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Tag: Young Adult

Review: Surrender Your Sons

As a gay man, I didn’t grow up suffering. Sure, I was in denial, I repressed a lot of shit, and I missed on my entire teenagehood. That sucked. But I didn’t get disowned. I was never bullied. I have rarely been discriminated against.

I was never sent to conversion therapy…

A part of me feels the need for vicarious trauma. For personal outrage, despite the lack of personal experience. It is a profoundly disturbing mixture of perverted FOMO and guilt. As a Queer person, do I really own myself if I didn’t suffer? Do I have a right to my identity? The answer is, naturally, yes, of course I do. But the feeling is still there, and it makes books like Adam Sass’ Surrender Your Sons a near-cathartic experience.

At the age of 17, Connor Major is a skinny 5’6 gay kid in rural Illinois, who just came out to his church-zombie single mom. His life is, as a result, not awesome. His phone has been confiscated, so he is isolated from his few friends. His two-towns-over boyfriend is unable to fully comprehend what he is dealing with at home. And his mom and the town preacher insist that he admit to the paternity of his ex-girlfriend’s newborn (he didn’t do it!).

The best, however, is yet to come, as Connor finds himself literally kidnapped and carted off to a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica (no dinosaurs though). There, at Nightlight Ministries, boys and girls like him are sent by overzealous parents to get “fixed”. Except, everything is off, even by conversion therapy standards. And Connor was warned about this place back home.

By someone who is now dead.

When I first read the blurb for this YA thriller, I was both immediately on board, and a bit skeptical. Conversion therapy? In 2020? In this economy? But Sass navigates the anachronistic core of his premise with elegance. By hanging a lantern on the absurdity of such a place in present day, he gets to place it in an exotic location. What’s more, he gets to have his characters have a near-meta understanding of their surroundings, as they navigate not only the camp itself, but its cultural context as well.

Surrender Your Sons is a brilliantly written debut. The book exudes the kind of easy sass (pun forever intended) and colloquial flexibility that always make me ugly-jealous. Connor himself is beautifully portrayed as a neurotic kid who has the capacity for both courage, and complete emotional collapse. The rest of the cast are just as well depicted, if in less detail. There is raw vulnerability and innocence coming out of the intimate first person narrative, even when the circumstances around Connor are anything but innocent.

As I said before, this is a thriller. The back cover suggests more of a mystery than the story actually ends up being. But to me, the mismatch between my expectations and the reality were in favor of the book. Surrender Your Sons is a story about tragedy, both past and present. About violence and the desolation that bigotry and self-loathing can heap upon the world. One sentence in particular stuck with me long after the end:

‘That’s what a hate crime does: it reaches out, through space and time, and touches you with a greasy hand.’

The book begins with a content warning. There are themes in there. Suicide, abuse, and surprisingly hot depictions of sex that must have barely passed the YA standard. Despite the effortless prose, Surrender Your Sons is certainly not an easy read on an emotional level.

Sass ends up weaving a story both more mundane, and more personal than the blurb implies. And far stronger for it. I read the last 50 pages with perma-lump in my throat, as one of the best denouements I have ever seen in a book meticulously takes us through the lives harmed or ruined by Nightlight. In the end, Surrender Your Sons was an exciting adventure with a powerful emotional charge. Dealing with serious darkness, but ultimately hopeful. And I thoroughly loved it.

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

My first reaction upon hearing that the Hunger Games was about to have a prequel, was confusion. As a moderate fan of the series, I welcomed another journey into the world of Panem, of course. But the 10th Hunger Games specifically? When there are so many potentially cooler moments in the past we could visit? Who asked for this?

Well, it turns out we all did. We just didn’t know it.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us 64 years into the past. The war between the Capitol and the 13 Districts has only been over for a decade, and reconstruction is slow. Parts of the once shining city are still in ruins. Its once celebrated noble families cling to the glory of old names, even when their riches are gone. And if it is even worse in the Districts, young Capitol Academy student Coriolanus Snow doesn’t care. Having lost both his parents in the war, he now lives in their once resplendent penthouse with his equally orphaned cousin Tigris and their “Grandma’am”, who is slowly going senile.

His one chance of a future lies in a scholarship to attend University after graduation. But to earn that, he must first prove himself in the first batch of Mentors in the Hunger Games. If he could lead his assigned Tribute to victory, his path forward is guaranteed. Except, he gets assigned the flamboyant performer Lucy Gray Baird from District 12. And all his carefully laid plans blow up.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could have easily been a very problematic book. President Snow is an unapologetic villain in the original trilogy. There was a risk that this prequel could have been a sappy attempt at sympathy. But Suzanne Collins elegantly makes us care for “Coryo”, while sowing the seeds of what he would become from the very beginning. He is earnest, but vain. Kind, but calculated. Friendly to the less fortunate, but secretly feeling superior to them. In a way, he is a victim of his class, surroundings, and history. But he also makes all his choices. At no point do we feel that he is too good to become the horrifying mastermind of 64 years later. But we also understand what path took him there, and we can understand him enough to like him.

This masterful balancing act transforms The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Instead of a pointless prequel, it becomes a fascinating portrait of a historic figure, and the world that created it. But Collins also delivers an exciting story to go along with it. The Capitol is a far cry from its future splendor, and so are the Hunger Games. As Gamemakers experiment with new ideas to turn a bunch of starved kids killing each other inside a ruined coliseum into a national entertainment, we see the nuggets that will flower into the diabolical contest of the original trilogy. As expected, Coriolanus plays a huge part in this evolution, sometimes unwittingly, but often deliberately.

Lucy Gray Baird plays an important part both in the story, and in Coryo’s development. A talented singer from a group of traveling musicians, she is a cunning performer, and the reader is never 100% certain of her motives. Collins plays any possible connections to the original trilogy close to the chest, but suffice to say Lucy is the one who composes “The Hanging Tree”. Make of that what you will.

All in all, I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes quite a bit more than I expected. It fleshes out the past, and one of the world’s most important characters in an honest, complex, and exciting way. It is also perfectly self-contained, while welcoming the possibility of sequels. But whether Collins decides to continue the tale of Coriolanus Snow, or chooses to jump to a different point in time, I am excited for what comes next.

Review: Bonds of Brass

I found out about Bonds of Brass by a random Twitter-induced happenstance. Someone I followed had liked a tweet by Emily Skrutskie, in which she described her upcoming YA novel. And the promise of a M/M romance, set in a space opera of imperial intrigues and starfighters, was all I needed to pre-order. Luckily, I also snagged an ARC of it at C2E2, and I devoured it in two sittings.

Bonds of Brass takes place in the distant future, in which humans have spread out into the galaxy and formed vast empires that now challenge each other. Ettian is a young pilot, training to fight for the brutal empire that destroyed the one he was born in. Having shed the past during two grueling years of living on the streets, he now only has eyes for his own future. As well as his handsome bunkmate and best friend Gal. But when an almost successful assassination attempt reveals Gal to be the heir to the empire that made him an orphan, Ettian has to decide whether his loyalties lie with the ghosts of his shattered past, or his feelings for a boy who is destined to inherit the most horrifying power in the galaxy.

I loved, loved, loved this book! Skrutskie’s effortless prose, kept in a tight first person from Ettian’s perspective, tells an exciting tale of adventure with anime undertones (coming accessorized with power suits, for extra otaku points). The action is fast-paced, the language — extremely evocative. We can smell and feel the world on every page, be it confined to the cabin of a space ship, or a vast cityscape.

But what’s even better, the novel paints a beautiful relationship between two boys, persevering despite being designed to fail in all manner of spectacular ways. Ettian’s feelings — and through his eyes, Gal’s as well — are raw and earnest, unfiltered by his telling of the story, and the adventure the two are forced into puts those to the test. In moments of intimacy, the painful ache of desire also takes on a very physical, if adorably chaste, tone. Skrutskie takes us all the way into the eyes of Ettian, as they hunger over the details in physicality and mannerism that made him fall for Gal.

Bonds of Brass is fast paced and action packed, but somehow, there is always time for character building. Both of the book’s heroes are complex, neither one falling into black-and-white stereotypes. If anything, both get up to some highly questionable shit, ethically speaking, and the ending left me with a deep sense of uncertainty as to who I was actually rooting for. On that note, it bears noting that this is only a first part of a trilogy, and it is wide open.

If I have one problem with Bonds of Brass, it is extra-literary, and personal, and has nothing to do with the book’s merits. On Emily Skrutskie’s pinned tweet, she describes the characters as “two bisexual disasters”. And I have no problem believing that Gal is bi. But, um, as a gay man, Ettian reads gay to me. This is a made-up character, and everything that exists of him is in this book. And in this book he is coded as fully focused on a single person, who happens to be male-identified. No hints are given of any interest he has ever had in other people, not even a throwaway sentence or a stray thought. The only other relationship he has, is aggressively platonic, and firmly defined by shared experiences. The only time, in fact, when he has any romantic/sexual thought not focused on Gal, it is to observe two boys making out in a cantina, and feel jealous.

I recognize that this is not a real issue, and labels aren’t terribly relevant in a made-up future space opera. And to be absolutely clear, I love reading about bisexual characters. But to me it read somewhat like “Dumbledore is gay”, as well as made me a bit sad on a personal level. It seems there are barely any gay male-identified protagonists in current SFF, confusing though that might be, considering how progressive the field has become in recent years. And not that I am that desperate for explicit identification, but it still felt nice when the novel was giving me a very clear signal that this was what I was getting. And then it seemed that the author herself did not support that signal.

This is, however, my own personal issue, and ultimately it only rubbed me the wrong way for a moment, before being drowned by the sheer awesomeness of Bonds of Brass. If royal intrigue, space warfare, planetary adventures, and boys in love are your game, then this book plays it perfectly. My only problem at present is that it isn’t even out yet (release date is 4/7), and I am already itching for the second part of the trilogy.

Reading Update: 02/26/20 – State of the Reading Update

If you’ve been with me in all three seconds of this blog’s existence, you will remember the very first Reading Update and the shameful admission that followed. ‘Tis true, I suck at planning and adhering to plans once I make them. BUT! Things happen — ARCs, and Cons, and I-Saw-Something-Else-In-A-Bookstore-And-Had-To-Read-That-Instead. Anyway, I am happy to report that despite my many failures as a human being, I have now covered half of the books I set out to read back in that first post, despite the process being interrupted by reading a ton of other stuff. This blog has already fulfilled one of its purposes, which is to keep me accountable. Even if I end up being the only one reading the account.

Reading Update: 01/23/20

This year, I’ve decided, is to be space opera-themed. Which is mostly code for “finally started The Expanse, several years after everyone else”, but I have other titles in mind as well. After finishing Leviathan Wakes in one (very long transatlantic flight) sitting, I started Caliban’s War, which is about as much word count as I can take from any one author (ok, in this case two) before needing a change of pace.

Meanwhile, this is the eclectic pile I am currently thinking of as “to read soon”. My obsession with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is boundless, and I have been waiting for Come Tumbling Down for months. Before and After the Book Deal is on the list because of a recommendation from Jane Friedman, whose book The Business of Being a Writer was transformative to my understanding of the field. Fangirl caught my attention with the meta aspects of spawning an in-world fantasy series, as well as, yunno, everyone raving about Rainbow Rowell.

Adam SIlvera’s Infinity Son is on the pile, courtesy of my need for more gay male SFF. Not to diss other queer fiction (I think about half of the books I read in 2019 were written by and featuring various types of queer women), but for some reason it seems gay male stories written by gay male authors are pretty sparse in the speculative genres. And Killing Gravity just sounds. So. Effin. Awesome! I don’t know what a “voidwitch” is yet, but I desperately want to be one!