I’m super excited to be a part of the blog tour for Not Your Backup, the third installment of the Sidekick Squad Series by C.B. Lee! I reviewed the first book, Not Your Sidekick, way back in December 2016, so if you’re new to the series, I suggest you start by reading that review. Otherwise, feel free to read on.
Emma Robledo has a few more responsibilities that the usual high school senior, but then again, she and her friends have left school to lead a fractured Resistance movement against a corrupt Heroes League of Heroes. Emma is the only member of a supercharged team without powers, she isn’t always taken seriously. A natural leader, Emma is determined to win this battle, and when that’s done, get back to school. As the Resistance moves to challenge the League, Emma realizes where her place is in this fight: at the front.
Among other things, the Sidekick Squad series delves into the question of what makes one a hero. Emma’s story provides a fresh perspective because unlike the previous protagonists and POV characters in the series, Jess and Bells, Emma does not have meta-human superpowers. Despite attempts by others to keep her on the sidelines and in the background, Emma is determined to do as much as she can to contribute to the Resistance and be a leader in her own right. The obstacles she faces both external and internal in striving toward this goal create a compelling, character-driven narrative.
For me, Not Your Backup strikes a great balance between bigger picture conflict and themes and the personal, individual story of a character who at the end of the day is just a teenage girl trying to find her place in the world and in the web of relationships surrounding her. The larger-than-life aspects of the story are grounded by Emma’s very human struggles with perfectionism, self-confidence, negotiation of agency in an environment where she has less power, and sorting out what she wants from her interpersonal relationships, particularly her new role as Bells’ girlfriend.
To comment more on that last bit: Emma is specifically questioning her place on the asexual and aromantic spectrums and the implications of her relationship with Bells and how it has changed now that they are dating. As an aroace-spec reader, I found the depictions of her struggles relatable and affirming and was particularly excited to see the word “queerplatonic” used explicitly in the text. I think one of the best things about Not Your Backup is that it provided Emma with a supportive environment to question and explore her feelings of/about attraction. The author is careful with not reinforcing notions of a-spec people as a monolith but rather highlighting the diversity of experiences in the community. Moreover, consent and boundaries are respected at every turn in Emma’s relationship with Bells, something that is so important and sadly not as prominent/normalized in YA as it should be.
To summarize, Not Your Backup is a book that I wish teen me had, not only because Emma’s perfectionism is so relatable but also because it likely would have helped teen me realize I was on the aroace spectrum and made me feel less alone and broken for not experiencing attraction the same way other people did.
About the Author:
CB Lee is a Lambda Literary Award nominated writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy. Her works include the Sidekick Squad series (Duet Books), Ben 10 (Boom!) and All Out (Harper Teen). CB loves to write about queer teens, magic, superheroes, and the power of friendship. When not nationally touring as an educator, writer and activist, CB lives in Los Angeles, where she can neither confirm nor deny being a superhero. You can learn more about her and her adventures as a bisexual disaster at http://cb-lee.com.
Even though POC and Indigenous authors are finding success in SFF YA more so than in the past, it’s still hard to find longer series by POC and Indigenous authors, especially ones that are #ownvoices or feature POC and Indigenous characters. I can only think of one prominent SFF YA series by an author of color featuring protagonists of color that’s longer than three books, and that’s An Ember in the Ashes, which is planned for four books total (Book 4 is coming in 2019). Anyway, in order to put the spotlight on some SFF YA series by POC and Indigenous authors, I decided to put together this post of trilogies because I seemed to come across a lot of them in my reading journey. Three is the magic number, I guess. (Note: I’ve included some series that only have 3 books announced so far that may end up being longer.) Completed Series
Hey everyone, sorry for the gap in posting. Today’s interview is with Fonda Lee. Aside from addressing more general writing questions, this interview will touch on the first book of her adult fantasy, Jade City, which came out late last year, as well as her YA science fiction duololgy that began with Exo and concludes with Cross Fire, which is coming out later this month on May 29th. For context, I’m giving y’all the summaries of the books. (There won’t be any spoilers in the interview.)
Exo and Crossfire take place in a future in which Earth is colonized by aliens called the zhree. Here’s the Goodreads summary for Exo:
It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.
When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one…
And the Goodreads summary for Jade City:
FAMILY IS DUTY. MAGIC IS POWER. HONOR IS EVERYTHING.
Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.
When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.
Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.
Now, for the actual interview!
Q: Unlike many aliens we see in sci-fi, the aliens in Exo and Cross Fire, the zhree, are very clearly non-humanoid. Are there any real life-forms that inspired their design?
A: I was very intentional about not making the zhree humanoid. There are so many humanoid aliens in science fiction because Hollywood has human actors; I don’t have that constraint as a novelist. I wanted the aliens to be truly alien, but they needed to have certain characteristics to satisfy the premise of humans and aliens coexisting and cooperating on a future colonized Earth. I made a list of what traits would make an alien race compatible with us; they would be land-dwelling, use vocal communication, and be intelligent tool users. I also knew, from all the research I did into space travel for my previous novel, Zeroboxer, that radiation and harsh conditions are a major barrier to astronauts. An alien species with natural body armor would have a huge advantage over us in creating a galactic civilization. So that’s how the zhree came about: I envisioned them sort of as six-limbed, armored land octopi.
Q: The main character of the Exo duology, Donovan, has a unique position of privilege within the zhree-dominated colonized society because of his father’s political influence and his own integration of zhree technology into his physiology to become more like the zhree. What made you decide to center his perspective exclusively as opposed to, or without the addition of, that of someone with less privilege or even someone in the anti-colonial organization Sapience, like Anya?
A: I’d read plenty of young adult dystopian novels in which the protagonists are rebels fighting oppression: The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. They’ve become a staple of the category. It’s easy to root for and identify with a character who’s downtrodden and trying to forcibly overthrow an evil empire. It’s more challenging to understand and change the system from within. I love moral ambiguity in my fiction; I don’t want to make it easy for readers to identify good guys and bad guys (in fact, I never write them), because the real world is rarely so simple. If I’d written the book from Anya’s perspective, or written it in dual-POV, it would’ve been like a dozen other YA dystopian novels. Here’s the thing: the world is NOT dystopian from Donovan’s POV. In fact, it’s pretty darn good. Which goes to show that dystopia is all a matter of perspective. You could say that I wrote EXO and CROSS FIRE specifically as a way of challenging myself to make readers like, understand, and even root for, the “other side.” Donovan and his friends are good people who try to do what they believe with their own solid reasoning is truly right, which is to uphold the alien colonial regime. I want that to mess with reader’s heads.
Q: One of the hardest aspects of writing speculative fiction is avoiding excessive infodumps. How do you manage the balance between action/suspense and providing information on the world the characters inhabit?
A: One of the keys to seamless worldbuilding is to weave information into the narrative in a natural way. The story should keep plowing forward and readers should be able to absorb everything they need to know in context. This also means giving the characters opportunities to interact with the world and examine the backstory in a way that informs the reader, without it ever seeming to inform the reader. For example, I don’t open EXO with an infodump on how the aliens came to rule Earth. It’s not until about a third of the way through the book that Donovan happens to see some old footage of the invasion and that’s when the reader gets it, in an almost “oh, by the way” as the story progresses.
Q: I know you have a background in martial arts, which must be helpful for writing the action and combat scenes in your books. What advice do you have on writing such scenes for people who don’t have that background?
A: Don’t get caught up in the nitty-gritty blow-by-blow details. Action scenes have to have narrative purpose and emotional consequence for the characters; that’s the most important thing. That said, action scenes should have rhythm, freshness, and clarity. Don’t use the same old clichés, “Her heart was pounding,” or “He saw red.” Come up with better ways of conveying the sensations of the fight, and make sure the reader can clearly visualize what’s happening. Finally, there’s no substitute for research. That might be first hand (take martial arts classes, learn to safely handle weapons) or second hand (for me, that included watching a lot of live MMA, action movies, videos on YouTube, and seeking out good action and fight scenes in other books.)
Q: I’ve only gotten to read a small part of Jade City, but I got very distinct Taiwan vibes from some of the worldbuilding. I know you’ve mentioned Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii, Japan as influences on the worldbuilding for Jade City in another interview. Are there any parts of the setting based on very specific real life locations, e.g. a particular neighborhood, street, building you’ve seen or visited?
A: The city of Janloon in Jade City is very much a world entirely of my own imagination. Think of it like Wakanda in Black Panther; it’s a place very much formed out of real world cultures and geography and aesthetic cues, but it’s also magical and completely its own place. I want the reader to feel like this setting is familiar, but they shouldn’t be able to identify anything that’s obviously from our world. Even the brands of cars and motorcycles and guns are invented; but my goal was to render everything so specifically that it feels real.
Q: Your debut novel, Zeroboxer, was a standalone whereas Exo and Jade City are both the first books in series. How has your writing process for these series differed from your writing of Zeroboxer, if at all, and do you have any advice for writing multi-volume stories?
I’ll hopefully be able to answer this question in a few years! Right now, I’m in the thick of working on the Green Bone Saga, so the one thing that I can tell you is that writing a sequel comes with its own set of challenges and is just as hard as writing the first book. (Not least of all because of the more aggressive deadlines.) The only way that the writing process really differs is that I have to think further ahead. For example, as I’m writing the second book now, I’m thinking about how certain thing might have repercussions in the third book. And I have my eye not just on the story arc for this book, but for the entire series.
FondaLeeis the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit), a finalist for the Nebula Award and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and Syfy Wire, among others. Her young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic) were Junior Library Guild Selections and Andre Norton Award finalists. Cross Fire (the sequel to Exo) releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado living in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.
So September and October are a gift because there are so many great kidlit titles coming out from authors of color. Here’s a [far from exhaustive] list of ones I’ve had on my radar! I’ve had the privilege of reading many of these already (16 out of 24, which is 2/3), and I can tell you that they are amazing. 🙂
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Sep. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Gay Puerto Rican (#ownvoices) and Bisexual Cuban American MCs, M/M romance
2 boys who are going to die meet and bond over the course of about 24 hours
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Indian/Bengali American MCs (#ownvoices), Biracial Black/Bengali MC
5 women spanning 3 generations of a Bengali family in the U.S. negotiate their multicultural identities
Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper #2) by Daniel Jose Older – Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Afro-Latina Puerto Rican MC
Supernatural and real world forces of evil threaten the lives and community of Sierra Santiago, who will do anything to protect her own
Warcross by Marie Lu (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction, Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
A gamer girl/bounty hunter hacks her way into the world’s biggest virtual reality game tournament and is hired to track down a suspicious figure lurking in the game
Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh (Sep. 15th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian, Korean MC, #ownvoices
A boy who has risen in the military of a future Korea is drafted into a special weapons project that turns girls into war machines and starts to fall for his charge
Rise of the Jumbies (The Jumbies #2) by Tracey Baptiste (Sep. 19th)- Middle Grade, Fantasy, Black Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices
Corinne La Mer makes a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to find a way to save the missing children of her island home
One Dark Throne (Three Dark Crowns #2) by Kendare Blake (Sept. 19th) – Young Adult, Fantasy
The deadly race for the throne has begun, the last sister standing wins.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Black MC, secondary Black Autistic character
Following his brother’s gang-related Death, a boy struggles to cope and avoid the gang life and finds solace in building Lego creations at the community center.
The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Taiwanese American MC, secondary Autistic character
One summer away has upended Bea’s life and friendships, forcing her to make new ones and develop confidence in being herself.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Sep. 26th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Biracial white/Japanese American MC, Social Anxiety rep, #ownvoices
An anxious aspiring artist flees her abusive home with an old friend-turned-crush and embarks on a journey that will transform her.
Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar (Oct. 2nd) – Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Indian MC, #ownvoices
A girl is swept up in the freedom movement of India through her mother’s participation and becomes involved herself in radical change.
Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor (Oct. 3rd) – Middle Grade/Young Adult, Fantasy, Nigerian American MC, #ownvoices
A girl and her friends develop their powers as Leopard people to face down and vanquish a threat to humanity.
Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Magical Realism, Bisexual Latina/Mexican American MC, #ownvoices
The Nomeolvides sisters are blessed and cursed. Flowers flow from their hands, but their love makes those they love disappear. A mysterious boy who emerges from their garden estate may be the key to unlocking the secrets of the past and even breaking the curse.
Seize Today (Forget Tomorrow #3) by Pintip Dunn (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian
The conclusion to a series about a girl who foresees her own future in which she kills her sister and must work to stop herself.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (Oct 3rd) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Indian American MC, #ownvoices
An Indian American girl connects with her heritage through a magical pashmina that transports her to India.
Not Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee (Oct. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Black trans boy MC
Bells becomes a fugitive due to a coverup by the Heroes’ League and has to take down a corrupt government while applying to college and working up the courage to confess his feelings to his best friend.
Xifeng has a great destiny awaiting her, but her path to becoming Empress of Feng Lu requires her to embrace the darkness within her.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black MC, #ownvoices
A Black teen processes his feelings about antiblack racism through a journal dialogue with Martin Luther King Jr. and becomes the center of a media storm when he and his friend become victims of police brutality.
A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Thriller, Queer Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
Jess harbors a crush on her best friend Angie and through Angie, is drawn into a wealthy but seedy social circle with dangers they cannot escape unscathed.
After her sister’s death, a girl feels alone and pressured to take her sister’s place, only to discover that her sister may not have been as perfect as she seemed.
Like Water by Rebecca Podos (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Besexual Latina MC, Secondary qenderqueer character
A small-town girl falls for someone who brings to the surface secrets she’s been trying to suppress.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Thriller, Novel-in-Verse, Black MC, #ownvoices
His brother is dead, and he’ll make the killer pay, but as he goes down the elevator, someone new appears who is connected to his brother, and he may not make it to the bottom.
Calling My Name by Liara Tamani (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black Christian MC, #ownvoices
A girl navigates her budding sexuality in an ultra-religious environment that treats sex as forbidden and dirty.
Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Oct. 31st) – Young Adult, Nigerian-inspired Fantasy, Black MC, #ownvoices
Sin-eaters practice magic to rid people of their guilty feelings but pay the price in a being permanently marked and a short life-span. Taj is called to eat the sin of a royal and is forced to fight against an evil that threatens his entire home.
Not everyone is a fan of book series, but I personally love them because I’m always hungry for more worldbuilding and character development and glimpses into the lives of the secondary characters (if they aren’t taking center stage themselves). Earlier this year, I did a book list featuring my most anticipated sequels releasing in 2017, and now I’m making a list of sequels to books I’ve read that are already out but I haven’t read yet. Hopefully, this will also be an introduction to a book series that you didn’t know about already. 🙂
Dove Exiled (The Dove Chronicles #2) by Karen Bao – YA, Science Fiction
I read Dove Arising, the first book in the series, as part of a readathon back in January. I first found the book at a secondhand bookstore, where the author’s last Chinese name caught my attention. The book doesn’t have very high ratings on Goodreads or Amazon, so I went in wondering if and how much I would like it. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit for a number of reasons, including the diversity (Chinese American lead and POC supporting characters!), the integration of real science from the author’s degree/background into the story, and the intense high-stakes conflict. For those who are interested, you can read my full review here.
The Disappearance of Ember Crow (The Tribe #2) by Ambelin Kwamullina – YA, Dystopian/SFF
If you missed my Tweet, I just got this and the third book in the series in the mail. Book 1, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, was one of the books I read for the #DiversityDecemberBingo reading challenge and I believe it’s the first book by an Indigenous author that I’ve read, sadly (I’ve since expanded my collection though!). Ashala Wolf is a very interesting and distinctive take on dystopian fiction because of the way it frames the dysfunctional society and centers environmental consciousness and spirituality. The author’s Indigenous background (she comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia) definitely influenced the portrayal of oppression, giving it the nuance that comes from lived experience. The story is also a bit of a mindfuck because of the unreliable narration. If you’re not a big dystopian fan, I’d still suggest giving this series a try. 🙂 I reviewed the first book here.
The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2) by Emily Skrutskie – YA, Science Fiction
I totally requested this on NetGalley, got approved back in like January, and yet here I am…oops. Book 1 totally caught my attention because of the pirates and giant sea monsters and Chinese American protagonist (oh my!). I was a bit wary because the author is white, and while I didn’t feel like the rep was done super well, it wasn’t horrible either, and overall I still enjoyed the book for the plot and character dynamics. I’m hoping book 2 gives me more of the substance I wanted when I finished book 1 because I had a lot of questions about the worldbuilding and the characters’ backgrounds. You can read my review for The Abyss Surrounds Us here.
Shadowcaster (Shattered Realms #2) by Cinda Williams Chima – YA, Fantasy
This is a doubly sequel-ish sequel because it’s the second book in a sequel series, lol. Though I haven’t talked it about it a ton because I’ve been focusing on books by nonwhite authors on my blog and Twitter, the Seven Realm series is one of my favorite fantasy series for a lot of reasons: heart-stopping action, forbidden romance, good worldbuilding (also the main setting is a matrilineal queendom!), complex character dynamics, and as a bonus, nonwhite people in a high fantasy setting who aren’t just props or foils to white characters! The Shattered Realms series picks up 25 years after the end of Seven Realms, so it’s a pretty big time jump, but familiar characters from the first series show up, and the next generation of heroes is coming of age. Although you can technically read Shattered Realms without reading Seven Realms, if you don’t want to be spoiled for the ending of the Seven Realm series, read them in order! Shattered Realm builds on the first series by taking you deeper into neighboring nations to the Fells and beyond, so the scope is broader, and I’m really excited to explore these new places and characters. (Side note: I am still a bit salty about the mid-series cover change and prefer the original look because it’s iconic/in keeping with the previous series. Also the new covers are by the same artist who did the Throne of Glass covers, and they look too similar, in my opinion. But anyway, moving on…)
Shadowplay (Micah Grey #2) by Laura Lam – YA, Fantasy
I recently featured this series on my bookstagram, as I own both the original editions of the 1st and 2nd book from a publisher that went defunct, and the new editions of the complete trilogy released by Pan Macmillan. I read the first edition of book 1, Pantomime, back in December 2016 and was going to wait until I read the new edition to write a review to account for any changes/edits that have been made since. The Micah Grey series features an intersex, genderfluid, and bisexual protagonist who runs away to join a circus as an aerialist (flying trapeze!). The setting is a place called Elladia (located in a secondary universe) that has some English vibes too it but isn’t quite England, and it has its own mythology that is a part of the broader storyline of the series. If you want escapist fantasy, this is a book to check out. (Note: the original cover for Shadowplay is a bit misleading as the main character isn’t Asian, and I’m not even sure there is a major character who’s Asian in the series… Nor is the author Asian, for that matter.)
I realized after completing this post that all of these are SFF, which is rather predictable of me. Though that bias might also have to do with contemporary YA not being as series-oriented in general. For those who aren’t big SFF fans, I promise do blog about non-SFF books, so stay tuned for future book lists and reviews.
Also, if you want to share, please tell me about some of your favorites series in the comments! ^o^
As y’all may already know, I’m a huge SFF fan, and this year Asian SFF YA has been absolutely spectacular! I’ve reviewed Want, A Crown of Wishes, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo already, but I still need to write and post reviews for Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Warcross. I’ll be honest and say Want and Warcross are my favorite books by Cindy Pon and Marie Lu, respectively. They are so immersive and intense and exhilarating. All of these were five-star reads for me, and I’m so excited for other people to read and hopefully fall in love with them! 🙂
It’s a tie! Rise of the Jumbies is the sequel to The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and Shadowhouse Fall is the sequel to Shadowshaper. I have yet to review any of these, but I really need to. I read these two sequels for Caribbean American Heritage Month, which was this past month. Rise of the Jumbies is set in Trinidad and also Ghana (with an epic cross-Atlantic journey in between), and Sierra, the heroine of Shadowhouse Fall, is Puerto Rican. Both series incorporate Caribbean lore, and they are filled with suspense, family bonds, friendship, and journeys of self-discovery. I adore these covers so much.
3. NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO
I’m not sure what counts as new, but among the books released in the past two months, there are quite a few I’m eager to read:
One Shadow on the Wall tells the story of a boy in Senegal who has lost his father and must support himself and his family. Crossing Ebenezer Creek is based on a historical event during the Civil War era of U.S. history and features a recently-freed Black girl trying to forge a new life and future for herself. I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a contemporary romantic comedy in which a studious Korean American girl attempts to use Korean drama tropes to win the heart of her crush.
4. MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2017?
HAHA as if I could pick just one or even three. I need to section these off:
The Speaker by Traci Chee (The Sea of Ink and Gold #2, September 12th)
Chainbreaker by Tara Sim (Timekeeper Trilogy #2, November 7th)
If you haven’t read my rave reviews for the prequels to these books, you can go find out why I love them so much. The short version: The Reader (my review) is one of the most creative fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, interweaving four different storylines and featuring a fascinating magic system in which the act of reading is a literal kind of magic. Not Your Sidekick (my review) is a fresh take on superheroes in a futuristic American West combined with a cute f/f romance. Timekeeper (my review) is set in an alternate England where clocks literally control the flow of time; in this world, our hero investigates a series of clock malfunctions with a sinister source while falling in love with an adorable and mysterious clock spirit.
I wasn’t joking when I said I love SFF! Beasts Made of Night is a Nigerian-inspired fantasy story that centers on a young man who is a magic user responsible for vanquishing the sin-beasts that form from people’s guilt as he navigates a deadly political conspiracy. Rebel Seoul takes place in near future Korea and stars a boy turned soldier who is recruited for a special project involving giant killing machines and forced to decide where his loyalty lies. The Library of Fates is based on the historical invasion of India by Alexander the Great and features a princess and servant on the run, in search of the Library of All Things, which may have the key to changing one’s fate.
Starfish is about a biracial Japanese American girl who deals with social anxiety while away from home and finds the courage to pursue the career of her dreams as an artist. You Bring the Distant Near tells the stories of three generations women in an Indian/Bengali immigrant family as they grow into their American identity. A Line in the Dark features a queer Chinese American girl who gets sucked into an elite social circle that is filled with secrets and danger.
More fantasy! Spirit Hunters stars a biracial Korean American girl who discovers her new house is haunted and has to save her brother from malevolent spirits. Akata Warrior is the sequel to Akata Witch (my review), a fantasy story starring four Nigerian American/Nigerian teens exploring their magic and working together to face down powerful foes. Whichwood is a companion to Furthermore and is a Persian-inspired story about a girl who washes the bodies of the dead and whose hair and hands are turning silver.
5. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
Okay so as far as 2017 book covers go, a few have disappointed me:
All of these were in my most anticipated cover reveals post but fell short of my expectations based on their synopses. Specifically, I was hoping that they would feature POC prominently, and they all failed to do that.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was probably the biggest letdown out of all of them. The symbolism of the apple blossom isn’t apparent because most people have no idea what an apple blossom looks like and wouldn’t be able to identify it on sight, the font is really tacky, the repeating yin-yang symbols is also kitschy and the only real indicator that the book is based on East Asian cultures, and in general I just wish it had more detail and texture to it. My mental aesthetic for Xifeng and FOTL was Fan Bingbing starring in the Chinese historical drama, The Empress of China, and I was totally hoping for something similar to the images below.
What disappointed me about the Warcross cover was the color scheme: it wasn’t dark enough for the feel of the story, in my opinion. And, to state the painfully obvious, it’s literally just the title in a slightly upgraded version of 2007 MS Word Art. Verdict: should have hired Jason Chan, who did the cover art for Want and Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.
As for Beasts Made of Night…I was hoping for a Black boy to be on the cover looking fierce and magical, but instead we got animal silhouettes. It’s not terrible, but I wanted something with more texture that really takes up space.
The conclusion: PenguinTeen needs to invest in better cover art. They are horribly underselling their best SFF titles by POC with mediocre covers.
A Line in the Dark gives you the dark and creepy vibes from the synopsis but is once again very vague, and I’m willing to bet the hand model they used for that photo wasn’t even Asian. Like why is it so hard to just put a queer Chinese American girl on the cover?
Okay, I’ll stop ranting about cover art now and talk about actual stories that disappointed me. There were only two, actually.
One was the middle grade book Stir It Up!, which I reviewed earlier this year. As I mentioned in my review, it didn’t have the level of detail and substance I was hoping for in a book centered on Indo-Caribbean cuisine that had so much potential. The other book was The Takedown by Corrie Wang. The premise sounded very interesting, and I was cautiously optimistic despite the fact that it was written by a white author (the main character is biracial Chinese American), but when I actually got to scoping it out at the bookstore, I found the main character really annoying, plus it was lowkey racist and sexist, among other things. Good thing I didn’t buy it.
I was looking forward to reading this book because it features a Thai American protagonist, the 2nd one in contemporary YA that I know of and the first in years. There was some hype going for me. Then I actually read it, and I was completely blown away. My Goodreads review says it all:
“I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down”
Also, my Twitter mini-thread:
narratives I've read. the diaspora narrative really heightens the tensions that play out in the thriller arc bc it's so intensely personal
Okay, it’s fairly rare for a book to actually, literally make me cry, but this book actually did that. It was over a very emotional mother-daughter moment that really struck a chord with me, and I guess the biggest factors that contributed to that was a) the protagonist is [East] Asian American like me, and b) I lost my own mom last year so I’m still really sensitive to stuff relating to moms. If you want to read my thoughts about the Latinx rep (the love interest is Mexican American), I wrote a brief review about it on GR, but as I’m not Latinx, I don’t feel comfortable actually recommending this book to people since it was called out a few months back by a sensitivity reader for bad rep, and I don’t know to what extent that stuff was fixed/edited for the final version.
Okay, this was one of my favorite middle grade books of the year because it was really cute and fun but also creative about turning certain racist microaggressions against biracial Asian people on their head. You can read my full review here.
12. FAVORITE BOOK TO MOVIE ADAPTATION YOU’VE SEEN THIS YEAR
…I don’t think I’ve seen any? Oops.
13. FAVORITE REVIEW YOU’VE WRITTEN THIS YEAR?
Probably my review for Want since it’s such a personally satisfying read because of the Taiwanese rep.
14. MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR?
It has such gorgeous cover art! It extends onto the back as well, and there’s a Chinese character on the cover under the jacket; it’s the word for the main character’s name, Jing. You can see it in my bookstagram post:
Midnight Without a Moon is based on true historical events relating to the murder of Emmett Till in the mid-20th Century, told through the perspective of a young black girl. Stef Soto, Taco Queen tells the story of a girl who wants to escape the shadow of her family-run taco truck until that very livelihood is threatened, and she become it’s greatest champion. The Harlem Charade follows three kids of color in Harlem as they investigate one of them’s missing grandfather and stumble upon an insidious plot to gentrify their neighborhood. Piecing Me Together tackles the intersections of race, gender, and class for a Black teen girl who attends a mostly-white private school, where she’s identified as “at-risk.” Wintersong is an atmospheric retelling of the story of Labyrinth, in which a girl who loves to compose music becomes the bride of the Goblin King, her creative muse, in order to save her sister. Empress of a Thousand Skies is an epic space opera in which a princess and a former refugee have to join together to help reclaim the throne and save the galaxy. History Is All You Left Me tells the story of a teen struggling with the death of his ex and his own debilitating OCD, and his ex’s boyfriend is the only one who understands his pain. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider is the third and final book in The Tribe series by Indigenous author Ambelin Kwamullina; the series takes place in a dystopian future where people who manifest powers are Illegal and must survive in secret on the fringes of society or be detained by the state. I read the first book last year (my review) and loved it, so books 2 and 3 are waiting for me.
HEY, you made it to the end, yay you! I tag everyone who wants to do this tag. ^o^
So this is my first time attempting to put together a playlist of songs to complement a book. Not surprisingly, I chose Cindy Pon’sWant as the inaugural title for my playlist experiments. Most of the music I listen to is in either Mandarin Chinese or Korean, so I ended up with a combination of mandopop and kpop. These songs span quite a few years in terms of release date, so hopefully for those who aren’t familiar with the genres, it will make a brief introduction to some East Asian pop music (plus some #cuteasianboys!).
Note: I can’t embed videos on WP, so you’ll have to click the links to go to YouTube and listen to the songs.
The song title literally means “Wind and clouds change color,” and it’s an idiom for a changing, volatile situation. This song is the theme song for Top of the Forbidden City, a very old Taiwanese idol drama from 2004 full of tacky dance battles (performed by the artists of this song, both Taiwanese boy bands from the same label who starred in the drama). I chose the song because it represents the high-stakes, tense atmosphere of Want and the complex, shifting feelings that Zhou experiences as he infiltrates the ranks of his sworn enemies.
Lyrics of note (translated by me, please do not repost or claim as yours):
Each era has a new legend/I have already changed history Bearing whatever divine mission/Consigned to whatever capricious fate Perhaps you and I have nearly forgotten/How to prove the truth In the lightning and flame, I can’t make out your silhouette What should I do to win this battle?
Is my courage heavy enough?/Determined to ruthlessly decimate the enemy Are you an enemy or a friend?/The winds keep changing Yin and yang are about to fuse/The universe is watching me I’m standing at the top of the forbidden city/Searching for an escape
This song is from a 2015 album by my favorite kpop group, Infinite. The lyrics tell the story of a guy who falls for a girl who is ostensibly bad for him, yet alluring all the same. There’s a sensual tension conveyed by the song that I felt was perfect for Zhou and Daiyu. Also, the line “betting on you” maps onto the story in Want so well, in a very literal way, as Daiyu is the key to success for Zhou’s mission.
Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)
You come to me like you have me, you wrap around me Then you disappear like a dream With no time to touch, I’m captivated by you
I’m afraid that I’m being ruined by you Though you’ll shake me up and turn around
Betting on you I’m betting on you Betting on you I can’t just let you go like this Whenever I see you, you’re such an unfamiliar girl You always make me so nervous
183 Club is yet another Taiwanese boy band, also under the same company as KOne and 5566. This song was the opening theme for the Taiwanese idol drama, The Prince Who Turns Into a Frog from 2005. The English name for this song is “Enticing Trick.” It’s a less serious song than the others and expresses the feeling of falling for someone that you shouldn’t because you can’t help but be charmed by them.
Lyrics of note (translated by me, don’t steal, thanks):
Hurry and wake up/There are no miracles on this earth Hurry and see clearly/Don’t fall for her enticing trick
It’s already determined by Fate/I’m just too hopelessly smitten I love your courage/More steady than anyone It’s already determined by Fate/Don’t disbelieve it A few words from you/Become my scriptures Your importance to me/No one can replace it
Another kpop song, this one from 2013. Although the lyrics are actually referring to a different context/situation, the focus on there being “one shot” to determine your future, plus the dramatic orchestral instrumentation and dark tone to the song, felt perfect for Want and Zhou’s mission that everything hinges on.
Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)
I can’t step back On this endless path Woo woo woo, don’t be shaken I can’t trap myself In this time of confusion Woo woo woo, there’s only one chance
Only one shot only one shot Bite down hard and go against them, one shot Only one shot only one shot Throw yourself at the world, one shot Only one shot only one shot You only have one chance, you know?
For those who don’t know, JJ Lin is a Singaporean Chinese singer-songwriter who’s active in Taiwan. Released in 2007, this song has the English title “West Side.” The main theme of the song is living in a different world than the person you love, and it’s symbolized by two places that are opposite as day and night. The speaker of the lyrics is trapped in the dark and reaching toward the light. This felt like an apt way to characterize the stark class divide between Zhou and Daiyu.
Lyrics of note (translation by me, please do not repost/claim as yours):
I can only look toward the east side/Your world is too distant Enduring until the limits of my imagination/A happiness so sweet But the night has already consumed me/I just can’t reach your hand
Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Sarah Kuhn! Last year, her debut novel, Heroine Complex, released and was one of my top reads of 2016. Come July 4th, the sequel, Heroine Worship, will be out. I’ve invited her to talk a little about the series and Heroine Worship.
Honestly, this cover is everything. It’s so dynamic and kickass. Thanks to Jason Chan for saving Asian SFF with his amazing cover illustrations. (In addition to the covers for this series, he also illustrated Cindy Pon’s Want.)
As always, my comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.” Here we go!
SW: Well, I am super excited that Heroine Worship is about to be released. Can you offer us any teasers beyond the synopsis?
Sarah: Thank you—I’m excited too! Heroine Worship is really about Annie Chang/Aveda Jupiter figuring out who she is now that everything she’s ever known has changed. We see a lot of her internal landscape, learn a lot about what she’s been feeling. There are so many superhero feelings in this book, y’all. There are also tons of supernatural wedding shenanigans, gorgeous vintage outfits, and at least one scene with sexy cake-eating. And it gives folks something that was only teased in Heroine Complex: Evie and Aveda fighting side by side as legit co-heroines.
SW: Annie’s character is interesting to me because she’s such a drama queen but also tough at the same time. Did she spring from your head, fully-formed, like Athena, or did it take some work to bring her to life? What has your character design process been like for this series?
Sarah: She’s actually the character that’s changed the most since I came up with the idea for Book 1! Evie and Aveda weren’t originally childhood friends and she was much more of a cartoonish diva boss character I plugged in to service this bigger idea of the superhero’s personal assistant story. Once I made them longtime friends, I had to think about her in a lot more depth, think about what drives her and what makes her and Evie’s bond so deep and complicated. I kept coming back to this intense drive she has to be The Absolute Best at whatever she’s doing and how that sometimes blocks out everything else—that’s certainly something I can relate to. She’s one of my favorite characters to write because she’s so bold and loud and has a tendency to charge into situations without thinking about the consequences. I love how she 100 percent refuses to be ignored.
As far as developing characters in general for this series, one of the things I enjoy the most is putting them all in a scene together and seeing how they interact, how they bounce off of each other. For instance, Nate (Evie’s scientist boyfriend) mentoring Bea (Evie’s science-intrigued little sister) came out of that.
SW: Complex characters are more compelling! In the Heroine Complex series, we have three Asian American girl protagonists, Evie, Annie, and Bea. Which of the three are you most like, if any? What traits do you share in common with each of them?
Sarah: I think of myself as being the most like whichever character I’m writing at the time because I’m so intensely in their headspace. I connect a lot with Evie’s snarkiness and using humor as a defense mechanism and her initial insistence on seeing herself only as a sidekick—that’s how I saw myself for a long time. And I relate to Aveda’s need to be the best and fear of failure and vulnerability—as well as her extreme love of fashion. I suppose like Aveda, I now also refuse to see myself as anything less than the protagonist. Bea, I’m still getting to know—stay tuned.
SW: I can’t wait to get into Aveda/Annie’s head because I’ve been wondering what goes on there since Book 1. And I also can’t wait to see more of Bea’s perspective since she’s younger than both Aveda and Evie and therefore will have a different perspective.
If you could cast any actors for the major characters in Heroine Worship, who would you choose, and why?
Sarah: That’s impossible to answer because there are so many awesome Asian American actresses doing great work right now! My mind overloads with the possibilities. I always love seeing people post their fancasts, though!
SW: I feel like I need to go looking for good fancasts now. *makes notes to search later*
I know for your journalism, you talk a lot about Asian Americans in media. What kinds of stories are at the top of your wish list?
Sarah: I’ve said this a ton, but I always love and want to see more stories about Asian Girls Having Fun. Those stories could take so many different forms—Asian Girls Falling in Love, Asian Girls Kicking Demon Butt, Asian Girls Going Shopping and Seeing Star Wars and Gossiping Afterwards While Looking at Pictures of Cute Dogs. Just as much Asian Girls Getting to Do Cool-Ass Shit as possible.
SW: I’m on board with that. It’s great to see that more of these stories are starting to appear in YA and beyond.
Looking at what’s already out there, what are your favorite Asian American creative works (e.g. movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc.)?
Sarah: We’ll be here all day unless I restrict myself somehow—there are so many awesome Asian American creative people doing awesome shit in all mediums right now! So I’ll keep it to recommending a few books either in my genre or adjacent to it:
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is a fantastic, funny, wonderfully earnest urban fantasy about bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol magic. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a clever, trope-deconstructing YA superhero book in a fun near future setting featuring cute robots and even cuter romance. And Trade Me by Courtney Milan is a swoony, sexy, witty contemporary romance about two seemingly opposite people who decide to switch lives for a month—this books makes me feel so many things and I adore the main couple so much. And all three of these books have awesome Asian American girl protagonists.
SW: Okay, I am seconding the hell out of Last Call and Not Your Sidekick, which were also among my top reads of 2016. (I’ve linked my reviews above for everyone who’s interested.) Trade Me I’ve heard of but haven’t read, but I’ll add it to my TBR. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and I wish you a wonderful launch for Heroine Worship!
Sarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for Best Urban Fantasy, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out summer 2017. She also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the geek girl rom-com novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from USA Today and io9 and is in development as a feature film. Current writing projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.com, StarTrek.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. (Photo Credit: CapozKnows Photography)
Continuing with the Asian author interview series, today I have special guest Axie Oh to talk about her debut sci-fi dystopian YA debut, Rebel Seoul, out this fall on September 15th!
After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.
When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.
With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.
Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.
Now, for the interview! As always, my comments are in bold and labeled “SW.”
SW: Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for Rebel Seoul came from?
Axie: The idea for REBEL SEOUL came from a very productive senior year of college watching anime and K-dramas. Haha. Jokes aside, I’ve always loved anime, K-dramas and books. I was also a creative writing and East Asian history double major in college, so I love writing and history. But the actual spark that lit the flame of REBEL SEOUL was a dream (really, all writers should depend on their dreams for ideas). In the dream, a girl was standing on top of the tallest building in Seoul, and in the distance, she heard someone singing a song. I woke up from this dream crying because something about the song moved me so deeply. I thought to myself—what about the song would make me/her cry? Who is she? How did she get up there? Was this the first song she’d ever heard? The dream was cold. I set the book in winter. The girl was fierce. I made her a supersoldier.
SW: I’ve never had a dream that has inspired a story, but hopefully it will happen in the future because your dream sounds so cool.
Rebel Seoul has been pitched as Pacific Rim meets kdramas. Were there specific kdramas that inspired the story?
Axie: So many! But the dramas that most directly inspired the story would be: Shut Up Flower Boy Band, Gaksital, and School 2013. Shut Up Flower Boy Band and School 2013 are both realistic high school dramas that deal with the day-to-day life of students and their hardships and relationships, joys and growth. Gaksital is an amazing historical action drama about a masked freedom fighter in Korea during the 1930’s Japanese colonial era. The themes in both shows (combined with the futuristic settings and tech of anime) directly influenced REBEL SEOUL.
SW: I’m tempted to watch Shut Up Flower Boy Band, if only because Kim Myungsoo, a member of my favorite kpop group, Infinite, is in it, haha. Gaksital sounds completely up my alley in terms of genre!
A good part of the work of writing speculative fiction is drawing on reality to make your world convincing. What kinds of research did you do for Rebel Seoul, if any?
Axie: Most of my research for REBEL SEOUL was in Korean words and honorifics since I use Korean to complement the voice of my narrator. My first language is English, so I wanted to make sure my Korean was accurate and reflective of the language (since it’s written out in English, not Hangeul). I’m indebted to the keen eyes of my Korean readers, as well as my Korean copyeditor. Other research included: looking around Seoul when visiting family, reading other works of fiction written by Korean and Korean American authors, and watching K-dramas and films.
SW: Representing languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet is always tough and something I’ve dealt with myself while writing. This factors into character name decisions all the time for me.
Speaking of character names, I noticed that there are a lot of Korean characters in YA named Jaewon. There’s Jaewon from Ellen Oh’s Prophecy, Jaewon who’s Daniel Bae’s brother in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, and now your protagonist for Rebel Seoul. How did you decide on his name, and what was the overall process of coming up with names for your characters like?
Axie: I love PROPHECY’s Jaewon! By the time I read PROPHECY, REBEL SEOUL’s Jaewon had already inhabited his name, so I just thought of it as a fun coincidence. Now with Nicola Yoon’s Jaewon, I wonder if we all had the same naming process! For me, I wanted a name that would be easy to pronounce for English-speakers, since I knew it would be Romanized (converted from Korean to Roman/Latin script). As anyone who has an ethnic name knows, it really matters that our names are pronounced correctly. Whatever name I chose for my protagonist, it would be a real Korean name, and I wanted it to be pronounced correctly. But for how I actually chose the name, at the time I was watching a Korean drama called “Can You Hear My Heart” starring Kim Jaewon; hence, Jaewon was born (but with a different surname). In another revision, I later changed his surname to “Lee” because my actor inspiration for Jaewon became Lee Jong Suk. So, Kim Jaewon + Lee Jong Suk = Lee Jaewon. The other characters’ naming process was less complicated, but no less thought out. I really believe names are important.
SW: I agree! I swear I spend more time coming up with names for my characters than writing sometimes.
What would you say was the most difficult part of writing Rebel Seoul?
Axie: The actual drafting of REBEL SEOUL was fun, as were the revisions I completed with help from CPs and beta readers. The most difficult part were the revisions post-winning the New Visions award, mostly because I rewrote a lot of the book. I drafted the book in 2013-4, won the award in 2015, and then rewrote most of the novel in 2016. By then, it had been awhile since I last worked on it. I had gone a year through grad school and written whole books since that initial draft, and it was a challenge to face the novel, flaws and all. I managed, with the help of my brilliant editor, to revise the novel into the best possible version of itself, but…it was difficult, to say the least!
SW: Rewriting is definitely tough because you have to apply tough love and tear down what you’ve created to rebuild in a better form.
What was your favorite part of writing Rebel Seoul?
Axie: My favorite part was how a lot of my own love of Korea—the country, the people, the culture—appeared in the book without conscious intent on my part. In a way, I was re-discovering my love of Korea while writing the book—its back alleys, food, music, fashion, everything. The ways these elements came out in the book as I was writing it constantly surprised me!
SW: I guess that’s the beauty of #ownvoices, being able to incorporate the things you know and love into your writing. 🙂
Last question is a fun one. If Jaewon had a character theme song, what would it be and why? (does not have to be a song sung in English!)
Axie: I love this question! Jaewon’s theme song would be “Just (그냥)” by Zion T. featuring Crush. When I heard it for the first time, I thought, “This is Jaewon’s theme song!” Lyrics include: If you’re saying hi / Because I look down / Don’t worry about hurting my feelings / And just pass by (translated lyrics from: 1theK). It’s such a melancholy song and captures how Jaewon feels at the start of REBEL SEOUL—a self-imposed loneliness that refuses to let others in.
SW: I am a huge sucker for loner types, haha. I can’t wait to finally meet Jaewon when Rebel Seoul releases. Thanks a bunch for the interview!
Axie Oh is a first-generation Korean American, born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California San Diego and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea, and she currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her puppy, Toro (named after Totoro).