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.


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)

[><] & [::]


^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.

Abducticon by Alma Alexander

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

ABDUCTICON was a fun romp sort of read. It was beautiful in its simplicity and lack of complication. It set out to be a fun tribute to science fiction and the surrounding con culture and I think it did just that. Of course, the lack of complexity did make for some convenient moments and the simplicity sometimes meant that the novel didn’t delve as deeply as I like in my science fiction and occasionally over-simplified, but these things didn’t significantly take away from my enjoyment of the book. I accepted it for what it was, and it was good fun.

I like to think the author kept a spreadsheet of every reference she made in the novel (how else would one keep track of which ones had already been made?) and I would LOVE to see that spread sheet. I KNOW I missed quite a few of these Easter eggs, but the ones I did find filled me with no small amount of delight. Sometimes those inside jokes and references feel like they’re slyly sneaked in by the author with undertones of smug self-satisfaction, but I felt none of that here. They were there for the pure enjoyment of the reader AND author. This was much of the charm of the novel. We were all here together to have a BLAST.

While much of the fan culture felt very familiar, this was the place the book suffered the grossest of over-simplifications and I think it would have benefited from just a touch more complexity in describing the types of people who staffed and went to conventions. I think the author did the book a disservice by painted too-broad strokes in that area and spending more time than necessary detailing things like some of the meetings behind the scenes of the con.

This problem lead to some unfortunately poor characterization and a confusion of who the main characters were. I would have told you the main characters were two ENTIRELY different people after the first few chapters than I would now. I was especially disappointed in Andie Mae’s end point and Angel Silverman as a whole (and her husband’s treatment of her). I feel like both those women could have used a little more attention in the novel. Also, some relationships weren’t particularly clear because of this broad-strokes characterization.

B (good, simple fun; charming fan-culture/scifi tribute; Easter eggs a joy | over-broad simplifications in character, too much unnecessary detail in plot; poor characterization in a couple key instances)

A New Day at Midnight by Michelle Hiscox

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

First, the good things: The book is a quick read. The writing is, generally, of a good pace and pleasant flow. Also, the romance wasn’t rushed, which is a particular annoyance of mine. This is not to say the romance was perfect (my objections will come below), but the author did give the relationship time to develop. The sex scenes were some of the better writing in the book – her efforts showed especially in depictions of physical sensations/situations (both positive and negative). The author also did a very good job talking about saving a life by turning someone into a vampire when the victim is unable to consent, and the morality and power dynamics in a such situations. This is a point that I feel is often skipped over in vampire narratives (there’s plenty of angst, but very little discussion of responsibility/consent), and I appreciate that she took the time to explore the nooks and crannies of that particular aspect.

Unfortunately, those were not enough to redeem the book. This book has the triple threat of racial violence, domestic abuse, and man-pain (the function in entertainment by which a female character is hurt/tortured/kidnapped/killed as motivation for a male character to act) all within the first few chapters. Needless to say, my motivation to finish the book was scant. But finish I did! I cannot say I was particularly pleased with the results.

This book shows a stunning lack of imagination. This is not to say that the author wrote a boring world. She did not. However, the world she wrote was filled with stereotypes and poor (or no) research about the complex society in which the main characters spend most of their time – Romani society. A quick internet search would have made this book MUCH better because the portrayal of the Romani would have been so much more nuanced and wouldn’t feel appropriative. I was HORRIFIED to read, multiple times in the first few pages, the racial slur generally used for the Romani people. There are better ways to portray ignorance of a culture or prejudice against it. Taboo racial slurs are an unimaginative shortcut and tell the reader this character is prejudiced/ignorant rather than SHOW it. However, my horror was NOTHING compared to the disgust I felt when after a Romani character corrected the ignorant use of the slur by the main character with, “We prefer Romani,” that the main character CONTINUED TO USE IT for a few more chapters. Also, the word was still peppered through the script. Also, the text is full of micro-aggressions (like the surprised exclamation “You speak English so well!”) and fetishizing of the Romani. Not to mention, when using Romani mythology, she mixed it with another mythological tradition to the point that the original legend was nearly obscured. Everything about the treatment of the Romani felt extremely squicky.

Women in this story tend to be acted upon rather than act themselves. It’s a frustrating thing to read. Especially the sister, Anya, who seemed completely there to be acted upon, rather than act. The main character swung between two poles: completely inactive to amazingly decisive. It was awkward and inconsistent. In the main, however, she was a body acted upon and I very much so dislike a main character who has little agency. So, while the romance wasn’t rushed, it was almost entirely on the male character’s terms, which made the pace of the thing feel less like a victory. SPOILER: A slave falls in love with their master! That’s so very gross and never ONCE did the novel even think to address the power dynamic there. If you absolutely MUST use that trope, at least bother to do it with a LITTLE respect. Considering that the author did an extremely good job of addressing the power dynamics of being a vampire faced with a dying person, this lack was BAFFLING. The book felt a lot like a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite faerie tale and while the book recognizably follows the sense of the story, it does so without ever capturing the true spirit and intent of it.

I could not get a sense of time period, because there were language functions that felt very 1800’s and some that felt very 1900’s. This is what broke the pleasant flow of the narrative the most. I was thrown out of the novel several times when the language changed from older usage to more modern usage (especially when the characters swore – the usages felt much more modern). Also, bride prices and slaves were a thing, making a case for the older time period, but again the language felt very modern.

I also believe that much of the errors in the novel were editorial mistakes. Some of them were convoluted sentences that needed a firm hand, some were formatting errors, but none of these did an already flawed novel any favors. Frustration on top of disappointment makes for an unsatisfying reading experience. This is not the first time I have read a book published by Bookkus and have felt similarly dissatisfied with the editing. I think this author’s book could have been much better, had she had a little more editorial guidance.

A note of confusion: I’m not sure I understand the origin of the title. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not sure the title is appropriately descriptive of the book. At the same time, there is something of the “new beginnings” feeling in the book. It’s not a bad title, but it doesn’t quite do it for me either.

D (Pacing and flow generally satisfying, romance not rushed, depictions of physical acts well-written, addresses vampire aspects often dismissed; appropriation of culture, time period inconsistencies, poorly discussed power dynamics, female characters lacking in agency, poor editing)

The Maker, the Teacher, and the Monster by Leah Cutter

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program.

I really want to like Leah Cutter’s books. All of the ones I’ve read have interesting premises and characters. But she always seems lost. Her talent absolutely lies in character establishment and description (the way she describes magic in the three books of hers I’ve read is beautiful and her ability to translate details into images is very good), but not plot.

It’s frustrating to see the plot get lost so frequently. She’s ending her books stronger, but I still desire something a little more solid from her beginnings. It’s hard to stick with a book when the beginning is so slow (a problem all her books have shared). Inconsistent pacing also contributes to this “lost plot” problem.

I like her writing. I like her characters. But her plot and pacing are killing the reading buzz for me. That being said, Cutter has improved with each book, and so long as she does that, I’m willing to give her more chances.

The only thing I HAVE to note about the book is a SERIOUS issue that I see in SciFi ALL the time and I’m getting sick of it: mind-controlled sex is rape. Period. It doesn’t matter if the partners were having regular and consensual sex before the mind-control, there is no universe in which this is not rape. And I am so damn tired of seeing rape used as a plot device or fast, lazy character development without it being acknowledge for what it is. I will give that Cutter does a damn sight better than most authors, in that she has the character state she would need therapy, but NEVER ONCE is it called a rape. If we’re going to use rape as a literary device, we sure as hell should acknowledge it. So, trigger warning on that.

Definitely read this book after reading the first one, though.

B- (improved writing, interesting development; plot and pacing inconsistent, mystical rape, rape via mind-control)

[><] & [::]

The Clockwork Fairy Kingdom by Leah Cutter

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program.

THE CLOCKWORK FAIRY KINGDOM by Leah Cutter is the second book of hers I’ve read and I’ll admit to going in with a few hesitations due to my experience in the first book. I’m happy to report that she has improved.

The writing was better and I cared much, much more about the characters in this novel than I did the last. I found her treatment of the fairy caste system to be interesting, although I am a bit perturbed that the highest caste is described as fairer, paler than the lower castes. It’s not a big part of the story, but considering that Cutter did diversity SO WELL in the other book of hers I am hoping that we see a bit more diversity of color in the higher castes in the second book of the trilogy.

Dale and Nora are smart, well-balanced kids (both in general and well-balanced against each other). I must say, I loved that Nora saw art in destruction as much as in creation. I think that made a beautiful thematic thread in the story. And Dale, as an inherent fixer, not being able see that beauty also felt very real to me. The twins’ contrasting powers very much so were what I wanted in them.

However, just like the last book, I felt like the plot was unformed, like the author wasn’t sure where she was going until she got there. The villain wasn’t clear from the beginning. In fact, until the last few chapters, I thought the villain was Kostya. Then Chris showed up out of NOWHERE – not having been mentioned for chapters on chapters – and he seemed to be the central villain. And then it was back to Queen Adele and maybe Kostya and then Chris and then someone else! It was such a muddle. Also, much like the last book by Cutter that I read, the pacing was tentative, almost frightened, like the author wasn’t sure the reader would like it and stay with her if the pace picked up. I want to reach through the words and scream, “BE BOLD.”

I think this author could use a confidence boost – it would help her good writing be great. However, I do look forward to the next book!

Solid B (improved writing, good characters; plot still muddled and lost, tentative pacing)

[><] & [::]

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

I received TORN AWAY by Jennifer Brown through the Early Review program, the Hachette Bonus Batch.

I’m not really into tragic teen stories. I like adventure and faerie tales, so this wasn’t the perfect book for me at first blush. However, within a half an hour of picking it up, I was over 60 pages into the book. It’s a very easy, well-paced read. The tragedy seems a bit lightly treated at times – the main character, Jersey, seems to make great leaps and strides in healing awfully quickly – however, I was delighted, by the end, to feel like the title had a new and deeper meaning. I don’t think the title refers to her home or family being torn away, ultimately. I think the title refers to illusion and lies being torn away.

The process of both her life as she knew it and the lies that created it being torn away is started by the tornado tearing away her mother and sister, yes, but Jersey continues to find bits and pieces of her life being slowly torn away and I was surprised to feel like that was a *good* thing. While I by no means think the tragic deaths of a mother and sister are good things, the aftermath was *incredibly good* for Jersey.

I do wish there had been a little more resolution in the book. Jersey ends up in a lot of bad, difficult situations and they don’t really resolve … they just end. And then she picks up and moves on. I feel like we missed some *vital* moments of her making peace with those bad situations before we saw her happier and healthier when the book ended.

But, as I said, I did enjoy feeling like the context of the book dramatically changed by the end and I would be interested to re-read the book with this new context. I will likely pick it up again!

B+ (layered meanings, well-paced writing; light treatment of tragedy, lack of resolution)

[><] & [::]

Fissure Free by Shari J. Ryan

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program. As a note, in September I received the sequel to this book as one of my Early Review books, so I suspect that I will be revisiting this review in that post (which will post in mid-October).

I’m afraid I just could not get into this book. I did read the first book in preparation and the writing is better in this book, but it still suffers from a lack of character.

This is not to say there are no characters, but that the book feels bland, to me. I need characters I can connect with – even in the midst of deep fantasy, I *need* characters who feel real. The two main characters, Alex and Chloe feel flat. They’re two characters wrapped and created around one another, which ends up feeling very empty, since neither really have substance outside the other. And since both of them are hollow without each other, they’re barely substantial together.

I also vehemently object to ending a book on a big reveal (the first book did) and then acting as if the reveal hadn’t happened at the beginning of the next book. The pacing was just odd.

Also, the way the series treats mental illness as the result of some fairy tale escape rather than as a serious condition really rankles me, as I deal every day with the reality of mental health issues. There is no escape and it is most certainly not escaping that makes me happy – it’s facing the mental health problems head on. The only character who does that is painted as the secondary villain.

I hesitate to pass final judgement because there is one more book in the series and I feel I was a bit rushed in my reading of the material. So, I give it a hesitant three stars for an interesting premise and improvement from the first book – because there was improvement – but I may change my mind after a more careful study.

[><] & [::]