Book Review: The Blood Trials
Note how the cover shows the fantasy element with the spears coming from her right knuckles but has the science fiction in the background and her clothes. Pretty great design!
The Blood Trials by N.E. Davenport was a 2022 debut science fantasy novel. It's what people want to call New Adult, as it follows a woman post-high school/early-college. It's the first in The Blood Gift Duology; the second book (The Blood Gift) just hit shelves this spring.
Kenna is the granddaughter of the recently murdered leader of a council-lead government. The technology is very futuristic, but Kenna also has a secret blood magic gift, which is banned. In order to solve her grandfather's murder, she signs up for a post-grad military program to become an elite warrior called a Praetorian. To become a full member, applicants must pass the blood trials, named for the extreme and deadly selection process. Think Hunger Games x Navy Seal Training x Magic. As the trials continue, Kenna is targeted and often only survives assassination attempts due to her magical blood gift. As she uncovers who may be behind it all, she questions everyone around her.
This book was fine. The POV stayed with Kenna, and was deep POV, which I like. The worldbuilding was interesting and unique, though left me with many questions. I liked the romance element and the magic system. I also enjoyed the characters, especially Kenna. She was often angry, and I like seeing books which allow a female character to be angry.
I had problems with this book. Number one, why kill off hundreds of your best warriors while picking your elite fighters? Aren't you killing perfectly capable soldiers, even if they aren't going to be in the top squad? Seems like a waste. This was never questioned. My other major issue was that the plot resolved at the 70% mark, and then a new plot began and didn't wrap up at the end. It felt like the duology was originally a short trilogy that got repackaged as two books to save paper or something. I really disliked that. My last big complaint was that the plot itself felt very familiar. I read a slew of "Hunger Games x Other Element" novels in college, one being Hunger Games x SATs, which was the most similar to this. It made this book predictable on a plot level.
This book is for you if you like science fantasy, if you like Hunger Games x Navy Seal Training as a concept, and if you like murder mystery as a central element. It's not for you if you'll be bothered by the story ending and then starting anew at the 70% mark, if you don't like fight-to-the-death plots, or if you're not in the mental space to read about men physically attacking women.
Have you read The Blood Trials? What did you think? Should I give the sequel a chance? Let's discuss in the comments!
The Nebula Awards are tonight, May 14th! In honor of that, I'm posting my review of Babel by R.F. Kuang, a Nebula nominee for best novel this year. It's Kuang's fourth novel (others by her are the Poppy War Trilogy and her fifth book, Yellowface). Since part of my reading goals incudes more award winners and nominees, I couldn't pass this one up.
Babel focuses on 1830s Oxford, England, where a magic program exists at the university in a tower called Babel. The magic of this world is based on translation and linguistics and requires silver to work. The main character, Robin, is an orphan from Canton, China, brought to England as a child by his guardian/Babel professor. Robin's journey at Oxford (ten years after moving to England) is the main bulk of this beefy tome (557 pages).
I enjoyed Babel a ton. I'm big into etymology, so the fact that magic was based on it and characters had conversations about word origins really worked for me. I also loved the magic system in general, including that it took a ton of studying but was accessible to anyone who tried hard enough (and had the money) to learn it. For that reason, it will be a comp for the WIP I'm finishing. The anti-colonial themes were deftly handled.
A lot of time passes in the novel, and some of it is glossed over that I wanted to read about. This would have made a very long novel even longer, and I wondered if it could have been then split into multiple books. Then again, I have to wonder why some of those glossed over moments were mentioned at all, since the book was already so long and anything not set in a scene wasn't as impactful in the overall story anyway.
This book is for you if you're looking for a magic system that's fresh and different, if you're a fan of linguistics/etymology (especially Latin and Chinese), and if you're on the hunt for anti-colonial themes. It's not for you if you need a thick book to move at a breakneck pace, if you're looking for secondary world fantasy, or if you're not in the right headspace to read about child abuse.
Have you read Babel? What about The Poppy War? What other great award nominees/winners should I read this year? Let's discuss in the comments.
UPDATE: Babel won the 2023 Nebula Award for Best Novel! Congrats R.F. Kuang!
Wilbur was to cozy to post somewhere aesthetically pleasing, and who can blame him? (Photo by Kate Ota 2023)
Bird by Bird is one of those writing books that’s been recommended to me time and time again. Lauded as a must-read for authors, I had high expectations going in that this book had the power to alter my writing process or philosophy in some way.
The book focuses on Lamott's writing process. She's a pantser, and does that thing where characters talk to her. The book discusses the novel process in stages, which is supposed to make the whole thing more digestible. The title refers to the author's brother needing to write a report on birds the night before it's due, and their father saying they'd take it "bird by bird" or one step at a time.
Normally, I highlight a bunch of advice in writing books and leave little flags on pages I expect to reference again, but none of that was necessary for Bird by Bird. It operates under the assumption that the reader shares Lamott’s creative process. Unfortunately, I’m a plotter and I do not wait for characters to speak to me and tell me their secrets. I’m one who has to actively create. Basically, the entire book fell flat for me.
Is It Worth It?
It’s about $14.99 for a paperback copy, though an ebook ($13.99) would have been just as good.
If you’re a pantser looking for a book that will guide you through that process, this is a good book for you. If you prefer to plot and actively create, then this book will not be worth it for you.
Have you read Bird by Bird? Are you one of the people who loved it, or is there anyone who felt disappointed, like me? Let’s discuss in the comments.
The cover is pretty, but doesn't quite make sense for the story except for the setting being the greater San Fran area.
Please Report Your Bug Here is a scifi debut from Josh Riedel. The author has short stories published elsewhere, but this is his first novel. Notably, Riedel was also one of the earliest Instagram employees, which lends credibility to the character Ethan, one of the first employees at a dating app startup in Silicon Valley. The book debuted in early 2023.
Please Report Your Bug here focuses on Ethan, as mentioned above, takes place in 2010, and is framed as Ethan looking back on all this drama from an unspecified point in the future. Using his company's app, Ethan views his most compatible match and is suddenly thrown into an alternate world. While Ethan tries to solve what happened to him and why, he learns he's not the only one who experienced this, and that the buggy code causing it isn't an accident.
I liked some aspects of this book. It reminded me at first of the opening of The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi, although with less humor and more focus on the startup life. The two diverged by the time of the inciting incident. The book highlighted important problems, like the cost of living in San Fran and the weird way social media companies tried (still try?) to get their employees to basically live at work. The idea of a social media company stumbling onto this tech and using it like this was also very realistic.
On the downside, Ethan didn't develop much as a character, and often felt more like background than a protagonist. I also didn't understand his motivations to keep digging into learning about the anomaly after a certain point. He was also weird with women in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth, and with little else about the character leaving an impression, that's what I remember most.
I think this book would appeal to anyone who was involved in start ups in the 2010s, because you're sure to pick up on inside jokes more than I did. You may also enjoy it if you're big into multiverse stories. It may not be for you if you want something character driven or more escapist.
Have you read Please Report Your Bug Here? What did you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is a debut novel by Marisa Crane from an indie publishing company. Though this is a debut novel, Crane has plenty of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pub credits. It's a literary speculative novel.
In an alternate world, a department exists that assigns an extra shadow to a person who has committed a crime (however, the definition of crime is quite malleable). Kris and her wife have a baby, but her wife dies in childbirth, and the baby is assigned an extra shadow. Kris already has an extra shadow, the story behind which is kept secret for maybe 2/3 of the novel. Kris works her way through grief while their child ages and surrounds herself with other outcasts or misfits of society. It's written in first person with extremely short scenes and often has a stream-of-consciousness feel. The title comes from Kris's habit of naming things with exoskeletons to manage anxiety attacks.
I liked some aspects of this book. It was obviously allegorical, pretty clearly about discrimination (especially against members of the LGBTQIA+ community) and I liked the message. I liked the list of exoskeleton-having creatures when Kris would fight anxiety because the technique of listing items in a category is a real and effective way (one of many) to combat an anxiety attack.
I'm not a literary fiction person, though, so the very short scenes, the tight focus on grief and character instead of plot, and the lack of explanation about the speculative elements were not for me. I couldn't get over wondering how an extra shadow was special because if light hits you from more than one angle, you have an extra shadow anyway. It didn't make sense to me as a literal plot element.
This book is for you if you enjoyed the literary feel of This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, if you're big into allegories, or if you're in the mental space to read about working through grief. It is not for you if you're still working through grief/loss of a partner or if you want more scifi than literary elements.
Have you read I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Anastasia
Paper book means Clue gets to pose with the gorgeous cover! Photo by Kate Ota 2023
This post was a bit delayed, but I'm finally reviewing Anastasia by Sophie Lark. It pubbed (Indie!) in December 2022 and is far from this author's debut. The reason my review is delayed is because I originally read in as an ebook and loved it so much I bought the paperback. I would have bought the hardcover if that was an option. I wanted to wait for that to arrive before posting.
Anastasia is about the famed Grand Duchess Anastasia, but in a dark fantasy setting. There are familiar faces from history/the animated movie: the Romanov sisters, Tsarevich Alexi, Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina, and Rasputin. In this world, people can have powers, and the royal family is known for time walking, which is actually kind of like super speed rather than time travel. Anastasia is the only child who inherits that power, and being a patriarchy, that's frowned upon. There's also Damian, the son of the Cossack ruler, who was taken as a prisoner/foster as an early teen. He and Anastasia develop a friendship as the country spirals toward revolution. And let's not forget Rasputin, who is even more sinister in the book than reality. When the famed night of the revolution hits, it's nothing like our history books.
I loved this book. I loved the occasional illustrations (a huge reason why I bought the paperback), I loved the plot, I loved the romance, and I went rabid for the twist. I hit the twist at the end of my commute to work and wouldn't shut up about wanting to get back to reading the book for the entire work day. The enemies-to-friends-to-lovers felt organic and the sense of doom knowing it would end in revolution added so much great tension. I think this might be my new favorite book.
I'm struggling to think of negatives. I guess I wish the illustrations were in color, because the amazon page had some color ones which I loved. It's also incredibly long, so buckle up. Otherwise, I see myself reading this over and over and over again.
This book is for fans of the animated Anastasia who loved the magical and romantic aspects, fans of the Broadway play Anastasia who liked the incorporation of more of the history, people who enjoy historical documentaries about the Romanovs, fans of enemies-to-friends-to-lovers/slow burn romances, and fans of unique magic. It's not for you if you are looking for a direct retelling of the animated movie or the Broadway play--those focus mostly on post-revolution events and this book is largely pre-revolution events. (Also, certain characters were likely covered by copyright due to being fictional, like Bartok the bat or Dmitri.) This book may also be hard to read for anyone who recently lost family members, especially to violence.
Have you read Anastasia? What did you think? Which is your favorite: animate movie, Broadway show, or book? Did you know that the author made a Spotify playlist that matches certain scenes? (The ebook has links in the prose when you should listen to the songs!)
The annual contest Revise and Resub (aka RevPit) is starting up and the window to enter is coming this week. I'm entering for the second time (first for this novel). One of my problems is that I'm pretty shy on twitter, so I haven't been interacting with the editors much. The other problem is that I usually only see threads many hours after they started and feel weird hopping on. So I thought I'd make a post with some ~vibes~ of my manuscript so if any RevPit editors check out my website, they may see this and get more of a sense of my novel without me having to manage the anxiety of Twitter interactions.
Title: The New Neanderthals
Genre: Adult sci-fi
Cinnamon roll love interest
Fish out of water
Songs that capture a moment/emotion:
Human by Christina Perri
Start a War by Klergy & Valerie Broussard
Confident by Demi Lovato
Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift
You Don't Own Me by Grace
Fight Song by Rachel Platten
Photos from Unsplash
If you're not doing RevPit and/or aren't a RevPit editor, then come back next week when I will have more of my usual content!
If you are doing RevPit, let's discuss in the comments! Have you done it before? Have you been braver on Twitter than I have?
Lessons in Chemistry is the debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, which has earned a ton of recognition and acclaim (including the Barnes and Noble Book of the Year) since it hit shelves in 2022. It's my work-based Diversity and Inclusion Book Club pick for this quarter, since this quarter includes Women's History Month.
Lessons in Chemistry focuses on Elizabeth Zott, a young woman in the 1950s/60s California who works as a chemist at a research center. She meets fellow chemist Calvin Evans, they fall in love, and--scandalously for the time--live together unmarried. After Calvin suddenly dies, Elizabeth learns she's pregnant and loses her job. The book follows her journey through grief, child rearing, and her massive success as a TV show host where she teaches chemistry and cooking. Warning: the book contains on page sexual assault, mention of another sexual assault, and an attempted sexual assault.
The book offered interesting, though not surprising, insight into being a woman in the late 1950s/early 60s. Sometimes being a woman in science can still feel the way Elizabeth felt. I thought the cooking/chemistry show was interesting, a bit Bill Nye meets Alton Brown. Elizabeth was, for the most part, a character with agency, which I really liked. I also think it was written quite well in general, and the non-linear timeline was handled well, so it was very clear what was going on when.
I had so many problems with the book. I want to say upfront that despite the long list of complaints below, I totally recognize that I'm not the only person who matters when reading a book and it's totally fine to disagree with me. Not every book is for every person and that's okay. I'm probably in the minority with my complaints (based on how many Best of 2022 lists it made) but I still want to air my grievances because maybe there's a reader out there like me who will realize this is not the book for them.
The POV didn't work for me. I suspect it was meant to be omniscient, however there were scene breaks (example: the cafeteria proposal) that seemed intended to transition from close third POV to another close third POV, except the book still ducked between those perspectives within a single scene anyway. It didn't follow its own rules for POV which was infuriating.
I also don't think Elizabeth was a chemist, because she was either a biochemist or a biologist based on what she was studying. (I consulted with a chemist, who agrees with me.) It would have been so easy to change her topic of study to something else, since abiogenesis didn't impact the plot line itself (swap in any other word for abiogenesis and nothing changes.)
Another complaint is how Elizabeth spoke. I hate the trope of scientists always using the most scientific language possible (example: her first show when people had to call in to ask what the chemical formula she said was and it was vinegar). As someone who was surrounded by scientists (mostly chemists thanks to my dad) my entire life, I can confirm that even the most eccentric ones would have just said vinegar--acetic acid MAYBE, but only in the lab. When similar writing was used on The Big Bang Theory for the male characters, it was always making fun of them (the joke being "they're so smart but so socially awkward and unable to communicate, isn't that funny? So lame! Haha!") When used in this book, I felt like it was similarly mocking Elizabeth, like "Elizabeth is so smart she only uses a way of speaking that others can't understand, isn't she odd? A smart women? Haha!" It really rubbed me wrong.
My last complaint is the ending, which didn't work for me at all. I won't post spoilers, but I'll just say it didn't fit the theme of the book or Elizabeth's character arc.
Overall, not my favorite reading experience. I liked the concept of the story, but not the execution. It's for readers who enjoy omniscient POV (mostly), historical fiction about women (especially in science), and tragic romance. It's not for readers who will be distracted by the POV being weird, readers looking for a story about a real-life historical celebrity chef or scientist, or readers who are not in the emotional headspace to read about car accidents, partner loss, unplanned pregnancy, or sexual assault.
Have you read Lessons in Chemistry? How did you feel about it? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: All Systems Red
All Systems Red by Martha Wells is a scifi novella that starts the Murderbot Diaries series. Series is made of nine novels, novellas, and short stories. All Systems Red won the 2018 best novella Nebula and Hugo awards, the American Library Association's Alex award, and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. It's also frequently cited on agent wish lists for its voice.
The main character of the series is a security unit (SecUnit) who calls herself Murderbot. She was able to disengage her governing programming which would essentially keep her obedient so that she can watch space soap operas in her free time. She's still excellent at her job though; she's in charge pf protecting a team of scientists and surveyors who are exploring part of a planet. However, when they realize their maps are missing data and they were lied to about the planet's dangers, things quickly take a turn.
I see why this novella won so many awards and is big for agents. The unique perspective of Murderbot was funny and snarky without coming off as mean. The world was well built and the action was super clear. It's exactly the kind of scifi that I hope I'm writing!
Downside was my complaint for every novella: I wanted more! It felt like it wrapped up so quickly and easily to fit into the size of a novella.
You'll like All Systems Red if you enjoy funny/quirky scifi like Scalzi, or if you enjoyed the voice in Gideon the Ninth. It's not for you if you are looking for a novel length read (although with so many other entries in the series, you could just read more).
Have you read any (or all!) of the Murderbot Diaries stories? Let's discuss in the chat!
Mood Board 101
Recently while querying, I've noticed more agents asking for optional things like links to mood boards, playlists, or Pinterest boards. There's even a whole pitch event on Twitter around mood boards. I thought I'd take some time to help anyone struggling to figure out what mood boards are in relation to writing projects and a couple (free!) resources to make them.
What is a mood board?
A mood board is a collage of images, which can include minimal punchy text, which conveys the mood (or as the youths say the vibes) of your story. This includes setting, tone, a sense of character(s), genre, and important visual elements/motifs. If including a quote, it should be short and encapsulate the theme of the novel. A mood board can be a Pinterest page, or you can arrange images into a collage that's a single JPEG using free sites like Canva.
Why make a mood board?
A mood board is good for more than just pitching on Twitter or sending to the rare agent who asks for it in their Query Manager form. The mood board can help you as the author get back into your story between writing sessions. The process of creating one also forces you to think about the important elements, characters, and places in your story. If you've never thought about tone or theme, it may even bring one out of your subconscious.
Where do images come from?
If you're making a mood board for just you, and never plan to use it for marketing (or perhaps even pitching) then don't worry too much about copy written images you find on google. Go ham. If you plan to use it for any type of marketing (or pitching) it's safer for you to stick to royalty free images. I like using Unspalsh, but there are other options as well.
If building your board in Pinterest, obviously you're only able to use that. The board then stays on Pinterest, which can be fine if using it only for yourself, but tough if your goal is to build one for a pitching event.
You can layer text over an image in an editing site like Canva to create a background to match your chosen quote.
It may be a struggle to find exactly what you're using for, so change up search terms and feel free to get creative in finding the right matches for your project. Collect more images than you plan to use, then select your final choices later.
How do I make them a collage?
If building a collage, you can use a free site like Canva. Choose a template that puts 5-9 images of various sizes together. Choose your template wisely, since it may dictate portrait vs landscape oriented images.
If you're not a fan of online graphic design options, there's always good old fashioned Microsoft Paint.
What are some tips and tricks?
One major trick to a mood board is keeping your eye on color. You don't want a ton of competition, and you want it to look cohesive, suggesting your story is cohesive. Choose no more then 3 main colors to include. Ideally, you'll have some muted tones and one that pops. The exception is if color is a huge part of your story, for example if it takes place during Holi, or if color is associated with specific nations (like Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
Another tip is to focus one the main character(s) or setting, don't try to include every subplot, side character, or place. You want someone to walk away from your board with a general impression of your story with minimal words. Confusion is killer.
Don't focus on finding perfect matches in the photos. You'll never find just the right stock model or angle or city for your fictional characters/world. Instead, go for the emotional impact of the image.
Have fun with it! Even if using it for a pitch event or in case an agent asks for one, the mood board's main audience is you.
Example Mood Board
Let's do an example for something everyone is familiar with: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (aka the original). I searched for images as if Star Wars doesn't already exist, so no cheating by searching for droids, stormtroopers, etc. Let's pretend this is a whole new concept and none of those are options so that you SFFH writers know how to get the concept of your vivid fictional creations across without having to do visual effects yourself. (Or you can commission an artist.)
Some stock images I searched for were: space, desert, red laser, hair buns, moon, explosion, black hallway, robotics, fighter plane. Many more terms generated nothing useful including glowstick, duel, robe, telekinesis, epic, hope, and hero.
Here's what I collected:
You can see there's a lot of red, blue, black, and white. Since the blues are pretty soft, I can get away with using all four colors if red is the one that pops. I wanted to make sure it's clear Star Wars is SciFi, so I kept the robot and stars, and lost the fighter plane. I kept the explosion to show action, and the guy looking up at the moon to show Luke's desire to go on an adventure--that's a mood right there. Either the hallway or the moon would be good to put a quote over, but I felt the moon a little more. I cut Leia's hair buns, because while accurate to the story, they didn't fit the adventure vibes of the other images. The red Star sign glows like a lightsaber, but it didn't get across the idea of a lightsaber, and the word star might be too on the nose. So it didn't make my final cut either.
I went to Canva and searched for collage templates. I chose one that had 7 images, uploaded my images, and arranged them. I decided to place my two red images in opposite corners, for balance. I also searched for iconic quotes from Episode IV, and chose "That's no moon..." because it had an ominous, dangerous, and clearly SciFi feel. The other images ended up where they did purely based on orientation that the template dictated, and I'm okay with that. Last, I changed the background to black, because it looked better to me. Your mood board is all about your taste, so follow your gut.
Here's my example mood board:
Does it convey Star Wars: A New Hope perfectly? No. It's missing a ton of characters, events, and technology. Does it capture the idea of a SciFi story about a guy wanting and then having an adventure, which includes some twists? I think so.
Obviously, this isn't something I was deeply invested in making perfect, so when I make one for my own stories, they tend to have a little more nuance/insight to them. However, I hope you found this mood board tutorial helpful or inspirational and maybe you're tempted to go make one for your own project.
Have you made a mood board for your writing? Was it helpful, or was it a major challenge? Do you have more resources for other writers making their own boards? Let's discuss in the comments!