content by

Maya Gittelman

Queer Filipinos Save the World: Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin

Elisa A. Bonnin makes a powerful debut with Dauntless, a lush and emotive Filipino-inspired fantasy centered on three very different girls reimagining the entirety of their world. This is a book about reckoning with the humanity in our mentors, our heroes, our lovers, and ourselves, especially in times of great trauma and impossible choices. Bonnin weaves cinematic action with emotive sapphic romance and thoughtful friendships to craft a propulsive fantasy. 

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Aiden Thomas Makes Magic: The Sunbearer Trials Shine Bright

Yes, it absolutely is as excellent as the premise makes it sound.

Look, I had high expectations for The Sunbearer Trials. Given the summary, the commissioned art author Aiden Thomas has been sharing, and his previous work—I went into this expecting a marvel.

And it was absolutely everything I hoped for and more. 

So if you’re also coming to The Sunbearer Trials wanting to love it, I’d say there’s an incredibly good chance you are going to love the absolute hell out of it. And if you’re new to Thomas’s writing, this book is a perfect place to start. 

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The Joy that Kills, The Joy that Saves: Our Flag Means Death’s Mary Bonnet is Her Own Masterpiece

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Maya Gittelman looks at the lives of two widows—one the protagonist of a classic story by Kate Chopin, the other…Mary Bonnet.

“Free! Body and soul free!” 

So whispers Mrs. Mallard in Kate Chopin’s 1894 very short “The Story of An Hour” upon the revelation of her husband’s sudden death. Grief and shock come first. And then the fact of it sets in. The way the world has cracked open. As a widow, she at last has the right to her own life. She did her duty of wifehood, no one can fault her for the freedom that comes next:

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Series: Close Reads

Emily X.R. Pan’s An Arrow to the Moon Is an Elegant, Compassionate Reimagining

There’s a sort of tangible compassion in the best retellings. A sense that you’re sharing in a story that has transformed a part of the author’s heart, that they’ve loved enough to reimagine and build from within their own voice. You get to witness this dialogue, this conversation between a creator and a narrative that has helped shape what it means for them to create. The very love of story itself feels present on the page, as does the author’s fingerprints on a story that predates us by many generations. It’s a special thing when it’s done well, and Emily X.R. Pan’s sophomore novel An Arrow to the Moon does it extremely well. Weaving a distinctively Asian-American Romeo and Juliet with the Chinese folktale of Houyi and Chang’e, she crafts a tender and thoroughly thoughtful love story.

Luna Chang and Hunter Yee are literally star-crossed, born on the same day of a rising, splitting star, on opposite sides of a bitter rivalry. Their paths meet seventeen years later, at a crucial time for both of them. 

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Queer Meditations on Meaning in Becky Chambers’ A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

I am somewhere between an outdoorsy person and not, which is to say I feel profound joy and catharsis at the natural sublime while also being extremely prone to bug bites, sunburn, and anxiety. As someone who lives most of my life in a city, separate from the world in its more untouched state, I find myself simultaneously drawn to nature, and also often incapable of feeling truly present within it unless I really try. Especially in the midst of this fucking pandemic, which has scrambled my brain and heart with fresh heaps of that aforementioned anxiety. It’s hard to take it in. To set down the phone camera, the maps app, the terror and rage that everything beautiful I’m looking at is steadily being eroded by the hubris of a dozen-odd extremely powerful supervillains. But I have to, I have to, otherwise what’s the point of any of this? 

[I share this perspective with lots of people, including Sibling Dex.]

The Galaxy-Rocking Romp of Charlie Jane Anders’ Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak

The second installment in Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable trilogy is a wild, clever, galaxy-spanning romp sure to delight fans of Victories Greater Than Death. Picking up where the first book left off, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak meets Anders’ beloved found family with quite a lot on their collective plates. They survived unimaginable dangers, but at what cost? 

With much of the worldbuilding established in the first book—though she doesn’t miss any opportunities to deepen it satisfyingly here—Anders can delve into the business of how these teenagers actually navigate this universe. While Victories centered on Tina, Dreams hands the POV spotlights to Elza, her girlfriend, and Rachael, her best friend. We get “JoinerTalk” messages from Tina so we’re still inside her head a bit, which is wonderful because she’s a fantastic protagonist, but the other girls get to shine. This works really well, as all three of them have to confront the aftermath of “saving the day” and the complicated reality of what it means to live your dreams. Just because there are aliens, clones, and intergalactic technology none of them could have imagined as a kid doesn’t mean growing up gets any easier—in fact, they’ve got a whole set of new problems to balance on top of figuring out who they are.

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Act of Grace: Masculinity, Monstrosity, and Queer Catharsis in Our Flag Means Death

Queer heartache has never felt this good.

Every time there’s queer energy in an ongoing genre show it always feels like Schrödinger’s Queerbait—are they going to go for it or am I going to get hurt? Are they leaning into the story they’re telling, or are they going to tell a worse story by ignoring the character dynamics they chose to put onscreen and instead rely on lazy compulsory heteronormativity to take the show in the most predictable possible direction in what posits to be risk avoidance but which is really code for the boring fact of homophobia. Schrödinger’s Queerbait: Is the queer romance dead or alive? Mostly, it’s dead. There are notable exceptions that certainly deserve their due, like She-Ra and Black Sails, and a good amount of books that have swashbuckling canon queer vibes—check out Alex Brown’s excellent piece here for recs—but almost always for genre shows the answer is comphet and hurt.

So when I realized that Our Flag Means Death is actually telling the queer story it felt like it’s telling—fully, and tenderly—it was like the world cracked open in the best way.

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Folklore, Family, and First Love in From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos

Rebecca Podos’ From Dust, A Flame is a lyric, deeply moving contemporary fantasy YA that digs into complicated relationships with Judaism, queerness, and becoming. 

Hannah Williams has never known her roots. Her father died when she was small, leaving behind a set of nice, distant grandparents in Canada, and her mother never talks about her family or where she came from at all. Instead, she moves Hannah and her brother Gabe across the country time and time again, never quite settling. Everything changes the day of Hannah’s seventeenth birthday, when she wakes up with a set of eyes she doesn’t recognize peering back at her in the mirror. This is only the beginning of a series of frightening mutations that sends their mother searching for answers. When she doesn’t return, Hannah and Gabe have to take the situation into their own hands—and those of the stranger who sends them an invitation to sit shiva for the grandmother they never knew they had. In Fox Hollow, they find an entire community and history kept secret from them, brimming at once with beauty and impossible ache. 

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Trying Even in the Face of Hopelessness: Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea is at once a lush, compassionate reimagining that focuses on the agency of young women and also a beautiful homage to its source story.

Mina’s homeland has suffered the whims of an uncaring god for a century. Each year they sacrifice a bride to the Sea God in the hopes of assuaging his wrath, but only his true bride can break the curse and bring an end to the devastating storms that have ravaged their lands and killed countless people. It is said that their benevolent emperor was murdered by a conqueror, and the Sea God, who’d loved him like a brother, fell into devastation and a grief so powerful he began the storms. Now wars rage across the leaderless, storm-scarred landscape. Year after year they offer brides, young women sent to the Spirit Realm or perhaps to drown in the vicious sea, and year after year the storms start again.

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Burn Butcher Burn: Jaskier Deserved Better in The Witcher Season 2

I guess… what I’m really asking you is… is this what pleases you?

There’s a lot to love in season two of Netflix’s The Witcher, but many admirers of the fan favorite bard Jaskier are left, well, wanting. Our central protagonist, the Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia, opens up a good amount from the grunty hmm-er we met in season one—with a notable, confusing, and canonically heartbreaking exception.

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Cursed, Bisexual, and Morally Grey: Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

Lena has always been alone. She has to be. The merest touch of her bare skin condemns any person to a violent, immediate death. Her parents bargained with a witch to save her mother’s life before she was born, promising their child to her in return. When Lena was born, they fled—and the witch cursed her. It’s almost all right for a while—until Lena has a terrible accident, and her mother abandons them. She and her father are forced to flee to a village on the edge of a dangerous, enchanted forest called the Silence, within which lies a city filled with magic. 

This, at least, is the story Lena’s been told. 

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The Luminous Hope of Zoraida Córdova’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina

Protect your magic.

Zoraida Córdova’s adult debut The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a mesmeric, intricate offering, alive with power and brimming with light. Here, choices and magic follow a bloodline through generations. In the wake of the death of their enigmatic matriarch, the Montoyas unearth long-buried secrets that have shaped each of their lives.

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S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City: A Dazzling, Nonbinary Mosaic of Story, Surveillance, and Self

S. Qiouyi Lu’s richly imagined debut novella In The Watchful City sings an intricate symphony, brimming with cleverness and ache. 

The city of Ora is in a state of chosen exile, freed from the clutches of the Skyland empire. In the wake of its collective trauma, Ora surveils its people and its visitors through nodes, extrasensory humans who can navigate the complex interconnected network called the Gleaming. Anima is one of the innermost nodes, and with this power comes the ability to borrow the bodies of living creatures and control them. Æ believes in Ora’s governance, and ær position as peacekeeper. But when a mysterious stranger with a qíjìtáng full of curious items crosses the border without Anima’s notice, the way æ see ær world will never be the same.

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