BLOOD MATTERS by Aviva Bel’Harold

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

I have had a hard time with this review. I enjoyed so much of my time of reading this book and wanted to rate it even higher than I do now. However, there was one particular aspect that was so completely horrifying to me, so disappointing, that I cannot rate higher, in good conscience. As is my tradition, I will address both those things I enjoyed and those things I disliked. After I do that, I will go into detail about this one terrible part of the experience and – against my tradition – include quite a few spoilers so I can discuss the problem accurately. Basically, in order to fully explain why I had such a knee-jerk reaction, I will have to spoil the entire ending. I will warn again when that particular section starts, but be aware there are spoilers ahead. Ultimately, I believe this is a good book that failed itself in becoming great.

It took me some time to determine whether or not this book was fantasy or science fiction. After all, it is a vampire novel. What really sealed the deal for me was the clear work the author put into the process of the parasitic relationship that created the vampires of the novel. While no vampire novel can entirely avoid the supernatural, the parasite and the logic of the world in which it lives definitely had the tone of science fiction to me. A basic run down is this: the parasite starts in every host as a single-celled organism that travels through the blood stream and, as it settles in the heart, it begins to multiply and use up the blood supply of the host in order to do so. At the point that it runs out of blood, it then requires blood from other humans to complete and sustain the transformation. If the host dies, the parasite transfers, through touch, to a new host and starts the process once again.

One of the things this scientific bent to the vampire tale provides is a delightful lack of angst. Not that there is no angst in the novel, but that it does not over power or even equal the sense of curiosity and exploration that comes with the new abilities. This is a novel about discovery as much as it is about its major themes of heroism and humanity. The human host continues in her life for as long as she can and tries her best to function normally and the parasite does not attempt to interfere with that. The change of circumstances happens in stages and feels very organic.

The characters are well humanised and made approachable by a diversity of perspective. It’s amazing how, depending on who is the lens the narration is written through, the parasite, called E.V., and the host, known as Brit, can be two separate beings or a third, singular character. It took a little while to get used to the different narrative lenses, but allowing the story to be told through several sets of eyes made for a good deal of sympathetic perspective. I think the story was served well by the fact that though it was mostly (and understandably) told from the perspectives of Brit and E.V., others were allowed in to really fill out the edges of the picture.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the shorter chapters. All seventy-seven (!!) of them. I am generally not at all a fan of the short chapter, I feel like it fragments the narrative. However, in this case, it served as a beautiful echo of the perspectives of E.V and Brit. E.V.’s memories barely stay with her from host to host, but Brit helps in discovering and preserving them in her human mind as a full, complete narrative. The narrative device of short chapters verses a long arc mirroring the two main characters was one of my favorite bits.

The thematic discussion of heroism (which is main theme of the book, as I perceive it) was quite good. E.V. seems to feel she is a bit of a hero. As a parasite, she improves the health, function, and visage of the host body. They are faster, stronger, more beautiful, less needy. But in order to do this, she must take. Brit, as she discovers her new powers, chooses to use them to cull the bad people from her town. But, in doing so, she takes away the lives and opportunities of so many people. Both of them are play-acting at being a hero and convincing themselves that they are heroes, while neither of them really are. While I found the resolution of the discussion contained some deeply problematic things (this is the big spoiler I talk about later), I did enjoy the eventual conclusion the manuscript came to.

The secondary discussions of ‘what is it that makes one human’ (a vampire novel must) and ‘the many ways love can be felt’ were nuanced and extensive. I enjoyed the multi-thematic nature of the novel and I am truly glad to say that the discussions weren’t heavy-handed or didactic.

As for my dislikes, the first I need to mention is the simply weird pacing problems. I would be convinced that several days had passed and then read a reference to an action five chapters past as earlier in the day. This isn’t particularly unreasonable with seventy-seven short chapters, but it is disconcerting when the perception is so different from the narrative. Similarly, I would thing a short time had passed – a few days, a week at most – and discover that months had gone by. I wonder if this is a vampire novel problem, as both Stoker’s Dracula and Meyer’s Twilight also had these issues of pacing, though to wildly different degrees.

Another weird aspect was the inclusion of a biblical phrase as a large part of the mythology quite suddenly at the end. After having spent so much of the book writing a detailed individual mythology and science, it was more than a bit odd to see an established mythology (one that didn’t feel like it really fit all that well) play such a large role in the raison d’être of the vampires. I was largely confused by the inclusion and I still think it was a poor choice, though it certainly wasn’t a book breaker by any means.

Many of the “bad people” Brit targets are pimps and the prostitutes often seem to end up being collateral damage. I dislike them being lumped in as bad people (with little remorse for killing them), as a vast majority of illegal sex workers are victims themselves. At best it seems insensitive and at worst it looks like sex-shaming and has shades of victim-blaming. Either way, it felt like a very negative and dismissive treatment of sex workers and I would have liked that to be more nuanced. I also find it ludicrous that in a town that supports over 200 pimps and sex workers that Brit couldn’t find a goodly portion of muggers or robbers (or, if she could, that they didn’t show up in the narrative).

There is a scene (really, Brit’s first taste of the false heroism she takes on) in which a girl is threatened with rape. Brit steps in and saves her and the next day the girl is at school, bright, bubbly, cheery, and entirely unaffected. This sat very poorly with me. It seemed to brush off rape, or the threat of it, as a casual thing, and that disturbs me. I think it would have served the narrative, one proved to be so good at nuanced discussions, to have added a little, or even a lot more nuance to this scene.

Okay, so that’s the base of my review. As you can see, compared to what I enjoy, most of my complaints are minor. I hope you understand that while this next part addresses a major complaint at length and, though it does taint my over-all experience of the book, I did enjoy the vast majority of my time in this world.

From here on out MAJOR SPOILERS. DON’T CONTINUE IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM.

We good? Fantastic.

There was an entirely gratuitous rape in the book. Entirely. There’s no excuse or purpose that I can suss out. In my explanation, I first have to credit Maggie Stiefvater, an author of YA literature herself, for helping me create my criteria for what makes a gratuitous rape in literature. She wrote a beautiful article about rape in fiction two years ago and it perfectly captures the feeling of being faced with an unnecessary rape: “I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.” You can find it on her tumblr and twitter. The criteria are:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?
2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?
3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?
4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?
5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?
6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

So, I will be answering each of the questions about Blood Matters. First, I need to set up the context of the rape: A male parasite (in a male host) feels that he needs to repopulate the world with parasites to cull the human herd. Since E.V. is the only remaining female parasite, she is the one he chooses. The process by which he does this first includes the male parasite leaving his host body (therefore killing it) to join E.V. in Brit’s body and fundamentally changing E.V’s DNA to replicate in such a way as to create little parasite babies and also to jump into a new (male) host and have the host bodies have sex, so the parasite babies can attach to each sperm deposited and then go infect the world. Oh, and he fully intends to do both acts whether E.V. and/or Brit intend to go along with it. And, sure enough, he does. Got it? Now to the questions:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?

Quite simply: never. He already has the sperm, so there could have been all sorts of ways to accomplish that aspect, if it must needs have sperm. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of several ways that, if the female parasite had been in a male body, this could have been pulled off just fine without rape (which means that totally could have happened in a female). These ways are: asexual reproduction; only the parasites needed to have sex and since it is established that they can remove blood through skin contact, skin contact would be the full extent of the necessity, rather than invading a body in any way, shape, or form; changing of the DNA to be compatible with flaking skin cells; combining the sperm with the baby parasite hoards OUTSIDE the body. So, in this aspect, the rape was gratuitous.

2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?

Yes. And how you can take a phoenix-like, parasitic, practically eternal being and reduce her to her girly bits is BEYOND me. Holy reproductive terrorism, Batman. Not to mention, E.V. is considered an It – a non-gendered entity – for the vast majority of the book. About two-thirds of the way through, her female-ness is impressed upon her by the man!parasite who would eventually perpetuate the rape. Her female status literally exists to serve the rapist. So, in this manner, the rape is gratuitous.

3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?

Not in the least. At no point after the rape were the implications discussed. Though shock might be considered a factor, both Brit and E.V. were a little two engaged with reality afterwards for me to feel as if that was a valid interpretation of the after-effects of the rape. Basically, much like the threat of rape from earlier in the novel, it is not discussed much at all. This is especially confusing considering the elegant discussions about heroism, love, and humanity in the script. In this way, the rape is gratuitous.

4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?

Hell. Yes. Several. And while I am almost positive that these were unintentional, it is still a fact that this rape both confirms the cultural expectation of the inevitability of rape as well as the cultural perception that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. The manuscript does this by having the female character(s) commit suicide shortly after she/they are raped. The suicide served the discussion about heroism and how the nature of the hero is to give, not to take, but it could have been accomplished (SO SO EASILY) in a non-problematic way by simply not including rape. Also, since the male parasite has to transfer hosts to a new male host – and it chooses Brit’s human boyfriend – there is a bit of playing into the ‘men can’t help themselves, they’re animals’ when the boyfriend tries to fight off the control of the parasite and fails. Also, the responsibility of getting away is left with the girls. This plays into the cultural perception that women don’t do enough to avoid being raped. In this way, the rape was gratuitous.

5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?

Yes. This choice – and it was a choice, not an inevitability – feels lazy, especially since E.V. was considered a sexless being until two-thirds of the way through the manuscript (she inhabited both men and women!). This choice didn’t feel like intent, rather it felt unexamined. In that way, it is absolutely gratuitous.

6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

Yes. After spending an entire manuscript being the acting party (parties), suddenly these women – during the climax of the story no less – become the party acted upon. They are turned into Victims or Sidekicks in their own story. It is especially frustrating, then, that their return to action is to commit suicide to prevent the little parasite babies from entering the world – an act completely about the rape, making them victims to the end. Again, this scene qualified the rape in Blood Matters as a gratuitous rape.

As you can see, this rape was entirely gratuitous by these guidelines. And yes, I realize these are guidelines of my own making (though adapted from another’s), but I hope I’ve demonstrated how truly unnecessary this was. This was an extremely disappointing way to end an experience I had so enjoyed. I don’t know what to think. The fact that all of the problematic aspects, unintentional though they might have been, in this circumstance were missed by both the author and the editor BAFFLES me. I rate the story highly because the writing was so good and the story showed a true understanding of craft. But the lack of understanding of this vital component really made the experience forever tainted.

I will continue to watch the author’s work. I will even continue to read it. She is talented and I believe she can (and hope she will) do better. To her credit, and I do hope I’ve made it clear that I give her plenty, she did not depict the rape in graphic terms. The reader knows how and when it happened, but she did not deem it necessary to show it. I *very much so* appreciate that and know that I would not be able to rate this work so highly if it were not true. I hope that, in future works, this author will prove me right and earn my trust again^. I certainly want her to be able to.

B- (excellent world building, interesting characters, successful narrative device, nuanced thematic discussions; casual attitude about the threat of rape, lightly treated rape, romanticized suicide, odd insertion of biblical mythology, weird pacing at times)

[><] & [::]

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^I am not so arrogant as to believe the author hopes to gain my trust in particular, certainly not on a personal level. If I trust an author, I enjoy their books more and I hope I can get there with Bel’Harold’s books one day.

STATE MACHINE by K.B. Spangler

State Machine is the third book of the Rachel Peng series, and K.B. Spangler’s fourth book set in the same world as her webcomic, A Girl and Her Fed. I highly recommend any and all of her work.* I especially recommend reading this series in order, for though Spangler does do small, narratively appropriate summaries in each book, you’ll have an unnecessarily long time of catching up if you start with State Machine. Also, you’d be missing two excellent books. And if webcomics aren’t your thing: don’t worry! It’s not necessary to read the webcomic to enjoy the books (in fact, reading the books inspired my sister to read the webcomic, whereas I discovered them the other way ’round), though there are definitely moments in the books and comic when it is REALLY nice to be a fan of both. Those moments add layers to those who know, but still serve perfectly functional roles in the respective formats.

Now, onto the specifics of the book.

I remember being a little shocked at how different Maker Space (the second book) was from Digital Divide (the first book). By the time I wrote my review, I had come to the conclusion that the difference was a necessity for the character. Rachel needs to be pushed against as many boundaries as possible, partially because she’s so reluctant to push them herself, partially because she’s best in the thick of things. This is never more true than in State Machine. This time, it’s not the murder that’s weird or a wild bomber on the loose. It’s actually pretty straight-forward: a robbery gone wrong with the suspect on video. Nah, what’s weird are all the situations Rachel finds herself in.

Why in heaven’s name was she called to investigate a crime in the White House? Why are political bigwigs and leaders approaching her as opposed to her bosses? AND SINCE WHEN DID A BROKEN LUMP OF INDETERMINATE MATERIAL/ORIGIN MERIT MURDER?! Rachel is confused. And a confused Rachel is a lot more fun.

Part of the reason confused Rachel is such great fun is because it leads her to consult a varied cast of experts. Some of them are expert cyborgs, some of them are expert cops, many of them are experts in all things geek, but all of them are a joy to be around. Mark Hill really got a lot of time in this book, and I’m so glad he did. He and Rachel are both gifted interrogators and the scenes in which they work together and separately are fascinating. The rapport that comes from this shared talent and similar military histories is better. Mark doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s usually a fantastic scene. Phil, Jason, Santino, Mako, and Zockinski are all back in full and glorious form, too. Rachel never lacks for good company. It makes for a wonderful series in which the core cast of characters is so solidly enjoyable, but the rotating cast of characters is nothing to sneeze at, either. One of Spangler’s talents is in memorable, compelling characters of all types and involvement. I found myself missing tertiary characters from the previous novels and hoping that some of the tertiary characters in State Machine might be coming back.

Another part of the reason that confused Rachel is a better Rachel is that she functions on instinct. And that instinctual, reactive behavior is often hilarious and intense, but it also has the potential to go very, VERY wrong. I love that Rachel is deeply fallible. Her instincts serve her well a goodly portion of the time, but sometimes they’re dead wrong. The fact that, when she is wrong in this book, she admits it, commits to doing better, and brings in people she can trust to hold her accountable shows a remarkable amount of character growth from previous books. Not that she’s perfect – Rachel still has a secret or ten – but she’s starting to realize that her instincts aren’t always the best thing to fall back on. She’s growing in the books, and I love her for it.

(Let’s be honest, though: the biggest reason confused Rachel is so fun is because she is the worst cyborg in the history of cyborgs and this means Santino, her partner in the Metro PD, gets to tease her more. That’s excellent giggles, that is.)

As always, I must mention how refreshing it is to see a diversity of race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc, so seamlessly and thoroughly melded into a script. In the tiringly white, straight entertainment world, Spangler’s multi-dimensional cast is a sweet relief, and makes for a much more enjoyable experience than standard, popular fiction fare. That the main character is female, Chinese-American, and a lesbian (AND NO ONE – in world – GIVES A DAMN) is all the more precious to me, as a reader. Perhaps the only thing I haven’t seen represented in the books are trans individuals of any type (transgender, transsexuals, non-binary, genderfluid, etc) and while it is a curious lack, I have faith. It was just in this book that Spangler included a polyamorous relationship, so I know she continues to do her best to include more people and more perspectives.

It’s difficult to talk about specific plot point without spoilers, but the emotional notes this manuscript hits are right up there with the amusing ones. Rachel’s ability to see the emotional spectrum could easily lead to an over-wrought, mawkish manuscript. Rather, this ability lends itself to endless puzzle-solving, acknowledging both the universality and individual complexity that is the human experience. Also, while the morality of technology and how humans use it is addressed, it’s not preachy or even definitive. It’s a discussion consistent to these books, and I appreciate the layers that come with each new plot and situation (I loved the ‘what is math and what does that mean’ scenes in this book).

I will say, sometimes Spangler can be a bit hard to follow from conclusion to conclusion. Not that she lacks a certain clarity, but because I am convinced she wants the reader to conclude for themselves. Imagine a chasm just broad enough for you to have to stretch to leap across – that’s much what the reading experience is like. As a long-time reader, I’m used to this and can better track the thought processes of her and her characters. New readers do, however, sometimes struggle. (For example, while my sister and I enjoy the challenge of puzzling out the steps Spangler takes, a dear friend of mine couldn’t make it work and therefore couldn’t get into the books.) Know that, in my humble opinion, it’s worth it not only because these gaps allow for reader interaction and interpretation, but for the interesting ways in which it makes the brain consider the problem. I am of the opinion that a good author MUST do this, but acknowledge that not everyone enjoys the stretch (or re-reading passages a couple times when necessary).

The wonderful political scheming is back. I am a big fan of political conspiracies, so long as they’re not of the ‘every one is terrible and there is no hope’ variety (AKA: a LOT of popular books and TV shows). Everything, even the casual conversations at parties, could be high stakes. It’s so much fun to follow Spangler (and Rachel) through these labyrinthine mazes to see which of the many potential outcomes resolves at the end of the book. And though it hurts, it’s nice that Rachel rarely wins entirely, and sometimes loses miserably.

All in all, what I love most about the books keeps coming back in new and interesting ways. I adore this series and am thrilled at the prospect of a book from Hope Blackwell’s perspective (she’s one of the main characters of the comic), as well as the future Rachel Peng installments. I have so much fun being a guest in this world, I wish I never had to leave.

A+ (flawed but improving main character, excellent secondary characters, new situations with brilliant continuity, intrinsic diversity, complex political and moral discussions; no trans characters, occasionally difficult to track the thought processes, never long enough to last between book releases)

*It’s no secret that I’m an avid K.B. Spangler fan. I’ve been eager and anxious for each book, supported the first when it was in serialized format, bought extra copies of the books for my local library, etc, etc, etc. So, do take this with as many grains of salt as you feel necessary, as I am a SuperFan ™. That being said, I think I treat the manuscript fairly and accurately. Because I am said SuperFan ™, I always have high expectations for Spangler’s work. She has never disappointed.

For your convenience: here is the link to Spangler’s link round up of the places you can buy her Rachel Peng novels (I have no idea why The Russians Came Knocking isn’t on there). Also, my reviews of her other books (which, for some unknown reason, I have not cross-posted on here) can be found at these links: Digital Divide (Rachel Peng 1), Maker Space (Rachel Peng 2), and The Russians Came Knocking (Josh Glassman 1).

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

I’ve not been writing a whole lot of reviews outside LibraryThing Early Reviews lately and I loved this book series so much I figured it was a good time to write a non-LT review. I’m going to try to do equal amounts each month (so if I get two books from LTER, then two other reviews, too) from now on, but it all depends on how busy I am! I’ve had a lot going on and life always seems to be excellently good at getting busier.

So, onto the first book of the Lady Trent memoirs. I picked up this book for a multitude of reasons. Dragons, of course, were very high on the list of reasons, as basically NOTHING can match my love for dragons. The appeal of a female scientist main character held no small motivation for reading, as well. Also high on the list for reasons to read, this book was recommended by my best friend and an author I highly respect both gave high praise to the series. I’d been meaning to read it (my TBR is almost 900 books and counting), but those two recommendations were finally what pushed me over the edge. And let me tell you: the fall was worth EVERY SECOND.

Lady Isabella Trent is a PHENOMENAL woman of great sense and curiosity. I love that these books are written as memoirs from an older age, rather than journals written at the time. This allows for a good deal of perspective, delightful world building outside the events of the books (I LONG for some of the other works referenced by the narrator and would gladly pay Marie Brennan a comfortable wage to write them, had I the means), and simply GLORIOUS parentheticals peppered throughout the manuscript. And when I say glorious, I mean GLOR.I.OUS. Zounds, but Brennan can write a parenthetical. The narrative voice is business-like, practical, and descriptive without being overly embellished. I have rarely had such a lovely time in the head of a character. I think this is because the narrator spends so very little time on regrets, angst, or even celebration. She acknowledges them when appropriate, but the point of these memoirs are, ultimately, a true account of a life, not an emotional or needlessly nostalgic narrative, certainly never a maudlin one. I LOVE it.

The other characters are, of course, perceived through the lens of Isabella’s perspective, so that does limit our concept of them, but that does not prevent us from seeing growth. Often, the growth is in Isabella’s perception of the characters, which I find very true to life. She starts out seeing many characters less than complexly, and they all occur to her as more complicated than she initially assumes at different paces. I like that flawed, first-person perspective. Two particular relationships I enjoyed seeing come to a certain equilibrium were those of Lady Trent and Tom Wilker and Lady Trent and the local lady who serves as her handmaid on the expedition. The relationship between Isabella and her husband is especially tender and a joy to watch develop from a marriage of social respectability to one of friendship, love, and deep respect.

The Lady Trent memoirs are what the author describes as a 1.5 alternate history – that is to say, the names of countries and political relationships are distinct from our world, but the world does absolutely have analogs in this world. I’ll admit, that took some getting used to, as I kept having “ah-ha!” moments when I would make a connection. Perhaps more distracting were the times I would look at a word or a cultural system and think, “Really? Does the author think another world would have developed a nearly identical system/name?” It took me some time to accept the world for what it was: a close-but-not-quite sibling to ours.

I was delighted to discover the predominant religion in this book to be more like Judaism than Christianity. It was refreshing to see a difference in narrative. So often, fictional religions are similar to Christianity or the Greek pantheon – I like the change. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t see more of the religion, but as none of the main characters were particularly religious, it didn’t really suit the narrative. Perhaps that is another flaw I see in the book: the agnostic, culturally religious, and non-religious are all well represented, but the only truly religious characters are less present, or dismissed with impatience by the main characters who have little time for faith. I feel as if that is somewhere where the author could grow in future books.

I found the pacing of the plot very . . . efficient, I think is the best word for it. This first book covers a young woman’s scientific awakening, her marriage, and her first expedition. That is a LOT of ground to cover. Thankfully, Lady Trent’s no nonsense narration deals with this very neatly: what was important in the formative years, courtship, and early marriage were covered just enough to give a sense of events without dawdling. However, this did make the jump from overviews and summaries to a detailed (though just as efficient and practical) account of the expedition a little less than smooth.

As for the dragons, well, I want more of them. I’m used to the sentient dragons of fantasy, and these dragons were solely animals. That being said, the science Brennan spent the book setting up was absolutely fascinating. I am VERY excited to see how it develops. The references to the changes in scientific and cultural thought about dragons in the time since the events of the book and the time of its writing are tantalizing without being too distracting. The distraction that does come is one of anticipation, not frustration (although one might argue anticipation is an exercise in a certain, almost pleasurable, frustration). Specifically, I am DYING to hear about the taxonomic changes.

Because of said scientific observations and bases of the manuscript, I do have a bit of trouble classifying it as fantasy (which most would assume would be the classification for a book about dragons). I finally settled on Speculative Fiction as my classification, which I generally use when there’s simply too much science and too much fantasy for a book to be one or the other, or when dealing with alternate futures and histories. All of those seemed to be present in this book. Your mileage may vary, but do not go into this book expecting what is generally expected of a fantasy about dragons. This is a splendidly different sort of take.

Ultimately, I was more than pleased with this series debut. In fact, I was positively tickled. I rushed out to buy the next two books and have happily devoured them since. I highly recommend this series to a budding scientist with an active imagination.

A (amazing series launch, truly distinct narrative voice, glorious parentheticals, enjoyable main character, side characters well-developed, science of dragons fascinaating; somewhat distracting world similarities and differences, rough transition from broad overview to detailed accounts)