Okay, so aside from all three being fantasy (Iron Widow is science fiction, it’s a stretch, I’m going for it), and the fact that The Last Graduate is adult not YA (surprise!), these three are in a review together for two reasons: 1) I am behind and have been procrastinating on these reviews and need to get my act together now and 2) all three feature women (or people, as Zetian is questioning her gender) who are altogether badass and fighting against shit societies.
All three books are five star reads, and all three *should* have gotten their own separate reviews, but here we are and I’m not breaking them up.
Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis
Katrell talks to the dead, which is great, but doesn’t pay enough to support her unemployed mom and her mom’s current boyfriend—and neither does the job she works at a fast food restaurant after school. But when her ability to talk to the dead goes on the fritz, she gets a weird warning from a ghost about her abilities getting getting stronger (and to not do magic no matter what), her hours get cut and her mom’s boyfriend murders her dog in front of her, Katrell snaps. And suddenly, Katrell’s dog Conrad is back. So what if he’s acting kinda funny—she now has the ability to summon the dead and her most loyal companion. Katrell knows people would pay anything to get their loved ones back, and well, she needs the money.
“She doesn’t care about you. She never has. She’ll bleed you dry if you let her.”
Five snot-filled, heaving, gasping, weeping tears from my own fucking eyes stars.
There is just so much emotion in this book, and it’s so fucking good and sad and how many words can I use to describe this indescribable book? I knew I was going to be in for a ride when reading the author’s note, but the way Lewis works words and twists emotions is just breathtakingly awe-inspiring.
Katrell is in a shitty situation—she’s going to school and working overtime to support her unemployed, emotionally abusive mom and her mom’s physically abusive, deadbeat boyfriend while they spend their days lounging about the house, doing drugs and then blowing Katrell’s money on trips to casinos and on clothes. Money Katrell was saving up to get groceries and make sure the electricity doesn’t get turned off.
While Katrell’s heartless mom might seem like an over the top characterization…she’s really not. She might be a touch dramatic, but the emotions she pulls are true, and as in Lewis’ forward, based upon her own experiences. And I think that anyone who has grown up with an emotionally abusive mother is going to relate heavily to the someone who thoughtlessly put their own child through shit and gaslit them into thinking that they were together and a team and could get through anything when…the parent was just using them for their own ends, whatever those ends might be. In Katrell’s mom’s case: free labor.
The rest of the book is mostly a teenager in a shitty situation discovering she has a chance to change it, and then making a bunch of ever worsening decisions to get out of the deepening hole she is digging herself in, as the people who want to help watch helplessly as she falls deeper and deeper into the pit.
But why doesn’t Katrell reach out to her friends and the guidance counselor or another friendly adult?
Hahahaha. Really? Really?
A smart Black kid reaching out to a white guidance counselor, knowing full well what foster care is like (thanks to her best friend having been in the system)? Knowing the racist nature of foster care and governmental assistance, and having swallowed her mom’s own bullshit about needing her and being a team and it’s us against the world?
Katrell is smart, but she’s still a child, and the “right” thing is the thing that is something she has spent her entire life fighting against—reaching outside her family unit (her and her mom) for help, even though she’s been getting help from her BFF Will (and Will’s friendly adoptive parents). It’s one thing to have a safe place to sleep and a guaranteed lunch from a BFF’s parents, it’s another to uplift a life and break apart a family that has been fighting to stay together their entire lives, through thick and thin (family here, is with heavy sarcasm, because Katrell is nothing but a commodity to her mom and abuse fucks with your mind).
So. What’s the solution?
You have a new ability. You use that new ability. You get money—lots of money—and then you go a little nuts over it, because it’s something you’ve never had in excess before, and then when it all crumbles down (because it will), you continue to dig deeper because what worked before surely will work again, even though it’s going to kill you. Until you reach the rocky bottom of the pit where you are suddenly faced with two options: continue digging and probably die, or reach up for help and maybe live.
Well shit, I wrote way more than I had intended.
But I do want to add that this book is not an endorsement of the foster care system, but rather about the fact that it’s okay to reach out and get help, that it’s okay to find trusted friends and adults, but that it’s also entirely natural for an abused, traumatized kid to lash out and work shit out on their own instead, even if it gets them into more trouble than before.
Wait…I spent most of this book talking about real life instead of the resurrected people? Well shit. Real quick: they’re super creepy.
This is a fucking must-read, but please pay attention to those trigger warnings.
Fuck! One last thing!! This has ace rep! ACE. REP!!
Trigger Warning: violent death of an animal, domestic violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
In Huxia, the greatest honor is to pilot a giant Chrysalis and protect their country from the invading monsters beyond the wall. A great honor for boys, that is. Their girl co-pilots often die in the battle from the mental strain of being linked together, but who cares? They’re girls. It’s how Zetian believes her sister died, and she’s determined that the pilot who murdered her will die, too. But when Zetian arrives at the wall and is strapped into the Chrysalis, something strange happens. Two people enter, and only she emerges, victorious, her sister’s murderer dead at her feet. In a moment, she’s become what the leaders of Huxia fear most: a powerful woman, or, in her case, an Iron Widow.
Men want us so badly for our bodies, yet hate us so much for our minds.
Yooooooooooo the hype you’ve been hearing about this one is realllllll!
Mechas, warriors, misogyny, a deadly war, disability rep and a bi to the third poly relationship!!!!!! Not to mention a heroine not afraid to actually kill people, and the two men who love her (and each other), because a triangle is the strongest shape.
Btw, pay attention to all of the trigger warnings (there is a complete list at the front of the book, which was very helpful): this book gets dark real fast and stays dark (which makes me curious about that R18-rated first draft).
“[Karma] sure doesn’t give a shit about people like me. Some of us were born to be used and discarded. We can’t afford to simply go along with the flow of life, because nothing in this world has been created, built or set up in our favor. If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”
I loved the way Zhao thoroughly dissects and skewers misogyny and power, and how they didn’t shy away from tough topics or harsh scenes or a main character who was likable (fucking being likable), but instead created a well-realized world of haves and have-nots filled with people who are just trying to survive (and thrive, or continue to stay at or near the top) in a system that is built around keeping the have-nots down without really realizing what exactly is keeping them down.
There are the monsters across the wall as an external enemy justifying the way people live and are treated; there are the boy-pilots living in celebrity-level status (and their concubines thrown away like tissue paper); there are the people who pull the strings behind the scenes; and the people in power with all the power. There are layers to power and layers to not having power, and the ways those layers are intertwined to create Huxian society is just fascinating to read. The prejudice and misogyny is literally built from the ground up to keep women (and people misgendered as women) down, along with anyone else labeled as undesirable, and the system is formed to have the downtrodden police and maintain themselves (Zetian notes wryly that it was not her uncles or father who broke and her feet, but her grandmother and women-relatives).
I adored how Zhao retold Chinese history and legend, and spun the rise of Empress Wu Zetian into this fascinating, complex and thoroughly entertaining as hell (seriously, aside from some lulls where our intrepid heroine is locked up contemplating life, the actions does not stop when it gets going). There are nods to The Hunger Games with the girl-boy pairing and the televised fights and near-celebrity status of these child sacrifices/heroes (for the boys—the girls are literally considered to be disposable), heavy tinges of Pacific Rim in mechas fighting monsters, and a flair of Divergence (not gonna spoil that one), but these are all nods to what came before, because like the history it flirts with and remakes, Iron Widow takes all these tropes, shatters them, and smashes them together into something that’s incredibly fantastic and riveting.
This is one of the few books where I wasn’t grumpy about the literal fucking teenagers/early twenty-sometimes being named generals and colonels and other high-ranking military shit, because in this world it is actually explained and it makes sense (and Zhao acknowledges in various ways how these pilots are still quite literally children, and even though many of the boys are awful and their horrific selves are enabled in every way, they too are being exploited by the powers that be to face the Great Enemy Monster—like I said, layers in layers).
Anywho, the ways Zetian confronts and encounters the misogyny built into the basements of her world is fascinating, and while she suffers so much, watching her rise through, channeled by wrath and ruin, had me flipping pages as quickly as I could.
So what flourishes from a place like this?
Zetian, a person who has literally nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain.
And she has zero fucks to give in who dies on her way to the top (okay, maybe like, one or two fucks, but that is literally it). The world has burned her, and she’s going to burn down the world.
And that final twist at the end, omg. I thought I’d figured out what was going on, but I’d only gotten part of it right.
Regardless, I cannot wait until book 2!
“You don’t think girls are afraid?
“Girls…know how to sacrifice.”
Trigger warning (incomplete): misogyny, body mutilation, torture, murder, rape, sexual assault, assault, suicidal ideations, forced drug use
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
It’s El’s final year at the Scholomance, and she’s got a lot to do: build up her mana, strengthen her alliances, and prepare for Graduation Day. Because even though she’s pretty certain that the fixing of the gears worked, the seniors still have to face off against Patience and Fortitude, the two mega monsters lurking at the gates. But in the Scholomance, the only certainty is uncertainty, and El realizes there are more things at stake than just a Dark Sorceress in Waiting like herself.
Somehow, I went through an entire book without a single highlighted quote.
Yes, I’m not sure how that happened either.
Anywho, this will be a short one, because not only do I want to avoid too many spoilers, but also because if you read The Novice and weren’t fond of El’s sarcastic angst or info drops, then you are probably not going to like this one, because there is sarcasm, angst and info drops aplenty. And this time, much of the angst comes from Orion Lake, in ways that I won’t really mention.
The Novice had quite a bit of much justified criticism for racist stereotypes, and I don’t know that these issues were fixed in the second book so much as…ignored entirely? The way characters of color were portrayed seemed better and a little more rounded out, but also…in some cases given less page time as if the author was actively focusing on not misstepping by omitting characters of color entirely (not entirely, they make up a good chunk of the student population), or by at least omitting many descriptions of what people look like, if that makes sense. Although…there is a confusing line that I interpreted as a little biphobic, but also not sure entirely about it because bisexuality isn’t cut and dry and one-size-fits-all (I am bi) and also it was entirely in El’s character to say it and not be biphobic about it? I dunno.
I quite enjoyed this one, even if it got a touch repetitive in some of the events that happened in the training and preparation for graduation, but I did love seeing how El’s small band of people and what she cared about began to expand and grow as she slowly realized the humanity in others and that others were deserving of life in actuality instead of just hypothetically, and her determination to do something to make things better now instead of in the near-distant future when she is able to graduate.
The commentary on society and equity was also solid and entertaining, and it was fascinating to see speculation on how a society faced with such horrific monstrosities determined to devour their children (and themselves) with relentless hunger and determination would craft solutions to both preserve their power and protect their children and future generations (and also, who gets left behind in those scenarios). I also enjoyed the more subtle-ish commentary on heroes and heroing, and what courage looks like in a world built around a dog-eat-dog, every-person-for-themself mentality.
Anywho, like I said, if you enjoyed The Novice, you’ll sure to love this one, even though like me you will be absolutely gutted (hah, gallows humor) by that ending and dying for book 2!
Trigger Warnings: harm against children, gruesome death, violent injury
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.