, reading this was like watching The Titanic—you know how it's going to end, but you're desperately hoping all the while that somehow it will be different. While I agree with a lot of the issues that Rachael is probably going to bring up in her own review, I ended up liking it both more and less than I expected to going into it. But really, the style is what really sold me on it. 7/10

 

R: The Chosen and the Beautiful is another book Mercedes and I have differing opinions on. I... don't really like this book. Which took me completely by surprise to be honest. I've adored some of Vo's previous works (just check out Space Gaze 2: Electric Boogaloo for that reveiw) so I went in fully expecting to love this one as well. And on the surface there's no reason I shouldn't. The novel is incredibly atmospheric, wonderfully inventive, and introduces a new and compelling perspective into an American classic that was sorely missing that diversity. Add to that Vo's undeniable talent as an author and we have all the ingredients for an amazing novel. And yet... I just couldn't make myself like it. Ultimately, the novel's main flaw in my eyes is that I couldn't root for a single character. They are all so unbelievably wealthy and self-centered, so completely removed from the world around them, so terrible to one another, that I simply wasn't invested in anything that happened to them. And while I recognize that that unlikability is a necessary element of the book, it made it an unenjoyable read for me. While The Chosen and the Beautiful is a very well written book, it's simply not to my taste. 5/10

 

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By MercedesG on October 7, 2021