Review: Interface by Lucy Mihajlich

The book cover of Interface by Luch Mihajlich

This is the last work of fiction I’m reviewing for my asexual fiction from Smashwords month.

What is this story about?

The year is 2048, and the company Interface – which is essentially Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon combined – has a monopoly on all computers and electronics based on computer technology, and also basically owns the economy of the United States. Oh, and Interface is also a religion, much more popular than Christianity in the year 2048. Interface is run by a man known as ‘the Father’.

Pen Nowen is the younger daughter of Interface’s founder, who died seven years earlier. Her older sister is a popular model, and the Nowen family lives a life of luxury. Thus, Pen is not too surprised when she is kidnapped, since it’s happened before, and the cost of ransoms are basically pocket change for the Nowen family. But her kidnappers don’t want money. Instead, they want a recording of her dead father’s voice, because aside from the voice of the Father, it is the only other voice which can be used to hack into Interface company headquarters.

This is the beginning of how Pen ends up going on a road trip with her kidnappers from Portland, Oregon to New York City.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

The sexual content is limited to jokes about how autocorrect mistakenly change’s Pen’s name to ‘penis’ and porn on the internet.

As far as violence, there is the video of Pen’s father committing suicide, as well as attempted assassinations (revealing whether the assassination attempts lead to deaths would be spoilerful, so I will merely note that there may or may not be murder in this story).

Tell me more about this story.

Even though it’s set in the year 2048, it’s really a book grounded in this decade (the 2010s) which takes current trends to absurd extremes. Which I think is the writer’s intent. For example, franchises such as Survior and Star Wars, are still popular, with Survivor: New Jersey and Star Wars Episode XXXVII: The Return of Jar Jar (though, considering the long-lived popularity of pop culture icons such as Sherlock Holmes, this is not unrealistic).

However, aside from the pop-culture references, it delves into themes which are very relevant right now – such as monopolization/power concentration among technology corporations – by taking the current situation and making it even more so.

And we see this world through the perspective of a teenager daughter from an elite family who has a penchant for sarcasm.

Here is a sample of the style:

Lui’s voice was more familiar to me than my sister’s. It was more familiar to me than my own, and I talked a lot. He was the voice of elevators, iTeachers, school interComs, robot guidance counselors, robot cops, robotic guns, semi-robotic guns, robot cars, robot cabs, robot buses, robot airplanes, robot skycaps, robot charging station attendants, robot bathroom attendants, robot shrinks, robot surgeons, robot orthodontists, robot nurses, robot nannies, domestic robots, iSuck robot vacuums, iSquirt robot mops, salesrobots, robot waiters, robot concierges, robot bartenders, robot baristas, Starbucks drive-thrus, McDonald’s drive-thrus, McMansions, high-end hotels, transit systems, airplanes, alarm clocks, crosswalks, and Furbies.

Most of the time, Lui was the one taking directions, but he gave them often enough. Reminders, calendar notifications, alarms. Actual directions, when it came to GIPs. He told us to turn right now, to turn off our phones in the movie theater, to drink the Chianti with dinner. We were used to obeying that voice.

I admit the transition between the more satirical parts of the novel and the more serious parts of the novel seemed a bit … jerky. I also admit that I do not entirely understand why Pen goes along with the kidnappers even though she could get away. I mean, according to the blurb, she does it so she can learn about the truth about her father’s death but somehow … I did not feel that motivation, even though the motivation is stated.

As an action-adventure story, well, it’s nothing to write home about. If a reader wants action and adventure, there are novels which deliver much more satisfying results on that front. However, the action-adventure plot does work as a frame to hang the satirical parts of this novel.

Asexuality?

On the asexual content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content) this novel gets a … zero.

This is just the first book in a series, and Lucy Mihajlich has said that the protagonist will realize that she is asexual in the third book. Fair enough. I admit that I was hoping that there would be serious hints of her asexuality even in this first book. That said, I think it’s fine that a series featuring an asexual protagonist is NOT beating the readers over the head with it from the very beginning.

One could argue even this book has asexual/aromantic representation by absence, in that the female protagonist never displays any sexual or romantic interest in anybody, which it unusual in YA (especially for female characters). I do not consider this or word of ace alone enough to earn any points on the asexuality content scale (hence the zero), but it is definitely more ace-reader (and aro-reader) friendly than, well, a lot of other fiction.

Was this written by an asexual?
Yes, Lucy Mihajlich is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

You know, when I wrote the first draft of this review, I said ‘no, I don’t like this novel, it’s not my cup of tea’. But in the process of writing and revising this review and thinking more about the novel, I changed my mind. I think I do like it after all.

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“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” – Taking a Tour through Sinophone Pop Culture with “Dao​ Jian Ru Meng​”

There is a very popular Mandarin pop song called “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”, and I am going to use it as a theme for a little tour of Sinophone Pop Culture (why ‘Sinophone’ rather than ‘Chinese’? Because China is not the only place where Chinese is spoken, and some of the artists who are mentioned in this very post are not from China).

What does “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” mean? I’ve encountered the following English translations of the title:

“Sword Like a Dream”
“Dream of Swords and Blades”
“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream”
“Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”

The most ‘accurate’ translation is “Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”, but I prefer the translation “A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” because I feel it’s closest to the spirit of the song and the story which inspired this song.

So, for those of you who have never heard the song, or who just want to hear it again, here is Wakin Chau’s original music video. Wakin Chau both wrote the song and was the first singer to record it. (If you don’t understand Mandarin, don’t worry, I will later link to videos with English translations).

This song was originally one of the theme songs of the 1993 TV adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (HSDS).

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven't seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven’t seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

I have not seen more than twenty minutes of any TV adaptation of HSDS, but I have read the original novel. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel (actually, it is one of the most memorable scenes I have read in any work of fiction) is as follows (violent melodrama alert): many people hate and want to kill a certain man because he has killed their loved ones. Two of the very few people who know this hated man’s whereabouts are a husband and wife. However they refuse to reveal the hated man’s whereabouts because they consider him to be their sworn brother, and they are forced to commit suicide. Their nine-year old son watches this happen. Right after his mother plunges the dagger in herself, she tells him that must remember all the people present so that, when he is grown up and strong, he can avenge her and his father. The boy says no, he does not want revenge, revenge will not bring his father back, all he wants is for his father to come back to life (he does not quite understand yet that his mother is also dying). That scene illustrates one of the key themes of the novel – people get incredibly wrapped up in cycles of avenging the wrongs done to their loved ones, but in the big picture, what is the point of all that violence inspired by love and hate?

Why did I share those bits of plot from HSDS? Because I think that background helps the song make more sense. To see how this song goes with footage from the TV show, here is here is the song with footage from the TV show.

[aside/rant: if you look at the above music video, you’ll notice that female characters have a large presence in HSDS, which is typical of wuxia fiction. In fact, one of the reasons I am so fond of wuxia is that it the wide array of compelling female characters. Yes, there is plenty of sexism in wuxia – HSDS itself has some misogynist content – but even sexist wuxia male writers tend to have more female characters who have more interesting roles in the story than some female ‘feminist’ writers of speculative fiction in English, let alone male writers of speculative fiction in English.]

A picture of Dong Zhen

A picture of Dong Zhen

Recently, a lot of singers have been covering this song. One singer who has become well-known for performing this song is Dong Zhen. She mostly does singing for video game songs. She has built a fanbase by developing her public persona as being like the mysterious maidens one often finds in Chinese fiction. I’ve read that the ‘mysterious maiden’ stock character has been around in Chinese fiction since the Tang Dynasty (over a thousand years ago), but I know little of Chinese literature which is more than a hundred years old. I can say that the mysterious maiden continues to be a very popular stock character. She generally was raised in isolation from society (for example, Lian Nichang, one of the most famous examples of this archetype, was raised by wolves), is generally an amazing sword fighter or has some other fantastic skill, is gorgeous, and seems like someone from out of this world. Ironically, the only character in HSDS who fits the ‘mysterious maiden’ archetype, the Yellow Dress Maiden (she’s so mysterious that nobody knows her given name!), is just a minor character.

Anyway, here is Dong Zhen singing “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” (and yes, this version has an English translation).

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game 'World of Sword'

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game ‘World of Sword’

In the past few years, Kris Wu has become one of the most popular celebrities in China. I admit that I have not seen any of his movies, but in terms of singing and looks … I don’t get it (China has way better singers – Dong Zhen for example – as well as actors who, IMO, are much more aesthetically/visually appealing than Kris Wu). Interestingly, even though Kris Wu is Chinese-Canadian, he first got into show business in South Korea, and started his rise to fame as a member of a popular K-pop band, EXO. And he definitely continues to have a strong K-Pop vibe … which might be why I don’t care for him. I don’t like K-Pop music, and no, it’s not because I don’t understand Korean, since I don’t like K-Pop even when it’s sung in a language I understand (English or Mandarin). I like Mandopop, Cantopop, and even J-Pop more than K-Pop.

In any case, Kris Wu recorded his own version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” to be the theme song for a mobile game called “World of Sword” (the lyrics are the same as Dong Zhen’s recording, it’s just a different English translation).

The Kris Wu version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is my least favorite because … I feel that it misses the point of the song. To me it seems like ‘hey, I am a guy with a sword, cool!’ and yes, I admit that it is cool when he’s wearing that costume at the end of the music video and swinging that sword around, but the song is about something more.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Anyway, in addition to being the theme song for ‘World of Sword’, “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is also the theme song for a new Taiwanese mobile game adapted from HSDS. Or, rather, the theme song is “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​ 2.0”. It’s performed by a Taiwanese band whose English name is The Last Day of Summer / 831. I know very little about this specific band, but the music video of their version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” feels Taiwanese too me. First of all, there are the traces of Japanese culture (the kimono the little boy is wearing, the tatami mats in the room) which are casually thrown into the video. Taiwan has been more heavily influenced by Japanese culture than any other place where Chinese is the dominant language, and the heavy Japanese influence is one of the things which distinguishes Taiwanese culture from other Chinese-speaking cultures. There is also something about the hairstyles and the way the singers dress … I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels Taiwanese to me. It’s certainly more the way Taiwanese ‘idols’ dress than the way Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese ‘idols’ would dress. The music video, of course, has footage from the mobile game. 831 also added some new lyrics/melodies to the song, which are about chaos and fighting one’s opponents with a little bit about love and hate, which makes sense for a mobile game which is combat-heavy.

[aside #2: I never thought about it before, but looking at the footage from the mobile game, I notice that none of the characters have any particular ethnic markings, even though they are all Chinese or Mongol. Yes, even the blond guy is ethnic Chinese according to the novel. Though the novel also says that his eyes were impaled by darts causing permanent blindness, whereas his eyes look just fine in the mobile game. By contrast, the the 1994 DOS game adapted from HSDS shows that the blond guy does not have functioning eyes. What was I saying? Oh yeah, you can tell that this game was made by Asians, in this case Taiwanese, because they don’t put ethnic markings on Chinese characters. It’s like what this blog post discusses.]

And now, for the final version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”…

Riceboy Liu appearing in The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu appearing on The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu is a Los Angeles rapper who specializes in multilingual rap songs. I’m not into rap music, but I have a thing for polyglots, so I happen to like like some of his songs. He was also a contestant on Season 4 of The Voice of China.

I have never seen an entire episode of The Voice, just clips. That includes The Voice of China. As it so happens, Dong Zhen appeared in the first season of Voice of China, and sang “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” in the blind auditions, but none of the judges picked her for their team. The song came back in Season 4, when it was used for the battle round between Riceboy Liu and Queen T, which you can watch here.

Queen T won the battle and stayed on the show (she eventually was the runner-up in the entire competition), which isn’t surprising since she’s the better singer, but I feel that I enjoy this version of the song so much thanks to Riceboy Liu’s creative contribution. I never imagined that I would enjoy a hip-hop version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” but I really like this one.

Of all of the versions of this song I’ve heard, this is the one with the strongest American influence (which is what one would expect when one of the performers is American). It’s not just that it adds a bunch of English lyrics (which don’t have much to do with the original song, but at least it’s different) and that it’s done in hip hop style – Queen T sounds like she also has an R&B influence on her singing style. Now I’m wondering what it would sound like if Aretha Franklin sang this song.

Anyway, if you contrast the Riceboy Liu / Queen T version of this song with Dong Zhen’s version, you can tell that they represent two different trends in Sinophone pop culture. Dong Zhen represents the trend of drawing upon a distinctly Chinese cultural history, whereas Riceboy Liu / Queen T represent taking popular styles from somewhere outside of Asia and making it their own. Wakin Chau, the songwriter, embodies the fusion of both of these trends, since he both draws from traditional Chinese culture and absorbs lots of influences from outside of Asia (especially rock music). Of course, influences from non-Chinese parts of Asia are also significant, as evidenced by the Korean influence on Kris Wu and the Japanese influence on Last Day of Summer / 831.

So that’s the conclusion of this little tour through Sinophone pop culture centered around a single song. I don’t know who will read this, but I enjoyed putting this post together, and if you got this far, I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Review: Sere from the Green by Lauren Jankowski

The over of 'Sere from the Green' by Lauren Jankowski

This is the fourth work of fiction I’m reviewing for Asexual Fiction from Smashwords Month

What is this story about?

Okay, I generally try to avoid reading reviews other people wrote before I finished writing my review. However, this time, I could not help myself, and I found a plot summary which is both a) accurate and b) better than what I probably would have written on my own. So here is the plot summary by Kirsti (Melbourne’s on my mind):

… it starts out being a story about an ordinary girl taking photos of a murder that subsequently vanishes without a trace, and her being all “Um. WHUT”. But it rapidly turns into “Guess what? You’ve got paranormal abilities! And you have a twin sister! And you need to learn to use your powers immediately because of reasons! And also your father was a pretty bad dude! Who may or may not be dead! And also now there are more vanishing murders! But we can’t really do anything about those, so go break into this museum and steal a CD instead! Also, there’s this mysterious guy following you but don’t worry about him! Instead, worry about the assassin who’s after you!”

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There is discussion of sexual mores and one character’s sexual history, but nothing sexual happens in the story itself.

Dead bodies of people who were probably murdered appear. Also, there are assassins. And there is quite a bit of various kinds of physical violence.

Tell me more about this novel.

This is a novel which is full of very well-worn tropes such as ‘ordinary person who doesn’t like their life discovers that they are actually from a magic race and they have magic powers’. Having such well-worn tropes does not make a story bad – after all, if one looked at my favorite works of fiction, one would find plenty of well-worn tropes. However, the tropes feel so worn because … I don’t know how to put it. This novel feels very derivative to me. And I don’t mean that in the fanfiction sense. Some works of fanfiction – such as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – take settings, plots, and characters from another work of fiction, but because it is driven by original ideas which the writer cares a lot about, it feels fresh and original. This story feels like it lacks that type of inspirational spark, so its just copying a bunch of common tropes from other stories and throwing them together.

The plot is incoherent. It goes all over the place, and the structure of the plot is downright bad. For example, we never learn what was going on with the dead body in Chapter 1.

Like most readers, I prefer to have my novels have some kind of conclusion at the end, even in an ongoing series, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me when a novel ends on a cliffhanger. However, for me to want to continue in a series in which the first novel has a non-conclusive cliffhanger ending, I need confidence that the writer is good at plotting, and that there was a high chance of a satisfying payoff. This novel did not give me that confidence.

Asexuality

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I give this story a … zero.

Well, I’ve had a pretty good run of ‘asexual’ fiction which actually has asexual content, even if it’s just a character quickly saying ‘by the way, I’m asexual’. I guess it was only a matter of time until I ran into ‘asexual’ fiction which did not have any asexual content, especially since the vast majority of works of fiction also rate a zero on the asexuality content scale.

But maybe some of the characters are ace, and this is revealed in future novels in the series. I do not want to read any other book in this series, so unless someone who has read later books tells me, I’ll never know.

There are hints that the protagonist might be ace (or aro) such as:

“Not interested, buddy,” she said bluntly as she turned her attention back to the dance floor.

“Did that sound too much like a pick-up line or was the delivery wrong?” the man asked. The question didn’t sound like flirtation but rather a genuine inquiry, as if he didn’t know what he had done wrong.

“I’m just not interested,” she repeated. The mystery man shrugged and smiled slightly.

And here is another hint:

“Neither has your sister,” Jade countered. “You haven’t been trained properly yet. I’m sure you’ve seen signs though. Animals naturally relax around you. Sometimes it almost feels like you know what they’re thinking. A longing to run free. One hell of a libido. Am I getting warm?”

Isis shifted her weight and Electra did the same. Neither sister noticed the other mirroring her movement. Well that’s just plain freaky, Jade thought as she repressed a shudder.

… but such hints are not enough for me to consider this to be ‘ace’ or ‘aro’ content.

Furthermore, throughout the story, the ‘good’ characters (i.e. the ones the reader are supposed to be sympathetic with) seem totally sold on that specific brand of feminism which declares that women are as ‘liberated’ as they are sexually active, and that having sex is the way to counter patriarchal men who want women to be chaste. Here is a quote:

“Don’t think too much about it. They’re mad at Mom for breaking just about every rule laid down by our ancestors,” Electra explained, flipping some hair over her shoulder. “She’s a sexually liberated single mother and they’re old-fashioned, not the best combination.”

I really hope that this is just a setup for this specific type of ‘feminism’ to be questioned and broken down in future books in the series, because this type of thinking has generally been bad for asexual people, and since this book is marketed at asexual readers, I hold it to a higher standard than mainstream books.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Lauren Jankowski is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

No, I do not.

One may buy this book from Smashwords and various ebook retailers. This book and the other books in the series are also going to be (re-)released by Snowy Wings Publishing.

Speculative Fiction by Black Women I Read in 2016

So, after writing this post, I made a goal for myself of reading 10 books of speculative fiction by black women in 2016. Here are the ten that I read:

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) by N.K. Jemisin
2. Of One Blood, or the Hidden Self (1902) by Pauline Hopkins
3. Lagoon (2014) by Nnedi Okorafor
4. The Broken Kingdoms (2010) by N.K. Jemisin
5. The Summer Prince (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson
6. To Terminator with Love (2016) by Wes Kennedy
7. Filter House (2008) by Nisi Shawl
8. Joplin’s Ghost (2005) by Tannarive Due
9. Midnight Robber (2000) by Nalo Hopkinson
10. Breaking Free by (2012) Alicia McCalla

Why didn’t you read anything by Octavia Butler?

Actually, I have read a couple of novels by Octavia Butler a long time ago, back when she was still alive (wow, time flies). I decided that I would rather read novels by writers I was not familiar with.

But you had read some Nnedi Okorafor novels before 2016!

Okay, I had. I just really wanted to read something new by her.

And you read TWO books by N.K. Jemisin – why not include a tenth writer instead?

Because I wanted to read the sequel.

Why did you include read only ONE book from the ENTIRE TWENTIETH CENTURY??!!!

That was not entirely by choice. I wanted to read at least one other book of speculative fiction from the 20th century by a black woman, but … if one excludes Octavia Butler, it’s not easy. As in, it is not easy to get my hands on physical copies. I put one on hold the library from one and … the library cancelled my hold because they could not find the book in their stacks. Yes, I could have ordered a used copy over the internet (I could not have bought new because it’s hella out of print), but it was simply easier to just read newer books.

I expected getting a copy of Of One Blood would have been easy because it’s public domain. HA HA HA HA. Instead of finding a high quality ebook edition (such as one can get via Project Gutenberg), the only way to get Of One Blood online is here. Fortunately, I discovered that the library did have a print copy which I could borrow. And according to the introduction of that print edition, Of One Blood had spent over 80 years out of print.

The lesson here is that, not only were there not-so-many works of speculative fiction by black women published in the 20th century, but the ones which were published (with the exception of the works of Octavia Butler) are surprisingly difficult to obtain.

Well, what did you think of Of One Blood?

I liked it. It’s not the best novel ever, or even the my best book on this list, but it’s very readable and different from anything else I’ve read.

What is the best book on this list?

It’s not easy to decide, but in my opinion, the best book on the list is Midnight Robber. Of course, space opera is one of my 2-3 favorite subgenres of speculative fiction, and Midnight Robber is the only space opera on the list, so that’s my bias.

What is the worst book on this list?

That is easy to decide – Breaking Free. It’s plain terrible in a way which not of the others on the list are. It’s in the ‘so bad it’s good’ zone, which is why I mildly enjoyed reading it.

Even in the 21st century, two-thirds of the books you read are from this decade, as opposed to the first decade of the century.

Again, there is much greater choice (and it is easier to find) speculative fiction by black women from this decade rather than the previous decade. Yes, I could have filled this list entirely with books from the previous decade, but I went with the path of least resistance.

What do all of these books have in common?

Aside from being speculative fiction? Non-white protagonists. Not always black protagonists, but certainly non-white. Which is not surprising.

What common themes did you notice?

Half of these books draw heavily from African or African-diaspora history/folklore/etc. However, they drew different African/African-diaspora traditions. Of One Blood incorporates the ancient city of Meroë into the story. Lagoon is set in Lagos and draws from Nigerian folklore (which, given that Nnedi Okorafor is Nigerian-American, is not surprising). Filter House is a short story collection, and some of the stories are clearly inspired by African folklore (I’m not sure which traditions). Joplin’s Ghost features Scott Joplin as one of the major character’s (he’s the ghost after all) so there is much history of African-American music and political struggles (such as ragtime and the beginning of Jim Crow, and hip-hop and police shooting African-American teenagers – and yes, it was published in 2005, not 2015). Midnight Robber draws from the Afro-Caribbean tradition (which, given that Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica, is not a surprise).

The Hundred Kingdoms and The Summer Prince do not incorporate African heritage to the same extent that the above books do, yet the deliberately draw from other non-white cultures. N.K. Jemisin herself says that she is careful to get inspiration from many cultures and then weave them in such a way that the readers can no longer obvious which cultures are being referenced. The Summer Prince is set in a cosmopolitan futuristic Brazil.

Did Scott Joplin read Of One Blood?

Since he was alive when it was first published, maybe he did read it. However, I don’t think anyone alive today has a clue whether he ever read it or not.

Sara, have you been edified?

Probably. I don’t think reading these books gave me any particular insight into black women which I didn’t already have. However, they are (mostly) good books, and reading more good books is good. They also, overall, feel different from most of the English-language speculative fiction I’ve read. Most of the English-language speculative fiction I’ve read has been from the 20th century (but not the first decade of the 20th century), so it’s not necessarily easy for me to tell whether these books feel different from most of the speculative fiction I’ve read because they are by black women as opposed to white people, or whether they feel different because they were written in a different era (1902 / 21st century as opposed to 20th century).

Review: Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver

The cover of Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver

This is the third book I am reviewing for my Asexual Fiction from Smashwords Month.

What is this novel about?

The story is set in Parole, which seemed to be a fenced in quarantine zone / concentration camp where nobody is allowed to leave, and there is a lake of fire which threatens to eventually engulf everybody. Meanwhile, SkEye watches and polices everybody.

Regan has amnesia, so he remembers very little and needs explanations such as what the heck is this place. A family of three wives (poly same-sex marriage) takes him under their wing, and and the story progresses, it becomes clearer that Regan is involved in something which concerns the fate of all who live in Parole.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

As far as I can recall, there is practically no sexual content. Violence – well, there is attempted murder and attempted suicide (revealing whether the attempts result in death would be spoilerful), physical combat, and psychological combat.

Tell me more about this novel.

I like the setting, especially its imagery, such as the lake of fire, and the turret house (which seems to have been inspired by the Winchester Mystery House). I also noticed the parallels between this setting and the setting of Candy Land – it’s set in a future vaguely dystopian post-USA, there was an epidemic which was induced by scientific research which kills lots of people but also left a lot of people with superpowers, etc. Of course, there are stark differences too (Chameleon has way more female character and way less sex than Candy Land).

The writer describes herself as writing “oddly optimistic dystopia books” which is an apt description of this story. ‘Oddly optimistic’ is certainly a refreshing twist on the ‘dystopia’ genre, and I felt, while reading this novel, the potential for how good that kind of fiction could be.

However, this novel specifically did not work so well for me. Why not? The short answer is that I did not care for the characters or the plot. A more detailed answer is that I did not feel the characters were sufficiently developed. For example, the female triad (Evelyn, Rose, Danae) felt too idealized and not sufficiently realized. It’s not the first example I’ve seen in fiction of a queer-poly triad, and frankly, it’s not one of the better-written ones. They have a seemingly perfect relationship in which they never seem to have any interpersonal problems, which is okay since this is not a story about interpersonal marriage problems and allows the story to focus on something else. However, even though the reader keeps on being told that they live in such despair, and that so many people in Parole have PTSD, etc … the ‘show’ does not match the ‘tell’. Showing how personal relationships give people the strength to thrive in the midst of adversity can be a wonderful thing in fiction, but in order for it to work for me, a lot more of the adversity has to be shown, whether it’s caused by external or internal factors, and how the personal relationships actually give characters strength.

As far as the plot … well, I lost track of what was going on plotwise somewhere in the middle of the novel. And because I lost the plot, the second half of the novel was much less interesting to me than the first half.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this story as a 2.

Regan, the protagonist, is asexual. It only comes up in one scene in Chapter 6. It’s a bit too long for me to quote the whole thing in this review, so I am just going to pick out two snippets, one from the beginning of the scene, and one from the end of the scene.

Snippet 1:

“Um,” his expression shifted to a near-perfect blank, though his eyes slowly widened. “I…really… this is gonna sound weird, and I swear I’m not messing with you… but… I don’t think I’m attracted to anyone. Not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Not weird,” she assured him. “Not weird at all.”

“I haven’t even thought about it,” he mumbled. “I mean, I’ve wondered, but like just in a vague ‘who am I, what was my life’ way. I haven’t really… felt anything about…Anyone.” He scowled for a moment, then let out a frustrated noise, neck frill flaring out. “But that’s not right either, because I know I have, all this means is that I don’t look at someone I don’t know or trust, like a stranger, and think they’re hot—I don’t think anyone’s hot when I first meet them! No offense,” he said hurriedly.

Snippet 2:

“I’m a freaking paradox.”

“If it helps,” she said, tone tentative but casual. “I don’t think you’re a paradox. But you might be asexual.”

Regan’s mouth fell open. He looked up with wide eyes again but for a much different, much better different reason. Slowly, the tension melted out of his shoulders and his frill dropped back down to hang loose. When he looked at her now she saw something else in his eyes. One of her favorite things to see. Hope.

“I can’t say for sure, obviously, but it might explain a few things,” she said, voice calm but with an undertone of restrained optimism. “I’m not, myself, but I’ve known a lot of wonderful ace—asexual—people in my life, and you’re saying a lot of the same things they do.”

“Tell me.” He was still looking at her, but with a different kind of intensity now. It was the same look he’d had when he was listening to the familiar song, trying to remember where he’d heard the words he knew by heart but couldn’t place. “I think it’s important.”

“Me too. And from what you’re saying—never experiencing sexual attraction, or maybe only sometimes, or only for someone you really trust?”

“Yeah. It fits.”

“Then try it on.” She smiled. “There’s no one size. And your words exist for you. As long as they help you instead of making you feel trapped, everything’s… aces.” A ghost of a smile appeared on his face, and she encouraged it with one of her own.

So, how relevant is this to the overall story or Regan’s character development? Well, one way to interpret this is that it’s not relevant because the novel wouldn’t really be much different if this scene were removed, and that this is just an excuse to insert the ace explanation and tick off the ‘asexual representation’ box. Another way to interpret it is that it is consistent with the novel’s theme of accepting people as they are, especially queer people. I favor the second interpretation, but I have to admit that the ‘asexual’ aspect of this story is not as smoothly integrated as it is in some other works of fiction.

Was this written by an ace?

Yes, one may read this interview.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

No, I don’t. I seriously considered not finishing it, and I only decided to go ahead and finish it because I planned to write this review.

The Most Different Kinds of Ace Characters I Can Think of

This is for the January Carnival of Aces – Many Ways to Be Ace.

As anyone who has been following my blog for the past few months knows, I’ve been binge-reading ace fiction lately. So, in response to the prompt, I was thinking ‘which of these ace characters is the MOST different from the others?’

Of course, there are many ways characters can be different from each other. A 6000 year old elf who lives in Seattle in 2013 is really different from a human detective for hire who lives on a different planet in an age of interplanetary travel, but that’s not the kind of difference which I consider interesting for this kind of question.

Going through the list from the prompt – “ethnicity, religion, romantic orientation, gender, background, career, etc.”

1) Ethnicity – a plurality of the ace characters in the fiction I’ve been reading lately are white people from the United States who seem to identify more strongly with whiteness than ethnicity.
Now, here it’s tricky. I don’t want to imply that USA-white people who do not identify strongly with an ethnicity are a default, and that everyone else who deviates from that, whether they are white people who do identify with an ethnicity (Italian-American, for example), or who are not white, or who are not American, are some deviation from that default. On the other hand, there is a reason why lists such as ‘Murder Mystery Stories with POC protagonists’ are more useful than lists such as ‘Superhero Stories with white protagonists from the USA’.
So, to acknowledge that being white from the USA is not at all a default, I will throw in one story with a white-from-the-USA ace character: Crush.
Then, I offer a list of characters from stories who are either a) white yet non-American or b) are not white (note: this list is not exhaustive because characters’ ethnicities are not always clear OR I’ve forgotten):
Ball Caps and Khakis, ace character is Korean-American
Candy Land, ace character is from post-USA North America (i.e. the United States no longer exists as a nation)
Fourth World, ace characters are Martians, one of the Martians is of Mexican descent
Blank Spaces, ace character is white Canadian
The Painted Crown, ace character is from pseudo-medieval-Europe
We Go Forward, ace character is white Australian
To Terminator With Love, ace character is Asian-American (most likely Chinese-American, but it would not have made much of a difference to the story if the ace character were, say, Malagasy-American as opposed to Asian-American)
The Life and Death of Eli and Jay, ace character is Siksika (a First Nation ethnicity in Canada)
The Zhakieve Chronicles, both ace characters are from (and live in) pseudo-medieval-Eastern-Europe
Open Skies, ace character lives in space opera with fictional planets
Quicksilver, ace character is Canadian and, well, to say more would be spoilerish.

2) Religion – the religion for most of the ace characters in the fiction I’m reading is not defined. The only ace fiction story I’ve read in which religion is significant to the story is “Cold Ennaline”.

3) Romantic Orientation Aha! Jackpot! Most of the ace fiction stories I’ve been reading are published by LGBTQ+ presses which require or at least strongly encourage romance. Thus, it is no surprise that the most common romantic orientation in the stories I’ve been reading is homoromantic. Even though most of the LGBTQ+ presses would accept a M/F romance as long as the characters are not cishet (for example, an M/F romance featuring trans characters), they definitely publish way more same-sex romances, even for ace characters. In fact, I can’t think off hand of any fiction stories I’ve read with a heteromantic or biromantic ace character off-hand (though maybe I’ll remember something later). As far as, say, demiromantic, or quoiromantic … well, there are characters which arguably fit those labels, but none that I would feel confident putting on a list.
There have been a few stories with aromantic characters, which I will list here:
“Any Way the Wind Blows”
Open Skies
Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story
Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart
“The Galloway Road” (actually, I’m not sure, but IIRC, the character seemed aromantic)
We Go Forward

4) Gender – well, some ace characters are (cis) male and some are (cis) female. More male characters than female characters (probably because I’ve been mostly drawing from LGBTQ+ presses, and they publish so much more M/M than anything else it’s ridiculous), but still plenty of ace female characters to choose from. The only genderqueer ace character I’ve encountered in fiction so far is Blake in the Assassins series. I’ve only read the first book, in which Blake is just a minor character and SEEMS to be male, but the second book supposedly reveals that Blake is actually intersex, agender, and greysexual.

5) Background – this one is so broad I am not even going to try.

6) Career – hmmmm. I don’t want to list out all of the different careers I’ve seen ace characters have, so I’ll just select a few which jump out at me.
Blank Spaces – art gallery worker / painter
“Any Way the Wind Blows” – farming
Assassins: Discord – assassin (which is what one might expect from a novel called ‘ASSASSINS’)
To Terminator With Love – electrical engineering student at MIT
“Bender” – BDSM rent boy (notable mainly because rent boy is a rather unusual career for an asexual to pursue)

7) etc. – in here, I am going to put in Personality.
Ace characters in fiction tend to be intellectual, not be very social, not have many friends, be ‘introverts’, tend to be emotionally reserved, etc. To be fair, a lot of people who identify in real life as ‘ace’ are also like this. However, I like seeing ace characters … who are not like that. I’d like to see more ace characters who are loud, bold, brash, socially engaged, etc. – which I suppose I could sum up as being ‘extroverted’ (though I don’t particularly like the term).
Here is a list of stories where the ace character breaks out of the most common personality molds of ace characters in some sense:
How to Be a Normal Person (ace character is more sociable and socially engaged than the non-ace protagonist)
Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart (ace character thinks acting like a vigilante – including shooting people with his gun and interrogating witnesses even though he is not a law enforcement officer – is a good idea)
“As Autumn Leaves” – ace character used to be a cheerleader, and though she has a lack of friends, that is not due to her social inclinations

So, there you go. I hope that this is useful, or at least interesting, to somebody.

Some Last Thoughts on “The Mississippi Journey”

Prior to last month, I had only been to 3-5 of the 50 states of the USA. I was born in California, I had definitely been to Oregon and Florida, and … well, I had spent a few hours on the Nevada side of the California/Nevada border when I was eleven years old, and I had spent one night in New York City while waiting for a connecting flight when I was seven years old (and no, I did not get to see any famous places in NYC, with the exception of the airport). Some people say that counts as visiting Nevada/New York, some people don’t, which is why I list it as 3-5 states.

One of the earliest posts on this blog is “From a Corner, Not a Continent”. That very much describes the mentality I had when I was in Asia. I lost track of how many times a Taiwanese person would say ‘so, since you are in Taiwan, that means you’ve travelled everywhere in the United States, right?” to which I would reply “ha ha ha ha, that is ridiculous, the United States is way too big.” Many Taiwanese people were very surprised to learn that they had travelled the United States more extensively than I had.

However, last month, I went on “The Mississippi Journey”. One of my main goals was to get to know the United States better, to know a bit more about the continent beyond the corner (another one of my main goals was to meet someone in St. Louis). I stayed overnight in beds in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and Illinois. That means I doubled or tripled the number of states I have been to. I also passed through (by train) Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Why the emphasis on the (Deep) South? Because I was travelling in December. There are other regions of the United States I would very much like to visit (New England, for example) but I did not feel that December was the time to do it.

In my blog posts, I noted a lot of the differences among the places that I visited. Different places, of course, are different – travelling would not be so worthwhile if every place were exactly the same. However, there are also things that all of the places I visited – as well as California – have in common. It strengthened my identity as an American (which is quite a contrast with the “From a Corner, Not a Continent” post).

Out of all of the places I visited on this trip, the places I would be most inclined to visit again are New Orleans and Mississippi, though in Mississippi I would probably choose to visit towns other than Natchez and Vicksburg so I could see different parts of the state. There is also a high chance I’ll end up visiting Chicago again sooner or later, which I hope will be enjoyable as my first Chicago visit.

In any case, I am not sure when I will travel next, nor where I will go, but this trip has definitely whetted my appetite for more.