Phantom Pains – Mishell Baker

51nbqqngrjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Borderline, Mishell Baker’s debut, was one of the more delightful surprises of 2016–a character-driven urban fantasy that dealt with managing mental illness while also stopping evil fairy plots. Phantom Pains expands on some of the plotlines hinted at in book one–class conflict in the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and Millie and Caryl’s budding romantic chemistry. When mysterious wraiths start possessing people, and Caryl is framed for murder, Millie must clear her name before Caryl is executed by her employers, the strict Arcadia Project that regulates contact between the worlds.

Baker introduces new memorable characters, like the melancholy and loyal Unseelie king, Winterglass, and a snarky manticore. She also upends plot expectations by having the resolution be a tense negotiated solution rather than a climactic battle. And the interpersonal relationships are complex as ever.

But its frenetic pacing works against Phantom Pains. While it’s an absorbing read, I would have liked more time for the emotional aspects to sink in. With paradigm shifts every few chapters undermining what the characters and readers thought they knew, we spend too much time catching up with the latest twist and not enough time processing with the characters.

Despite this problem, Phantom Pains is a lot of fun (with a bonus Dostoevsky Easter egg towards the end), and I can’t wait to see how the plot and characters develop in the next book, Imposter Syndrome.

Heroine Complex – Sarah Kuhn

Years after a portal opened in San Francisco, giving some of its residents superpowers, Evie Tanaka is raising her little sister and working for her best friend, a superhero. It’s not all sunshine, though–Aveda Jupiter, the superhero, is increasingly tyrannical and demanding, and it’s all Evie can do to put up with her mood swings. When Aveda is injured and demands Evie masquerade as her until she’s recovered, and Evie agrees against her better judgement, their relationship comes to a crisis, just as the demons from the other side of the portal begin to evolve and prepare for a potential takeover.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-17-19-amBefore I even get into the book, I have to compliment the cover by Jason Chan. It accurately depicts a scene from the book (with some small artistic license), right down to the clothes the characters are wearing. It portrays the two women, both East Asian, distinctly–Evie in particular actually looks mixed-race as she is in the text, which I appreciated. The cupcake demons on the cover give a good idea of the tone of the book–frothy but with a bite.

I found it the perfect book to read in easily digestible, bite-size segments. However, it’s not a fluffy read–under the lampshaded ridiculousness of the premise, Kuhn digs deep into the dysfunctional relationships between the characters. So convincing was the toxic-yet-loving relationship between Evie and Aveda that I was actually slightly dissatisfied when it’s basically solved through open communication and intervention–Aveda’s self-centeredness might be something she just wasn’t aware of, but her outsize mood swings made me feel awful for her, and hope she gets some psychological help in the sequels.

There’s plenty of romance in addition to the friendship–Evie suddenly finds herself attracted to a scientist/doctor who studies demons and tries to fit life into spreadsheets, dismissing Evie’s way of looking at the world. They both come to see the value in each others’ perspective, and while initially the emotionally-repressed Evie wants sex with no strings attached (an interesting reversal of gender roles), she eventually falls in love. Nate, the love interest, is a hot tortured-hero type, but this is livened up by a) Evie’s own propensity to play the self-sacrificing, repressed hero and b) his genuine interest in science and the scientific method. Plus, it’s an archetype I enjoy anyway.

The one character I didn’t really buy was Evie’s little sister Bea, who is both effortlessly hypercompetent in a way that doesn’t make sense for a sixteen-year-old, even a sixteen-year-old genius, and also prone to making plot-necessary but unbelievably stupid decisions. And I will believe in a lot of stupid decisions. This was over-the-top. I will put the spoilery details under a read more.

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Borderline – Mishell Baker

borderline-9781481429788_hrA really solid debut urban fantasy with a heroine with Borderline Personality Disorder. The author has the same disorder, and it’s integral to the character. As a whole, the book is very character-driven– Millie, our protagonist, has a very strong and sarcastic voice, and since her perceptions of others are often unreliable, many reversals and reveals in their characterizations come naturally.

My favorite character was the amazingly brave Caryl. What Baker does with her characterization is something that can only be done in fantasy. Caryl, deeply traumatized by her childhood, splits her emotions off magically into a small, invisible pet dragon when she’s working. So we see her both in the grip of her emotions and artificially separated from them. Caryl believes that her rationally-set priorities are more “her” than her emotions, which Millie doesn’t agree with.

The magic system is for the most part generic, the usual bits of Irish and Scottish fairy mythologies set in a modern day city. The notable differences are a) the concept of Echoes, fey and human soulmate pairs, driven by artistic inspiration rather than romance, and b) the fact that class differences among the fey are taken seriously, rather than the Court structures being window-dressing. The second issue in particular sets up some interesting conflicts which I am sure will be expanded upon in sequels.

One of my few quibbles with this book was that the Arcadia Project, the group that smooths relations between the worlds and which Millie and Caryl work for, while made up primarily of mentally ill people, only accepts mentally ill people who are not dependent on meds, which is a really weird worldbuilding choice. There are enough narratives in fantasy in which meds are a negative force, and in this case the reasons behind this exclusion weren’t explained very well. Of course, since the Arcadia Project is ethically a bit dubious, this might turn out to be just them misinterpreting the situation or being jerks.

My other problem was that a plot-crucial betrayal didn’t seem to make sense in terms of motivation– I just think it should have been set up better.

I really loved the exploration of Borderline Personality Disorder and how to live with a disease that makes one frequently make mistakes that hurt others. Millie describes the techniques she uses to deal with her rage and her problems perceiving others’ intent. Also, I ended up sympathizing with both Millie when she lashed out and those she was lashing out at, knowing simultaneously that Millie was hurting and that she was causing pain to others.

I highly recommend this book to those looking for a fast-paced urban fantasy, but know that it is not a light read per se; it deals with heavy themes and has a body count. All of which only made it more appealing to me.

 

About a Girl – Sarah McCarry

The final book in the Metamorphoses trilogy follows Tally, Aurora’s daughter, abandoned by her and raised by the narrator from All Our Pretty Songs and the narrator’s friends.

Spoilers for the series ending:

Aspiring astronomer Tally runs off to the West Coast to find out who her father is, and instead finds out her mother’s dark fate. She’s also running away from the awkward situation of having slept with her best friend Shane, and finds a very different romantic relationship with a girl called Maddy, who may just be an immortal Medea.

There were several things I didn’t like about this book. First and foremost, the consequences of Maddy being Medea felt tame. This is the woman who murdered her own children to get back at someone whom she had loved and been betrayed by– there wasn’t sufficient horror, sufficient danger; sufficient tension. Yeah, Medea has mellowed into Maddy and is trying to forget her past– but that past doesn’t catch up with her enough. There isn’t enough consequence to such a momentous revelation.

Secondly, because Tally spends a lot of the book not able to remember her goals due to magical interference, the book got kind of frustrating as I waited for her to remember to ask the questions I wanted answers to. The forgetfulness also made Tally a bit of a passive character, pushed around by forces beyond her control.

There were also little things– I didn’t believe that a girl who was mixed like me (in Tally’s case actually 3/4ths white) would think of “white people” as an outside group to be thought of disparagingly. But that’s just my personal experience, and I know some people will disagree. Also I lost a bit of sympathy for Tally, of all silly things, because she disdains Harry Potter but calls Aurora’s friend and her guardian “Aunt Beast” after A Wrinkle in Time. Now there’s nothing wrong with A Wrinkle in Time, but in my opinion, it gets too much attention compared to L’Engle’s other and better books. I’m a The Young Unicorns girl myself.

On the good side, there were absolutely consequences to the events of the previous books, and redemption alongside them. Maia and Cass regain their friendship (and more? we don’t know) and live together, though Maia is forever changed by her long period of drug abuse. The narrator of All Our Pretty Songs and her ex-boyfriend also get, thanks to Tally, a second chance, but Aurora remains trapped in the underworld– largely because she sacrificed any chance of escape to get Tally out.

We also get some resolution for the character of Minos, the judge of the dead– Mr. M in this book. I won’t spoil this, but he remains a tragic figure.

I’m glad I read this book to find out what happened, but it’s not my favorite of the series.

 

Dirty Wings- Sarah McCarry

Spoilers for both this book and All Our Pretty Songs

Having by now read McCarry’s entire Metamorphoses trilogy, I can say that this one is easily the best. Told in alternating third-person from the perspectives of Cass and Maia, the mothers of the friends in All Our Pretty Songs and at this point best friends themselves, it also alternates between “Then”– before they run away together on a trip down the West Coast– and “Now”–as the trip continues and finally as they return. McCarry manages the pacing perfectly with these four different perspectives, which impressed me.

One thing that became obvious reading this book that wasn’t in the first book is that Maia’s daughter Aurora is half-white, half-Asian, like me. I had been assuming, due to my own prejudices and stereotypes, that based on her background and behavior, she was part-black or at least Hispanic, definitely not someone like me. But I’m really glad she turned out to be what she was– it challenged my own preconceptions and made me more aware of them. Plus, I like that the author didn’t let the usual assumptions about race dictate Aurora’s character.

But that’s about the other book. This one was really beautifully written, the third-person pov (which I normally like less than first) pulling away from the sometimes overwritten style of the first book, in favor of something more precise and in my opinion lovelier. I had some issues with Dirty Wings, mainly the use of certain cliches. The failed interracial, international adoption of Maia felt like a cliche to me, because I could never get a sense of her adoptive mother as a real person rather than an antagonist. I also didn’t believe that Maia played the piano better than ever after weeks of not practicing, however much else she learned on the road. It felt like a trite way to show her growth.

The Greek myth retold in this episode is that of Persephone, and at one point Cass makes a shocking betrayal– I mean truly shocking, in a book about friendship. It’s not when she sleeps with Maia’s new husband, the soon-to-be rock star Jason, even though that explained some things about the previous book– the narrator and Aurora are actually, unbeknownst to them, sisters. It’s when she gets Jason to eat a pomegranate, and then Maia eats it too, and she doesn’t stop her. She does join in herself, at least.

But this alone doesn’t damn Maia and Jason. They too have free will, and it’s a theme in this trilogy that you can only be destroyed by your own (uninformed, misunderstood, regretted too late) consent. All the characters in this book make terrible choices, and yet it’s not a depressing book, because of the love Maia and Cass have for each other. At first it’s a deep friendship, one that pulls sheltered Maia into the world of street kid Cass but brings her joy she never knew. Later it becomes clear that Cass’s feelings for Maia are romantic, and that Maia reciprocates, though she remains faithful to the flawed man she impulsively married on the road trip.

Regardless, their love for each other, in all its forms, is heartwarming. It’s a different kind of friendship from the sisterly love of Aurora and All Our Pretty Song‘s narrator, both because it edges into romance and because Maia and Cass didn’t grow up together but found each other as teens. It pulled me in more.

Both for its greater emotional impact on me and for the technical skill in its construction, its pov shifts and timeline shifts and careful mix of joy and sadness, I think this is the best book in the series, and enjoyed it greatly.

 

All Our Pretty Songs – Sarah McCarry

Aurora and the nameless narrator are best friends who love each other wholly and completely. They’re of different races (one mixed, one white) and classes (one rich, one poor) but they’re like sisters. The narrator would do anything for Aurora, whose father, a famous rocker, died when she was young and whose mother is an addict.

Things go wrong when, attracted by the narrator’s boyfriend’s musical talent and Aurora’s beauty, the god of the underworld starts to take an interest. Will the narrator be able to save Aurora, or will they suffer the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice?

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I had a few complaints about the novel. One was the occasionally overwrought prose, endless streams of metaphor describing music and kisses, reaching for poetic and failing through sheer quantity. Another was that it took a while for the urban fantasy/Greek mythology plot to get underway. But once it does, oh boy is it good.

I highly recommend this book, mainly for the narrator’s journey to the underworld, which is pitch-perfect. It’s also got great depictions of art and of friendship, friendship being the heart of the story. The truth is, sometimes the person you love most has something that matters to them more than you do, and you have to let them go. At the same time, the author offers a warning against letting go unnecessarily in the depiction of the mothers’ friendship, which has disintegrated but is revived. So there’s a nice level of complexity.

This is a sad book, fair warning. But it’s lovely, too. Here’s one of the less overwrought, more beautiful quotes:

“That is the story of you, Aurora: You are always waiting until tomorrow to be sad. You’re a fairy princess beaming at me, remaking the world in your image. Wiping away everything that hurts. But someday everything that hurts will come back and kill you. Your face, your wide dark eyes, your white hair, the skin I know as well as I know my own. “Okay,” I say. “For you, tonight, I will be happy.””

This is a the first of a trilogy, but the other books feature different protagonists. I’ve already bought book two, Dirty Wings, and will definitely be reading it.

The Shadow Cabinet- Maureen Johnson

Book three in the Shades of London ghost story series spends about two thirds of its time wrapping up a major event from

book two, and the rest setting up the finale. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and found it easy to follow even having skipped book two, The Madness Underneath.

Rory’s crush Stephen has been killed in a car accident while trying to save her from being kidnapped, but Rory is sure she managed to bring him back as a ghost. The problem is, she can’t find him. Meanwhile, she tries to locate Charlotte, a fellow student kidnapped by Rory’s dangerous therapist.

The best part of the story, for me, has always been Stephen, with his willingness to sacrifice himself for his fellow squad members and his goals. In this book, we get some more insight into why he’s like that, and how much it stems from his messed-up upbringing. Rory wants to punch his parents for leaving him feeling like he can sacrifice himself for everyone but no one is allowed to do the same for him (because, implicitly, he’s not worth it).

There’s also a nicely creepy scene at the beginning where Rory tangles with a manipulative ghost in a graveyard and almost ends up on fire.

I do think it’s a bit odd that among the four main characters, the two non-white people pair up romantically and so do the two white people, so there’s diversity but no interracial relationships. However, I’m oversensitive to that (being the product of an interracial relationship). On a similar note, I’d have liked more screentime for beta couple Callum and Boo.

I’m looking forward to the final book– the series definitely has its moments even if overall it’s more competent than amazing.