Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review: Spirtbound by Dani Kristoff

2 stars

Originally, I was intrigued by Spiritbound's premise of a Sydney coven of "folk" where young witches greatly outnumber warlocks. The basic plot had promise, but the writing and characterisation wasn't what I was hoping for.

As young children, Grace and Declan were inseparable, but that all ended when Grace accidentally raised her cousin's dead cat. Declan and his horrified parents moved overseas, while Grace became a pariah. Years later, Declan's back, and the shortage of available warlocks means that every young witch in Sydney has her eye on him, except for Grace. For her, Declan's presence is associated with the worst time in her life, and she knows that her marginal position within the coven means that she should stay well away from the new Golden Boy, even if he's showing interest in getting to know her again.

Much of the plot concerns Grace's ostracism and the prejudice against her, as well as the disparate gender ratio in the coven. I thought that both of these plot points were ripe for nuanced explorations, but both are superficial (while the latter is also somewhat problematic). Partly, I think that this can be traced back to the simplistic writing style, which tends towards telling and not showing: 
Of course it hurt being snubbed, but Grace had built up a tolerance for it. Still, having Declan notice and calling attention to it filled her with shame. It was as if the whole room was pointing at her, vilifying her, instead of just tolerating her. Forcing Rose to acknowledge her presence made Grace confront the ostracism head-on, something she had not done for years. (8%)
The gender disparity in the coven - which I had hoped would be all women-power - was pretty much the opposite. Grace continually calls the women who shun her, and/or who are making a play for Declan, "bitch-witches". The one or two of these women whose characters are developed in depth are shown to be cruel, immoral and sexually promiscious (in a slut-shaming way), while Grace is a virginal turn-the-other-cheek kind of gal. 

There were also other gendered behaviours that made me feel very uneasy. Firstly, when Declan and Grace are reintroduced, she is upset by the association between him and the necromancy incident, since he was the one to report her misuse of magic as a child. She is quite clearly distressed, and tells Declan to leave her alone, but he keeps talking, criticising her reaction and demanding a second chance. "Demand" is actually the word that he uses, and later in the book, they laugh about it, but I find it hard to see the humour in the way men think that they are owed women's time and emotional labour, regardless of circumstance. A few chapters later, Declan grabs Grace and kisses her - without her consent - in the school where they both work, in front of the students. Somehow, at this point, I still was wiling to accept that maybe this was just a old-school romance-influenced novel, even though it was published in 2015, but the last straw was a horrible scene in which Grace is gaslighted by Declan and her own mother, who paint her reaction as hysterical when it is really quite reasonable and proportionate to the situation. 

I feel like maybe the reader was meant to overlook all this stuff because Grace's mother has a sex-positive attitude, which she has passed on to Grace, but the scales absolutely do not balance. This may be fiction, but fiction reflects and impacts our real world, and these are things that women - particularly women of colour and women who are marginalised along other axes - struggle with enough in everyday life, and having it legitimised and reflected it back to us in supposedly female-oriented literature only makes it worse. 

Moving back to the story at large, I also had some problems with the romantic conflict. It's not that it's lacking, precisely, but one obstacle was exchanged for another late in the piece, which meant that there wasn't much build-up. Like the first, the second conflict was also dispensed with fairly quickly, thanks to a deus-ex-machina moment, leaving me feeling slighty unfulfilled, even though I thought I'd stopped backing the romance after the workplace-sexual-assualt and gaslighting incidents.

Ultimately, my experience of Spiritbound was defined by the diactic writing style and disturbing gender dynamics. I can chalk the first one up to personal preference, but find I'm unable and unwilling to do that in the case of the second. Make of that what you will. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Review: Follow Me into Darkness Anthology

Multiple ratings

In Germany at this time of year, as elsewhere across the globe, people celebrate Carnival, which here is called Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht. The day I arrived was Weiberfastnacht, and it was the first day of the big festival in Cologne. Catching the train to the town where I am now living was a funny and wonderful experience, because many people were dressed up and getting into the celebratory mood, even though it was still early in the morning. Then, yesterday, I watched my social media as my friends back home in Sydney attended our Mardi Gras parade. All of this left me feeling a bit forlorn, because I had missed out on both set of celebrations. 

But then I remembered Follow Me into Darkness, an anthology of queer romances centred around Carnival that I'd been meaning to read, and which I devoured last night and this morning. It was a really mixed bag, as anthologies often are. Here are my thoughts: 

Hurricane by Santino Hassell - 3.5 stars
Two very different men find each other and explore New Orleans in one night during Carnival. The two heroes complemented each other well, but it's told entirely from one hero's (Zay's) perspective and I would have appreciated more insight into the other character, Keegan. 

If We Be Friends by J C Lillis - 4 stars
This was the stand-out in the anthology for me. Two teenaged cast-mates on a Hamlet-inspired TV show turn over a new leaf. Poignant, touching, and so much love for the unabashed and witty use of Shakespeare. 

Masked by J. R. Gray - 1.5 stars
God, I don't even know what to say about this one. I was riding high after If We Be Friends, and this brought me back to earth with a thud. Two childhood friends whose lives have gone in very different directions meet again when one comes to the aid of the other, who is being beaten up in a homophobic attack. Attacked hero wants to get it on with other hero, despite his injuries, and then there are a lot of artificial roadblocks put the way to prevent this, including a quest to find condoms and accidental cock-blocking by the beaten-up hero's lesbian beard wife (??!). I want to say that it's very cliched, but I'm also not comfortable making that assessment. 

It's supposedly set in Brazil, but who knows where because a city is never mentioned. I guess non-Western countries are just exotically cultured monoliths, so why bother? Also, I'm not sure if I missed something, but at the beginning a date of February 2000 is given and there's no apparent time-jump, yet the heroes have Kindles and iPhones??? /end snarky rant

The Queen's Reflection by Kris Ripper - 3 stars
The Queen's Reflection takes place in a fantasy world, which I would normally be fine with but the last story had minimal Carnival vibes, and it feels weird to have an anthology where two consecutive stories have only minimal connection to the prompt in real-world terms. Anyway, fantasy world is pretty standard, in terms of being medieval-inspired, until weird futuristic things like keystrips (essentially credit cards?) pop up. Stuff like this is just dropped in and not properly explained or connected to the existing world-building that has occurred. 

The female-assigned-at-birth main character, queen of the kingdom, has gender dysphoria, and fictional-world Carnival presents her with an opportunity to shed her skin and move around in disguise. Despite the fact that I started off with what I didn't like about this story, it was emotional, and the menage and self-discovery aspects work well.

Touched by Roan Parrish - 3.5 stars
Towards the end I thought Touched was for sure going to be 4 stars, and then it ripped my heart out with a very, very qualified HFN. The narrator, Phillippe, is a bar owner in prohibitionist New Orleans. When he touches people, he glimpses their futures, but during 1929's Carnival, his visions intensifies, and signal that something big is on the horizon. At the same time, he meets African-American trumpet player Claude, who he wants like no man or woman he's had before.

Writing was a touch florid in places - really, I hate the overuse of adjectives in people's visions/dreams, it just kills me - but this had so much history and story packed in to such a little novella, and I did enjoy it immensely. Even with the soul-destroying ending.

Other thoughts
I know that in the U.S., Carnival is strongly associated with New Orleans, so I guess it makes sense that two of the five stories in this anthology would be set there. However, Carnival/Mardi Gras is something that occurs across the historical Christian - particularly Catholic - world, with many different associations. For example, in Australia, it has become completely divorced from his Lenten roots, and is solely celebrated as a LGBTQIA+ festival, while in many other places the two exist side-by-side, and in some (like Germany), it has virtually no connection to the LGBTQIA+ community. I would have liked to see both the relationship between Carnival, Christianity and queerness and Carnival as a worldwide phenomenon explored in more depth, or tackled more overtly. I also feel like questions of who Carnival is for could have been more drawn out, although Hassell's story did deal excellently with this theme in a horribly realistic fight between the heroes and some homophobic tourists.

Ultimately, I feel like the fictional world and Brazil-with-minimal-reference-to-setting-and-interaction-with-Carnival stories didn't pull their weight in terms of actually exploring Carnival. But, in the introduction, the authors talk about shedding metaphorical masks for physical ones, and how this can be freeing for LGBTQIA+ people. So perhaps the metaphoric representation of Carnival is more important than the physical representation, and as a cishet person and someone constantly stuck in academic analysis mode, I haven't been able to appreciate that as I should (The Queen's Reflection did pull it's weight in this regard. No comment on Brazil.)


  • Potential readers should be aware that some stories feature homophobic violence. 
  • I've stuck with the 'Carnival' spelling for consistency and because it's the most internationally recognised (at least, Encyclopaedia Britiannica and Wikipedia both use this spelling), but the subtitle of the anthology actually uses 'Carnivale'. 
  • I may as well take this chance to say that I don't know how active the blog will be in the next month or so - I have uni commitments over 8 hours a day, 6-7 days a week! 
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