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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

4/5. The story of September, who climbs out her kitchen window and rides the wind to fairyland, then comes home, and goes back, and comes home, and goes back, and gets stuck.

So I generally do not do well with books that get popularly described as "lush." E.g., I recently twice failed out of Sofia Samatar's first book because oh god, the boredom. Lush and me, it's not so good. And it seems like everyone calls Valente's work "lush." So I've avoided it for over a decade.

But these books? These books are wonderful. Intricate and dense; full of appropriately fairyland whimsy that has a lot of weight behind it. As if the ever-proliferating fairyland rules are each the ingredient to a magic spell of byzantine complexity, and it will only make sense if you twist your brain around 270 degrees and stand on one foot and think about it in the moonlight. But in a good way!

I've already talked about these books a bit by way of disliking Seanan McGuire, who was doing some of the same stuff but not nearly so well. But I want to say, more directly, that this series is principally about being a child out of place and subject to inexplicable forces – a child displaced to fairy, or a troll displaced to Chicago. It matters, very much, that this book is set in the 1940's when our heroine's mother, like the other women of her generation, is going to work for perhaps the first time. It matters that September knows she should not eat in fairyland, but manages to complicate and muddle the rule beyond recognition. It matters that the displaced troll becomes a hero among his schoolyard peers for discerning the rules of their world and writing them down. "All children are changelings," this series says near the end, encapsulating five books into one thematic statement. Yes. That.

These are beautiful and wonderful and wise and sad and weird and I really love them. And fine, they're fucking "lush" okay.
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Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota)

4/5 (this is me leaving some room for the rest of this series). I read this months ago while traveling, and also explaining this book takes many many words, so let me shorthand. Futuristic post nation state post organized religion sorta post gender science fiction about powerbroking and politics and miracles. And really, really awesome. Have some bullet points.

• I think the SF field is going to bend around this series, once it's done. Just a feeling. And I'm personally looking forward to all the books that are going to be fans of this series and arguing with this series and really mad at this series. Not just that I think some of those books are going to be good books, but also that I think it will all take us through some philosophical territory that I'm looking forward to.

• Remember how I complained that the linguistic gender stuff in Ancillary Justice was fun but kinda pointless? Yeah, this book is set in a culture where the polite pronoun for everyone is ungendered, and it is doing so much stuff with that, I probably lost track. Our narrator plays with gender occlusion and disclosure in hilarious and pointed ways. You end up in the end with a pretty clear idea of who is supposed to be what gender, but very little certainty that you are right, but a lot of certainty that being right is so not the point. Because fundamentally, gender in this book is about performance of a gendered role – often a gendered stereotype – and the narrator is therefore generally uninterested in what is actually in people's pants. It's great, and I look forward to future developments, and I also think this Strange Horizons reviewer really did not get it (that review does give a much more detailed picture of the worldbuilding than I do, though, along with what I consider a spoiler).

• This book fucks with genre. It's science fiction that uses the word "miracle" with deliberation. And the miracle in question – animating objects like toy soldiers with a touch – is jarringly weird in this secularized, very sciency future. I struggled with this for a while, until a twist introduced a particular kind of ridiculously terrible, over-the-top violence into the book, into this society that barely knows what murder is anymore, and I went 'ah' and started looking for other pieces that don't fit. That break the pattern in your head, break your assumptions, make you uneasy and unhappy the way the word "miracle" made me uneasy and unhappy. If this society makes it through the whole series intact, I am going to be very very surprised.

• I laughed. Out loud, unexpectedly, and very ungracefully, in the middle of a sidewalk. It was at the word "Jehovah." Oh, how I laughed. You'll know it when you see it.

• A lot of specfic set in the future is anchored unmistakably in the twenty-first century. Like there are two points in history – today and the speculated future – and the only work of worldbuilding is to draw a line from here to there. This book draws its line instead from the nineteenth century (mostly), which makes for an entirely different and richer experience of created history. Not a totally new idea – Robert Charles Wilson tried this in his Julian Comstock, but this is far more successful.

Next book in December, please and thank you.
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Imprudence (The Custard Protocol)

3/5. More steampunkish airship supernatural nonsense, interchangeable with the rest of Carriger's books in being entertaining nonsense. Except this one includes a charming trope inversion where the virginal young lady selects a young man of her acquaintance to learn sex things from and proceeds to ruthlessly dally with him. That was pretty great, even if it ends in romantical feelings everywhere.
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Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

2/5. Books one, two, and eleven of a sorta cozy mystery series mostly set in a tiny Quebec village.

Picked up during the worst of the con crud (pretty sure I was patient zero this time . . . sorry 'bout that, Contxt) and enjoyable in inverse proportion to how healthy I was. So by the time I was getting better I was way the fuck over this nonsense and skipped ahead to find out if everyone continues to be obnoxious. What's wrong with it? I mean, it's populated by mostly kind mostly clever often literate people, some of whom are queer, and I have been known to like a mystery.

Yeah, but. You know that saying about how any book about art is actually about writing? Or is that just something one of my writing professors said? Regardless, it's pretty true. And this series is repeatedly and oh so excruciatingly embarrassingly allllllll about how haaaaaaaaaaaaard it is to be an artist who is unbelievably brilliant but no one appreciates your genius. Sooooooooo haaaaaaard, you guys, and noble and tragic and beautiful, but of course any book of such obvious unappreciated genius 'hem sorry, don't know what came over me – any truly great art will be discovered and adored as is its due. Oh god. It is so embarrassing, I do not know how she is putting these books out in the world without noticing.
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A Fashionable Indulgence: A Society of Gentlemen Novel (Society of Gentlemen Series Book 1)

3/5. M/M historical. Young radical is found by his wealthy grandfather and brought back into society. And then there's the gentleman tasked with teaching him manners.

Finally trying Charles, dog years after everyone else. This is nice, I guess, though the antecedents (Pygmalion and that musical I hate) don't interest me.

But the thing is, this held little to no interest as a romance. I found that aspect quite dull. But the rest of the book – and this is supposed to be a romance, so you'll understand how amazing this is to say – but the rest of the book stands on its own and was a pleasant diversion. There's a density to Charles's world building, and a little extra zing to the historical detail. And this book manages that nearly impossible feat of being about a largeish group of queer men without being about how everyone is magically gay. Instead, it's about like finding like, and co-existing together without ever really talking about it, and the pressure they are all under, and the danger they are in.

Note: Currently $.99 on Kindle.
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Ninefox Gambit (Machineries of Empire Book 1)

3/5. A soldier is tasked with taking back a fortress, and to get the job done she is implanted with the consciousness of an infamous undead general, greatest tactician in history, heretic, murderer of his own people.

One of the cooler weird as fuck things I've read recently. This is a universe where power is defined by "math" – i.e. where civilizations create patterns of loyalty and ritual which, due to magic math, define the parameters of reality, down to what weapon's work, how FTL travel functions, what day it is, etc. Fighting with an insurgent rebellion is complicated when the rebellion redefines its own "calendar," meaning your realities only sort of talk to each other, and fighting back isn't just about violence (though lordy there is a lot of that) but about moving the complex variables.

So cool worldbuilding, though like you might expect, there's a lot of handwaving under the banner of math, and because the rules are so abstruse, it can occasionally feel like the book is cheating by dropping in some whackadoodle turn that you literally had no way of anticipating. But I mostly liked this for the main characters. They're sharing a head, and they argue a lot, and they fight a siege, and they also sit around and watch terrible romantic dramas with their robots while mutually attempting to outthink/mindfuck each other.

Ultimately I do think that the final 'redefine reality' turn of this book is far more prosaic and obvious than I wanted -- everyone else was basically expecting it, right? – and I didn't get the 'what!' mindfuck I was jonesing for. But Lee* is doing something really cool and unusual here, and I suspect that my genuine liking for this has the potential to turn into something much bigger as the trilogy unfolds.

*I did say my year of reading women could also be a year of not reading cis men.
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Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

2/5. The one about the school for kids who went to a fantasy realm and then got sent home and who are really upset about it.

I picked this up – despite my . . . lackluster response to other McGuire – because I'm working my way through Kat Valente's tremendous Fairyland series, about a girl who goes there and comes home repeatedly. Thematic, y'see.

And that was a mistake, because comparing these writers and these books, uh. They're just a different class of talent doing a different class of thing. So after the density of Valente's thorny whimsy, Mcguire's straightforward – and so painfully obvious, the characters should be considered accomplices for not solving it sooner – murder mystery simply thudded. And after Valente's playful, stylish, tricky, complicit, kind, cruel, lovely narrator, who stitches those books together so beautifully. After that, the random and inexplicable swerves Mcguire's book takes into the omniscient view seem pointless. And in one case, where we get a girl's backstory and then she is killed and the omniscient voice pops in just long enough to tell us where the doorway back into her realm that she had been living and dying to find actually was, it seems simply mean for the sake of being mean.

So yeah. Did not fare well by comparison. Might be better on its own? It's a novella with a lot of interesting stuff going on – axes of classification for fantasy realms, an explanation as to why the school is mostly populated with girls that made me grimly nod, a transkid who got kicked out of his adventure because his tale did not respect his identity. And the title is great. But yeah. Not a good comparison.

Also, the ending. Can someone who liked this tell me whether you were okay with the ending, because it bugged me a lot.
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The Snow Queen

3/5. On a planet whose only significance is the sea creatures who can grant extended life, winter is drawing to a close. Soon technology will withdraw when the wormhole closes, and power will change hands to the summers. The winter queen does not want that to happen, so she seeds the summers with her clones, hoping that at least one will survive to take her place.

My wife has two enormous framed prints, one of the summer queen, one of winter. They might be the cover art? They're currently in a closet, but they were hanging up in our last place with a lot more wall space (seriously, these things are huge). I said when we hung them that they ought not be across a room facing each other, so we ended up putting them on parallel walls offset to each other. Looking toward the same thing, but from a different place. That was accidentally correct on my part, since I hadn't read this yet.

This book is . . . strange, concerned with the shapes of relationships more than the relationships themselves, if you know what I mean. Concerned with the myth, and pacing out its convolutions with these particular people. This sort of thing usually irritates me. I know better than to read that YA series retelling Cinderella on a moon colony; I know it would not go well for me. I always catch myself so completely not getting the point. Like for the first quarter of this book, which I spent entirely focused on whether there is an Earth in this timeline, and if these are very distant Earth colonists, and if so did those Earth people carry this myth? Because they couldn't have, otherwise everyone would be way more self-conscious. But if they didn't, then –

Totally missing the point on these, that's me.

This did win me over. It's amazingly 80's and it made me laugh where it did not mean to, but at its heart it is about intersecting layers of exploitation; how this interstellar power is using a natural resource in, it turns out, a horrifyingly unethical way, how the queen's efforts to snatch power back make her complicit in that, how she in turn exploits her population as her plans spin out. There are intersecting images of captivity – animals in cages, people in cages, machine intelligences stuck on their tracks. It all ticks through with inevitability, which is a thing you don't see much these days. I did mention 80's.

Glad I read it, but this doesn't really speak to me.
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Wizard's Holiday (Young Wizards Series Book 7), Wizards at War (Young Wizards Series Book 8), A Wizard of Mars: The Ninth Book in the Young Wizards Series

3/5. More Young Wizards, with a definite science fictional turn in these three (well, more interplanetary travel and cosmic whatsits, anyway – the esthetics of the series remain solidly fantasy).

I liked these, but in a measured way. The series matures with our heroes, whose power is settling down into its adult channels after the exuberance of earlier, and they have to learn to live with that and develop the talents they have. I should find this excellent, and I do, but it was around this point in the series that I started really thinking about the philosophical underpinnings.

The enemy – The Lone Power – is supposedly the champion of entropy, of things running down. And the work of wizardry is to fight entropy wherever found. There's a lovely interview with Duane at the end of one of the early audios -- High Wizardry, I think -- in which it becomes clear that this is a reflection of her view of the world. And it's not mine. Entropy in this series wears the face of the Lone Power, who is alternately frightening and pathetic. And who, we know from book one, is ultimately losing. But he is specifically not the face of evil, even if the things he does are appalling. And there is something uncomfortably slippery in this notion of entropy, something very whoops, guess that just happens, which I think ducks the problem of the active evil that so many people choose to put out into the world. Like in one of these books, for example, the world teeters on the brink of war and mass violence, but it all stops when the kids deal with the magic mcguffin evil cloud. Which implies all sorts of things about world history, according to this universe, that I don't like.

I don't know, I can't get this out right. But essentially I think the philosophy of this series is a bit confused about personal responsibility, and for all its time with the Lone Power, it isn't really equipped to grapple with active malice.

It can grapple with other things, though. The philosophy of these books gets more difficult and adult when Nita's mother gets cancer; Nita's reaction to that and to the Lone Power bring a richness to this idea of bad things just happen. But it still doesn't really satisfy me.
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A Wizard Alone (Young Wizards Series Book 6)

1/5. Aaaaand then this happened.

Hoo boy. Plenty of people have taken this book to task over the years, and I was forewarned. But it still left an awful taste in my mouth.

So, in book six, Nita is working through depression after the death of her mother, and Kit is tasked with helping a new young wizard who is autistic. And it's . . . very sincere and trying so hard, and flavored with the usual kindness of this series. And all so absolutely pervaded with toxic ablism that you can't swallow any part of it without choking a bit.

It's not just the overtly ablest ending spoilers ), and it's not just the way the book parallels depression and autism in frankly weird and off-putting ways. It's the whole *gestures* the whole thing. The imagery used to talk about autistic communication. How at first everyone thinks what they're receiving is extra-terrestrial in origin. How this book implicitly and explicitly treats autism as alienness. As not human.

Duane has rewritten this book, too, and to her credit she apparently spent a fair amount of time absorbing the criticisms of autistic and adjacent readers. But given certain events in the rest of the series, I have a hard time believing she would be able to extricate the overt ablism from the book. It's just too deep.
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So You Want to Be a Wizard (Young Wizards Series Book 1), Deep Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 2), High Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 3), A Wizard Abroad (Young Wizards Series Book 4), The Wizard's Dilemma (Young Wizards Series Book 5)

4/5. Adventures of Nita and Kit, pre-teen wizards in suburban New York.

I have been reading this series slowly for six months. I don't really go in for savor when it comes to books – it's just as good going down fast, fight me! – but once in a while I do. The first five are really strong. They're tense, beautifully-imagined stories of young people riding the first wild wave of power, and learning to use it wisely.

The first book is particularly accomplished, which is unusual for a series. It takes Kit and Nita to an alternate, dark AU New York; the creepy creepy image of the nest where the evil sentient helicopter raises its tiny evil helicopter babies has lingered. As has Nita, holding the book of life in which all truths are written, and lifting her pen, and making a mark. The structure serves these books well; Kit and Nita's greatest victory is the thing they accomplish first, and the rest of the books play out the consequences that echo up and down through time and causality.

Note: Apparently Duane has been editing and re-releasing these books with a modern update, since she has been writing them for thirty years and the 80's stuff is very 80's. I read the originals, and do not regret that decision at all. Frankly, I think her insistence on adding, like, cell phones to make these accessible to modern readers is misplaced, and sort of insulting. Are these early books very 80's? Sure. Is it startling to read about parents allowing their pre-teen children to take the train into NYC alone for a day? Uh, yeah. But I think I – and modern teenagers – are capable of understanding.
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The Fire's Stone

3/5. The one where the alcoholic prince, the suicidal thief, and the young lady wizard go on a mission to retrieve the stolen gem that keeps the volcano from erupting under their city.

Ahaha, bless. This is some kwality 1990 fantasy, this is. Written back when Tanya Huff was not, uh. Well, she wasn't very good, you guys. Points for queer romance, though they get taken away again for the way this book is about a poly relationship, but just can't ever, you know, come out and say that.

But the M/M/F triad is sweet, and clearly the heart of this otherwise kind of boring story. Which makes up for the wild overabundance of daddy issues, and the consistent erasure/irrelevance of mothers, and that terrible thing where a book signals to you that one of the heroes is a good guy because he decides not to have sex with a thirteen-year-old, what a good guy, you guys, applause. So all the things you'd expect, really.

Uh, the triad really is cute? And the book is currently $2.99, if any of this is speaking to you.
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Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Book 1)

3/5. Bland paint-by-numbers fantasy about the girl who is taken to court after discovering her hidden power that might save them all. Boy am I glad I read Six of Crows, Bardugo's fourth book, first. That one is complicated and scary. This one – her debut -- is derivative in the dull way, not the fun way. And it's never good when the love interest is in deathly peril and I start vigorously cheering for his death, because that could only improve things.

I mean, I guess it's a demonstration of how fast a person's writing can improve?
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Binti

3/5. Young woman from an insular, impliedly African culture leaves Earth against her parents's wishes to accept a scholarship. On the way, her ship is attacked by aliens.

Scant, interesting novella about the costs and rewards of cultural interchange, and different kinds of cultural violence. Worth reading for that, but I was honestly more interested in the *gestures* more diffuse experience of reading this. When witness to the violent deaths of her new friends, the heroine closes her eyes, holds still, and prays. Which is not the way I am accustomed to the heroines of SF reacting. Binti's heroism is subtler, more complex and interconnected than being able to steal a weapon and shoot back. Which is partly about her as a character, and partly about the cultural milieu of this novella, which is very different than what I'm used to. I liked it.
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The Wig in the Window

3/5. YA about the tween girls playing spy games at night who happen upon their neighbor acting suspicious.

Fair warning, I have had a huge Too Like the Lightning* hangover for a week and no book will satisfy me. This one is cute, and full of women! Like, brim full – every major relationship is between ladies of various ages. But it hit a lot of my embarrassment squick, subcategory kids doing terribly inappropriate things for good reasons that adults loudly disbelieve. Auuuuugh.

Still, if I had a tween girl in my life, I'd get her this. …And subsequently make sure she did not have a rope strategically tied to get out her window at night.

*Yes, yes, I read it. I have thoughts! …Someday.
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Bloodline (Star Wars)

3/5. Star Wars. Leia-centric Prequel to the new movie, telling the story of her loss of faith in the New Republic.

On the one hand, it's a Star Wars novel about a female character! On the other hand, it's clear that Gray was ordered from on high to hardly mention Luke, Ben, etc. to keep the slate completely blank for the next movie. That's, uh, really noticeable.

Anyway, I liked this, though I think Gray isn't entirely clear on how to write an adult novel. This book is about 40% galactic senate politics by volume, and it all has that smoothed over no nuance feel. Politics doesn't work that way. Parties don't work that way. Sentient politicians don't work that way. And more broadly, Leia Organa, veteran of the powerless Imperial Senate, doesn't become an us-or-them ideologue so bent on de-centralized government that she is with little exception incapable of working with those who oppose her views. I almost suspect that this whole thing is supposed to be a ham-handed commentary on the current state of American partisanship, but no, not quite.

Anyway, this is actually enjoyable, and makes sense out of certain things. But I still vastly prefer the Expanded Universe canon, which has a much richer view of the New Republic political scene. Of course, it has a billionty books to do it in, so.

However, props for the hilarious and sneering commentary on those people who "ironically" buy Imperial memorabilia. Empire hipsters. I die.
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Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch)

4/5. Last book in the trilogy. My enduring image from this book, and the series, will I think always be, three formerly-enslaved artificial intelligences sitting around a table genteelly sipping tea and discussing what they're going to do with their self-determination. I mean, there this series is.

I finally really like this series, with this book. I enjoyed the first but didn't go into raptures, and thought the second was oversimplified and disappointing. But this one is truly wonderful. It is deeply concerned with personhood and the functioning of complex power structures, but also flavored with Leckie's unique brand of light absurdist comedy. I mean, this is a book that manages to say things about alienation and outsiderness through an extremely weird running joke regarding fish, fish cakes, and fish sauce. I think I finally tuned my brain to the correct wavelength, or Leckie finally really hit her stride, or both, because this all finally clicked together into the weird, tipsy, anti-imperialist, seethingly furious mechanism that it is.

I still think the linguistic gender work is a bit of a misfire, magnified by the way recording audiobooks of this series requires an implicit commitment to gendering Breq, which is pretty terrible no matter how good the narrator is. But the effect of using the universal 'she' pronoun is lovely, even if it works less on a meta level the more I think about it. It obviously has a useful function in that it prevents the reader from automatically positioning people in relation to each other based on their gender. And I'm not even talking about heterocentrism here – you can't queer this narrative either, because there's no queerness. That's helpful in that it gets a lot of shit out of the way so that this power structure can exist on its own terms. But it could have done a heck of a lot more (why doesn't anti-imperial sentiment manifest in rebelling against the Radch concept of gender? Wouldn't there be radicalism in having binary and trinary and etc. gender paradigms? Just for a random thought).
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Six of Crows

4/5. Fantasy heist caper where the team of lowlifes and outcasts has to break someone out of the unbreakable prison, also politics.

"Caper" seems like the wrong word. Far too cheerful for this tense book that manages to balance grimdark with humaneness better than anything I've read in a while.

One of those books that I think is classified as young adult only because the protagonists are under eighteen. (Well, and because YA is often more lucrative). Because this is otherwise an entirely adult book about adult themes – the costs of survival, the rigged game of life when you don't hold power, being the dupe, being the one duping. I really liked this. The heart of this book is partly the heist, but it's mostly the team, and its interlocking sets of relationships, romantic and otherwise. It would be a wild oversimplification to say that this book is about hardened people coming to care for each other, because it is vastly more messy and satisfying than that. But if simplification you must have, there you go.

Oh, and did I mention half of the team is composed of persons with disabilities? Because it is.
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Finder

2/5. Orient, who can find things just by thinking about them, teams up with a cop in the town between faerie and reality to solve a drug case and murders.

And I'm two for two on finding Emma Bull books deadly boring. This one at least has an interesting setting and cast of quirky background townies; too bad about the main players, the plot, and, you know, everything else. Well, that's not entirely true – the lady cop is competent and layered and interesting, and why the book had to be about some dude instead of her is totally baffling. … No it's not. We all know why the book is about some dude.

Though, to complicate what I just said, I spent the last half of this book reading the narrator as an agender person. It's easy to do – he accepts male pronouns, but has otherwise almost zero internal sense of gender, let alone external gender signals. Is it deliberate? Is it just empty characterization? Who knows, but either way, reading it in did not make this the least bit more interesting.

Uh. It's currently $2.9 9 on Kindle, I feel obliged to mention.
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The Countess Conspiracy (The Brothers Sinister Book 3)

3/5. Historical romance. He's a controversial and successful scientist investigating inheritance patterns! She's the woman whose work is presented under his name because that's the only way it will be accepted!

Oh man, I'll say one thing for Courtney Milan, she always leaves me with a lot to think about.

This is almost awesome. It's full of things I like, including frank discussions of infertility, sex other than penis-in-vagina (this is quite rare in historicals), a network of women looking out for each other, female genius, difficult families.

But I just can't. If I wanted to make a joke out of it, I would say that I've never read a het romance during which I muttered "have these people never heard of anal sex?" so many times. (For real though, endless drama about how she can't ever ever risk pregnancy, so penis-in-vagina sex is really fraught even with birth control, but this is a het historical so even Milan won't go there). I could say that I found the extreme emotional pitch of this book way out of my taste. The hero and heroine have fraught, quavery-voiced conversations from page one to the very end, and it was just too fucking much.

But here's the real heart of it. This book is, as most people will conclude from reading the synopsis, about a kind of coming out. The heroine tells the truth about her work, eventually, to various people in various ways. And while the book does an . . . okay job presenting the social and familial consequences that come down on her head for it, the structure is enraging. It aligns the coming out with the heroine's journey to reclaim her self-worth and identity, and I hate these narratives. You know what I'm talking about, where a piece of media implicitly tells you that being in the closet is about the closeted person's issues, not about, you know, danger or fear of reprisal or privacy or or or. When done in queerness narratives, this sort of framing is poisonous. It's not much better here, in my mind, where a secret is kept to protect a woman from misogyny, but hey it's cool, she can bust the closet door down once she believes in herself. Because, as we all know, that's how you overcome misogyny. Aaaargh.

Whatever. This is a very good historical about mostly feminism, and it will not drive many people bonkers the way it did me. Also, it's on sale right now, if that's relevant.

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