I blasted through this book mostly in a single night. It is not only incredibly well written, but also a very fun read that is maddeningly hard to put down. The characters are rich and extremely memorable and the plot never wavers even when there are multiple subplots to intertwine, but let’s back up a bit.
“When the Angels Left the Old Country” is a queer, Jewish mystery steeped in the supernatural. An angel and a demon living as chevrusas (Torah study partners) in a tiny shtetl in Poland are drawn to America to find the daughter of one of the townsfolk who has stopped writing letters home. On the way they encounter spirits of all sorts, goyish demons, and a variety of humans both helpful and decidedly not.
It is also a story about identity in all aspects, such as gender and sexuality (what gender is an angel?), what it means to be an immigrant, and differing approaches to Judaism—after all, the synagogue of the nameless shtetl is not the synagogue of upper Manhattan. One of my favorite sub-plots was the angel, Uriel, grappling with its sense of self. An ephemeral being, what does it mean for the angel when it must take on a single identity to travel to America and blend into the human world. As someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with myself and my various identities, I latched onto Uriel not unlike the spirit of the rebbe (which is another fascinating subplot about ibburs and dybbuks).
There is also a fantastic layering of religions, they all exist—most notably shown in there being demons from other religions too. Something that exhausts me about Christian-centric approaches to the supernatural is that they tend to assume that the Christian mythology is the Real Accurate One. I adored seeing the way “Angels” allowed these different cultures to exist at once, even though we only see them to a limited extent due to the limits of our point-of-view characters.
While “Angels” is a deeply Jewish book, it is in no way limited to a Jewish readership. At its heart it is a story about being a stranger in a strange land and finding people you can be yourself with, feelings that resonate across marginalized and immigrant communities. For those unfamiliar with Yiddish, Hebrew and other Jewish terminology there is a helpful glossary in the back of the book, which I myself referred to several times because my Hebrew is limited and my Yiddish is worse. If I were to offer a single sentence pitch comparing it to other media, I would say it’s a bit of “An American Tail” meets “Good Omens” with the Jewishness and queerness cranked up to 11.
If you like the sound of those things together, you will certainly like this book. You can pick up “When the Angels Let the Old Country” from a variety of places. I got mine through Bookshop.
“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.
The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.
While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.
Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.
The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.
I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.
Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.
As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.
I knew I had to read “Uncommon Charm” the moment I saw it. For one, it’s a set in the 1920s, a fantastic era; two, there is a Jewish character; three, it was a gothic comedy that promised ghosts; and four, the cover art is by one of my all time favorite artists. I didn’t initially expect the magic to be, like, real magic, I’d assumed that “magician” meant stage magician, but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
I absolutely adore the way the book treats magic. It’s delightfully mundane, which is admittedly, a weird thing to say, but it feels accurate. The drama isn’t necessarily magical in nature; magic is baked into the world, it’s part of the norm and treated as such, which I love as world building. The drama primarily comes from interpersonal relationships, both past and present, and is only enhanced, not driven, by magic. Our narrator, young socialite Julia, is grappling not only with her relationship with her mother, but with her relationships with the Koldunov family, and newcomer to the household, Simon. Simon is himself grappling with feeling out of place as the illegitimate son of the Koldunov patriarch in addition to his newfound magical ability.
At 16 Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm really is what drives the plot, as she is our main narrator. I love, so very much, the particular flavor of unreliable narrator that Julia is, in that she’s not so much completely unreliable, but rather, she is running through the world as a headstrong teenager who wants to believe that she’s on the right foot with everything. It’s a very classically teenager style of moving through the world, trying to find the answer to a mystery that isn’t quite the dramatic mystery that you thought. Her point of view is also perfect to keep the right balance between gothic and comic.
Something else I adored was the reorienting of the world that happens, both literally and metaphorically. On one side, we have the physical effects of Simon’s magic where he unintentional alters the world around him and Julia coming to terms with some heavy truths about the world and the people around her. On the other side, there is the wonderful development of Simon’s perspective on magical philosophy and how it blends with his Jewish beliefs. I will admit to feeling a touch nervous that his Jewishness would get lost behind Julia’s narration, but it very much didn’t, and I loved that by the end, Simon has invited both Julia and her mother to join him for Passover.
Last, but not least, “Uncommon Charm” is decidedly and unashamedly queer. Julia explicitly notes herself to be queer and it is strongly implied for Simon as well as for a handful of other characters. The queerness is exists with a confidence in the way the characters interact with the world in relationships of all sorts, though the focus is on the friendly and familial more than the romantic.
“The Memory Librarian” is a fantastic dive back into the world of Janelle Monáe’s 2018 concept album “Dirty Computer.” In addition to giving us more of Jane, Zen and Ché, we get to see what the rest of the world is like, from impoverished children to the people at the very top who monitor society. If it’s been a while since you last watched “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture,” I highly recommend doing so before jumping in to read to refresh yourself on the world. Now let’s look at the stories:
The Memory Librarian feat. Alaya Dawn Johnson: This story introduces us to Seshet, the director librarian of Little Delta, who wanted to better the world through her work within the system of New Dawn, but not in the typical sense that New Dawn wants to better the world. A Black woman, with a number of opinions and features that could see her labeled a dirty computer, she keeps her eyes away from areas known to be congregating spaces for dirty computers as she monitors the memories of people in the city and this story sees her juggling her personal desires with the careful line she has to tread with her superiors.
This story introduces us to the system of New Dawn that is in place and digs into an idea introduced in “Dirty Computer – An Emotion Picture” of things that get caught up in memory collectors that aren’t memories, like dreams.
Nevermind feat. Danny Lore: Here we meet Jane and Zen again and learn what they (and Ché) have been up to. Jane and Zen are living at the Pynk Hotel (as seen in “Pynk”) while also helping to rescue others from New Dawn. Jane shares the protagonist spot with a nonbinary individual named Neer, and we see, through the events of the story and an attack on the hotel, the importance of fighting for radical acceptance. It also showcases, incredibly cleverly, how willing exclusionists are to get chummy with the oppressor and how important it is to show compassion to people who maybe are only reacting out of ignorance or lack of options.
On that note, this story introduces us to blushounds, genetically augmented humans who can smell emotions. Used by New Dawn to track dissidents, they are themselves victims of New Dawn as we learned from one of them, Bat, who goes on to stay and heal at the Pynk Hotel.
Save Changes feat. Yohanca Delgado: This story follows the daughters of Diana Morel, a woman who had rebelled and been caught alongside Jane, but had been unable to escape the same way. Now she’s not fully there, canning Twinkies in Windex, and under the care of her daughters, because, apparently, something went wrong in her cleaning. Her daughters also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a noted rebel.
This story also asks us, what if you had a single opportunity to change the past? While this is a sci-fi world overall, there are specific moments of magic throughout. It’s not explained it just is. In this story, it’s a stone that purports to be able to turn back time passed down to Amber by their father before he died.
Timebox feat. Eve L. Ewing and Timbox Altar(ed) feat. Sheree Renée Thomas: I’ve put these two together, even though they aren’t next to each other in the book (they frame “Save Changes”) because they are similar in several ways, while they are opposites in others.
In “Timebox” a young couple getting their first apartment together find that time stops when they are in their pantry and a disagreement erupts about how to use it, which also brings to the surfaces differing opinions on activism and community aid based on the class differences they experienced growing up. Between the disagreements and their own uses of the box, they fall apart and the story ends painfully unresolved with more questions than there are answers. I was genuinely startled when I hit the end and realized there wasn’t any more.
“Timebox Altar(ed)” on the other hand, revolved around a group of children, living in an incredibly impoverished area, outside of a larger New Dawn-monitored city, mostly forgotten unless someone is flagged to be taken away for cleaning. Stumbling into an abandoned railroad crossing full of junk, they build an ark and, after a kind stranger instructs them on working with intention it turns out that when an individual sits inside the ark, they are transported somewhere that gives them a glimpse of a beautiful, hopeful future and “The Power of Yet.” As the last story in the collection, the message of a healed future ushered in by the youngest generations was a powerful note to end on.
What can artists do in difficult times? That is the question this book grapples with.
Dealing with challenging topics through allegory is a very hit or miss thing, with misses more likely than hits in my experience as a long time X-Men fan. Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, on the other hand, hits and hits hard.
I actually don’t think I would want to read this book if the discussions within of authoritarianism, people who refuse to acknowledge trouble if it doesn’t impact them, or who willfully twist meaning, were just straight discussions of the world between 2018 and now. I, like so many, have lived through and been impacted by those things all too closely, but the distance created by the found fiction/quasi-epistolary sci-fi setting opens a door to exploring those topics in a way that feels cathartic rather than painful.
The book opens with what is possibly my favorite framing device in existence: a faux-academic preface explaining what you are about to see: A collection of poems and transcripts that the robot Gyre and his human apprentice Nary, collected over their travels on the moon, which is home to a society that grew from a prison colony of political dissidents from a World that they can no longer remember. Now, generations later, they are struggling despite their founders’ best efforts to subvert what they could recall of their old world’s failings.
So what are poets Gyre and Nary to do? They look for stories, they tell stories, they share and encourage others to share. Throughout the book I was reminded repeatedly of a line from “The Truth About Stories” by Thomas King, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”
Stories are important. They are important to connection, they are important to memory, they are important to making sense of the world. At one point, in a conversation between Gyre and Nary, Nary grapples with doubt about the impact that what they’re doing has, because things seem to keep getting worse. That piece, “Do You Think We Have Been Talking About PoetryThis Whole Time?” reads to me an awful lot like grappling with activism burnout. There’s so much that needs to be done, you can’t do all of it yourself, but at the same time, sometimes it feels like you’re never doing enough.
There is so much more to be said about this book, there is more than one theme, though stories are central. A few poems that stood out to me were “Blessing (Circles),” which deals in how stories are not always neat and tidy things and spoke to my experience dealing with purity culture surrounding media, and “Like We Live in a Bad Poem,” which digs into the world building and the repercussions of the original Exiles having had their memories wiped, eg. idioms remain, but their context is lost. It is a book worth taking your time with and revisiting. I am certain it will hit me differently six months from now.
Additionally, there is some truly incredible art throughout the book, done by artist Casper Pham. My favorite piece is the one that has also been used for the cover art.
If you’re lucky, you might also still be able to get the limited edition postcard prints when you order the book. (The site says they’re for the pre-order, but I got them and didn’t pre-order, so I’m assuming it’s a “while supplies last” thing now.)
Anyway, go get yourselves a copy and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the very beginning of the book. “Please remember: This doesn’t end in a meaningful way. There’s no tidy conclusion waiting for you on the other side. Think of it more like a circle.”
Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.
From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great!
To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way.
The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story.
If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from.
One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered.
So, you’ve watched “The Witcher” on Netflix and are wondering if it’s worth getting into the books. In my humble opinion, yes, yes it is. Now, you shouldn’t go in expecting to read exactly what you watched. That sort of thinking makes no one happy. My recommendation, having only read “The Last Wish” thus far, would be to treat them as two separate, yet complimentary canons.
“The Last Wish” is a short story collection that bounces between Geralt resting and healing at Melitele’s temple with Nenneke and a series of adventures that took place in the past. A framing you will recognize in how the first season of the Netflix show bounced back and forth in time. This first book also covers many of the stories used for the first season: Renfri’s story, Pavetta’s betrothal, meeting Filavandrel, the djinn. Each story is expanded considerably from what we see in the show, which makes sense give the constraints of a TV production, but I think they were very nicely adapted. The djinn storyline in particular I thought was condensed for the Netflix show particularly well without losing too much of the feeling of the original story.
I am also glad that the show added Jaskier/Dandelion to the Pavetta betrothal/child surprise storyline, where he wasn’t in the original story. This change makes sense both in a “giving Jaskier more screen time because he’s an important character” sense, but also because of how they brought together the storyline of the show. In the book, Jaskier/Dandelion appears in several of the stories where Geralt is at the temple of Melitele with Nenneke, stories that aren’t reflected in the show, adding him somewhere else was a good call. All in all, a good change made for a good reason.
On the flip side, I think one of the most interesting things that got lost in translation from book to show was the consistent riffing on classic fairy tales. Renfri is Snow White, her stepmother conspires to get rid of her and then she spends time living with seven gnomes; the Law of Surprise is the miller’s daughter’s promise to Rumplestiltskin made a formal pact with Destiny; Stregobor notes that when he locked girls up in towers, princes would try to rescue them, a la Rapunzel; etc. etc. They’re just wonderful little details that didn’t quite make it into the show, though you can certainly see hints of them, and I greatly enjoyed them every time I came across one.
Not everyone is going to be happy with every change, but to me, “The Last Wish” feels like a particularly excellent example of how a TV/film adaptation of a book/series can make major deviations from the text, while remaining faithful to the story as a whole. Additionally, even without the show, the books are just good. If you’re looking for more of the world of the Witcher, because you liked what the show presented good news! The books are jam packed with all the great world building in the shows and more. They’re serious, they’re funny, Geralt says “What the heck” at one point and I lost it. I cannot emphasize how much you will like the books if you already enjoyed the show.
The books are also selling rather fast at the moment due to the show’s popularity and are backordered in a number of places. I got mine used through independent sellers on Amazon, but I would recommend checking your preferred bookseller first, since these are widely available books.
Nearly three years ago, Snap Book Reviews published a review of the novel “The Terror,” by Dan Simmons. Lovely and scathing, this review pointed out that Simmons’s massive brick of a book, which covers the events of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845 in exhaustive detail, served as the source material for a far-superior 2018 television adaptation that manages to depict the same historical events with both greater accuracy and also far less racism and misogyny baked into the narrative.
The story of the ill-fated Captain Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic with two ships and over one hundred unfortunate British sailors, inevitably raises these questions of racism (against Inuit groups who were blamed in the British press for Franklin’s demise) and misogyny (against the numerous women impacted by the disaster, both bereaved female relations in England and Inuit women who were questioned by explorers searching for Franklin). Representing these Victorian bigotries in fiction has proven a difficult task—and Simmons failed to live up to this challenge.
In 2018, however, two new Franklin fictions offered audiences a different view of this historical disaster: the excellent television show mentioned above (AMC’s “The Terror,” produced by Soo Hugh and David Kajganich) and Erika Behrisch Elce’s epistolatory novel “Lady Franklin of Russell Square,” written in the form of letters to the absent Sir John Franklin from his wife, Jane.
In the very first line of the Afterword to her novel, Elce (herself a scholar of the Franklin expedition and editor of the historical Lady Franklin’s letters) lays out a guiding thematic principle for her literary offering: “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John,” Elce writes, “I disagree.”
Those who have read other historical fictions about the Franklin Expedition, from Sten Nadolny’s idiosyncratic and introspective German novel “The Discovery of Slowness,” to Dominique Fortier’s (only loosely historical) found-footage French-Canadian collage “On the Proper Use of Stars,” may already have noticed that few fiction authors see Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John as soulmates. More often Lady Franklin seems, at best, indifferent to her husband (or, at worst, actively malevolent), and Sir John’s eyes stray from his lady wife to other women.
“Lady Franklin of Russell Square” begs to differ.
As written by Elce, Lady Franklin is misanthropic, judgmental, clever, passionate, and angry. She often seems to rage against the world, but she always, always loves her missing husband. The novel’s central themes, about Lady Franklin’s legacy, make it painfully clear that this protagonist knows she is being misunderstood: “Too often they forget love,” Lady Franklin writes. “I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.” It’s a compelling idea, and an innovative one.
Another mark of Elce’s great talent for showing historical research in her fiction is that the factual errors are often relatively minor. In contrast to other Franklin novels like “On the Proper Use of Stars,” where important names are misspelled or even invented whole-cloth, “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” pays very close attention to historical figures and the timelines of their lives, using real historical newspaper clippings to anchor the narrative.
Regrettably, one of the few mistakes calculated to disturb me in particular comes at the very beginning of the story, where an off-hand remark implies that Lady Franklin didn’t speak Latin or Greek, when in reality the classical world and its languages were a key part of her self-education, from when she began learning Latin at nineteen, to her travels through Greece as a newlywed in the 1830s.
Lady Franklin’s interest in the classical world is important to know, in this context, because of how several of the novel’s subplots twine together to form an intricate picture of Lady Franklin’s life in the 1840s and 1850s. One of my favorite narrative threads in “Russell Square” depicts Lady Franklin’s interaction with her nephew-by-marriage, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who offers Lady Franklin a copy of his 1842 poem “Ulysses.”
Tennyson would go on to compose a famous four-line epitaph for Sir John Franklin:
“Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou
Heroic sailor soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole.”
Tennyson’s earlier work, “Ulysses,” draws upon classical literature from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante to speak in the voice of the Greek mythic hero Odysseus, a captain who, like Sir John, spent many years lost at sea, after sailing to Troy to help recover Helen of Troy, the “face who launched a thousand ships.”
Over the course of numerous fictive letters spread out over many years, Elce’s Lady Franklin engages richly with the myths of Odysseus, casting herself first as the hero’s ever-faithful wife Penelope, and then she begins to chafe at the notion of being “called ‘pious’ and ‘devoted,’” and recasts herself instead in other ancient roles—the vengeful Lord Agamemnon, hell-bent upon finding Helen, his brother’s wife; or even as Odysseus (Ulysses) himself. For a classicist like me, this is a wonderfully complex tapestry of meta-narrative and metaphor.
Many thanks to Thomas for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts and impressions! If you’re interested in hearing me speak more about historical fiction and Lady Franklin, do come to the panel “Who Tells Your Story?: (Mis)representing the Past in Works of Historical Fiction” at the r/AskHistorians Digital Conference: [Deleted] & Missing History, from October 19th through October 21st.
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I was expecting this book to be less queer than it was, but I was expecting it to be more subtextual. I suppose that’s because I was thinking about the time period in which “Dracula” was originally was written, and how queer readings of “Dracula” all rely heavily on coding and subtext. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, I loved every queer minute of it and I am so so very glad that we now have an English translation of this wonderful book.
“The Route of Ice & Salt,” as you may have already guessed, is explicitly queer and you never forget that for one moment. The whole novella is grappling with the overlapping acceptance, shame and guilt of one’s own identity and actions as well as society’s perception of queerness as monstrous. It opens with our narrator, the captain of the Demeter, musing on his mens’ bodies, expressing attraction, but also noting that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to act on that attraction, and it ends with the captain proclaiming as he faces the monster aboard his ship that he is not a monster for his desires.
Much like the original novel, “The Route of Ice & Salt” is epistolary, and made up of the captain’s log and his private diary. It is in the private diary that we learn about the captain’s inner life and how he navigates his sexuality. There is a fine balance between erotic and horror, particularly as the captain’s dreams become influenced by the vampire aboard the ship.
It is in these dreams that we learn about the captain’s lover, Mikhail, who is rather at the center of the captain’s turmoil surrounding his sexuality. He blamed himself for Mikhail’s death, following his brutal murder at the hands of the townsfolk. It is also noteworthy that they treat Mikhail’s corpse as if he were a vampire, cementing the connection between the monstrous and the queer.
There is repeated connection too of vampire bites to the neck and the bruise sucked into the neck by a lover. In fact, when the captain sees such a mark on one of his crew, his mind goes to the later instead of the former.
My absolute favorite thing about the book, however, was how brought up various different cultural ideas surrounding vampires, even before the captain knows there is something on board he would call a vampire. The vrykolakas of Greece, the strigoi and vrolocks of Romania, the rakshasa of India. It was an expansion of vampire lore, through the lens of these sailors’ own backgrounds as well as lore of the places where they had sailed, which I thought was just… so great and clever.
Some potential warnings to note, in addition to the aforementioned murder:
There are several mentions of age gaps between partners. The captain is noted to have been younger than his lover by some undisclosed number of years, and there are several mentions of ambiguously young sex workers.
Additionally, if you are familiar with “Dracula,” you will know that no one living survives the passage from Varna to Whitby. This is a queer erotic horror story that fleshes out a small piece of the original novel. There is a cathartic ending, but if you’re looking for a fluffy happy ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.
Fast paced and absolutely riveting, “StarLion” is the story of Jordan Harris, a young man with powers derived from the gods, who dreams of being a hero, but has been told to hide his powers and so resorts to vigilante activity in his spare time. The origin of superheroes as descended from the gods of various pantheons gives the book a unique twist that is very, very refreshing in the face of what feels like endless stream of superhero movies that seem to rehash the same plot elements and problems. It also creates a fascinating alternate history, where major historical figures, George Washington, Napoleon, etc. had superpowers, and makes for some really cool world building moments.
Though the most lauded superheroes are called Olympians and the school Jordan attends (as an alternative to prison after he’s caught doing vigilante work) is called Fort Olympus, the Greek gods are not the only gods represented. My two favorite minor characters, who I really hope we see again in a sequel, are Tobe and Osin, who are descended from the African god, Ogun.
And the characters, oh boy, there’s so much to love. Everyone, villain and hero alike, is well-rounded and dynamic. Everyone has flaws, people have to work to get along, and sometimes they just don’t get along. Relationships are complex and characters’ inner conflicts are complex, and I really enjoyed the choice to have the main team be so large and so dynamic. Not one person is alike, though they all share some level of similarity, Jordan and Alicia and Sydney all have family who were or are professional superheroes, but well, let’s just say it takes bit for them to get along, and Cooper and Reuben, whose powers manifest as being creature-human hybrids, could not have more polar opposite personalities, though they share some level of struggle (with varying severity).
Large casts like this can be very difficult to pull off, especially when you need to develop them all quickly, but through the use of third person omniscient narration, we get to learn quickly and effectively just where all the points of conflict between our leads comes from. This, in turn, allows for rapid movement forward as they all learn to work together and grow as friends and team mates.
While Jordan is the primary POV character, the dip in and out of other characters’ POVs also adds some really wonderful layers to the story and sets up some really great tension and suspense. This allows for a really great blend of both foreshadowing and learning information that our protagonists just don’t know.
Some other things I enjoyed:
1. The artwork. There is absolutely gorgeous, full-color artwork throughout the book, and the uniforms are completely unisex. There are also little character bios, which are really great.
2. A very diverse cast! There are multiple characters of color—Jordan and Alicia are Black and I believe Reuben is Latino—and multiple disabled characters too! Jordan’s best friend Nathan walks with crutches, and superhero Red Wing, who is Jordan’s squad leader is an accomplished hero who started his hero career already missing one arm.
3. How very obviously their age the main five leads are. They’re teenagers and it shows, though again, in different ways for each character, no one has the same sort of background.
There’s so much more. I could go on and on. “StarLion” is a wonderful and fun read.
The biggest warning I would give is for genre typical violence, and one description on page 362, first full paragraph on the page, of an open, compound fracture.
“StarLion: The Thieves of the Red Night” can be found in paperback here and as an ebook here. (The paperback is gorgeous and incredibly satisfying to hold.)