Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Author Interview: Axie Oh

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!

Rebel Seoul

From Goodreads:

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!


AxieOh_Headshot copyAxie 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).

Review for Want by Cindy Pon

want

Note: My review is based on the ARC I received from Simon & Schuster. The book will be released on June 13th.

My Summary: Taipei is coated in smog, and the line between the privileged you (“haves”) and second-class mei (“have-nots”) is stark. While the you wear suits that shelter them from the pollution, the mei are left to slowly die from a poisoned atmosphere. Worse, the Jin Corporation that manufactures the suits may be actively destroying the environment to reap the profits. Jason Zhou and his friends are determined to take down Jin Corporation and put an end to the corruption. To do this, Jason needs to pose as a rich boy and get close to Jin Daiyu, the spoiled daughter of Jin Corporation’s CEO. But the closer he gets to his goal, the less he is able to separate the act from reality.

Review:

There were three major reasons I was super excited about this book. The first is that I’ve read Cindy’s previous books and was interested in seeing how she would tackle a different genre than usual. The second is that I’ve read “Blue Skies,” the original short story that Want was based on, so I wanted to see how the novel version builds upon it. The third is that it takes place in Taiwan, where my family is from, and there is basically no Taiwanese representation in YA, so I was glad that my motherland was finally getting the spotlight in the fiction I love so much. There was a lot pinned on this book, and by and large, Want did not disappoint.

An alternate version of the Taipei I know and love comes to life in this story, familiar in many ways, such as its night markets, karaoke joints, 7-Elevens, and landmarks (Taipei 101 included), but also different, having evolved into a near future dystopia where high tech commodities and abject poverty brush against each other in stark juxtaposition. The sights and sounds, smells and tastes give the setting texture and presence. In particular, the descriptions of food will leave you desperate to take a trip to Taiwan to indulge multiple cravings.

Want is a great example of diversity within diversity when it comes to the cast of characters. Although our protagonist, Jason Zhou belongs to the ethnically Han majority, we also have supporting characters who reflect some the increasing ethnic diversity in Taiwan. One is the dapper Victor who works and sends money back to his family in the Philippines, and the other is the pragmatic Arun, who is Indian and comes from a family of brilliant research scientists. In addition to the ethnic diversity, we have two Asian girls in a relationship: bisexual glasses-wearing hacker girl Lingyi and silent but deadly and athletic Iris. Together, the five of them form the perfect team and supportive family to one another.

In order to accomplish their mission, Jason and friends have to break through both physical and social barriers. The latter means that Jason must pass as a rich boy to infiltrate Jin Corporation, and this is by far the toughest part of the mission. Jason comes from a poor family, and his mother died of sickness because they couldn’t afford healthcare, and he has to adopt the mannerisms and attitude of the wealthy elite for whom money has never been an issue, of the people he resents the most. His disorientation and discomfort and heightened class consciousness while navigating privileged spaces are visceral and tangible and portrayed very well.

Jason is a very relatable character for me. His love for books and use of books as escapism resonated with me and show in his references to both Western and Chinese literary classics. His struggle to trust others, especially those in the privileged class that treats him as disposable, is familiar to me as well. Also, his desperation to do something to change the toxic system he lives in is basically the story of my life. I empathized with his frustrations, doubts, disgust, and conflicting feelings.

Much of the conflict of this story centers on class tensions. In particular, it explores systemic oppression and how privilege affects someone’s worldview. This conflict is played out in Jason’s interactions with Daiyu, who is sensitive and kind but also sheltered and ignorant due to her upbringing. Her individual niceness and good intentions don’t negate her privilege or complicity, so Jason struggles with his affections toward her as an individual while he is plotting to destroy the foundation of her unearned privilege.

If you’re looking for a slow-burn, angst-filled romance, this book has that. Jason and Daiyu manage, in spite of their differences in class, to gradually find common ground and let down their barriers enough to be vulnerable around and real with each other in key moments. For those who live for it, there is an abundance of unresolved sexual tension that both frustrates and entertains.

The story balances the heist with the romance and character arcs, stringing the reader along with a mix of suspense and action. The final one-third of the book ups the stakes and packs an emotional punch several times over with twists and revelations and a heart-stopping climax. The ending ties up enough loose ends to satisfy but is realistic in its developments as systemic change doesn’t happen overnight.

My one minor critique of this book is the mixed treatment of beauty standards. Although it recognized the ever-changing nature of fashion and beauty trends, it also uncritically described certain people’s bodies as “perfect” in one or two places without addressing how factors like racism, colorism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, sizeism, etc. affect what society views as aesthetic/physical “perfection.”

Recommendation: Highly recommended for the thrills, the feelings, and the food.

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with Cindy, go check it out here!

Author Interview: Cindy Pon

Welcome to the first in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! Throughout the week I will posting interviews with diaspora Taiwanese authors about their work. Today’s special guest is Cindy Pon! She’s making her sci-fi debut with Want, which releases June 13th. Before we get into the interview, let’s take a look at the beautiful cover of Want and the synopsis:

want

The cover art is by Jason Chan, who is a gift to Asian SFF. He also illustrated the covers for Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn, which are super kickass.

And the synopsis from Cindy’s website:

From critically acclaimed author Cindy Pon comes an edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller, set in a near-future Taipei plagued by pollution, about a group of teens who risk everything to save their city.

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO.

Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?

Now, on to the interview! My comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: Since your book takes place in Taiwan, and food is essential to Taiwanese culture, I’ll have to ask about it. What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are more than welcome to list multiple foods as I’m sure it is impossible to choose just one.)

Cindy: It IS impossible to choose. And there are always so many new Taiwanese eats, and I have not been able to visit enough. *crying* I do love stinky tofu. I prefer the soft tofu cooked in giant vats of spicy broth that singe off your eyebrows in the night markets. In fact, I wrote that into the beginning chapter of WANT. Ha! Other than that, anything sticky rice. I’m a sucker for it. Sticky rice intestines come to mind as well as migao. I’m drooling just thinking about it. I also love iced and fresh sugar cane juice, and fresh made bite sized mochi.

SW: I feel like a bad Taiwanese person for not liking stinky tofu. Sticky rice, on the other hand, is the best. And mochi is amazing, especially mochi ice cream! Now that we’ve gotten past the appetizer, let’s talk about the main course, which is your book. Want is your first venture into science fiction. Has your writing process for this book been significantly different from the process for your previous ones?

Cindy: I’m not sure if significantly different, but it was definitely different. It is my first novel written in the first person and in a contemporary teen boy voice. The research was more tech involved, and the whole book just challenged me a lot. Because of that, I decreased my daily writing goal from the usual 1k words to 500. I’m all about going easy on myself when it comes to writing and a lot of pats on my back for even the smallest victory. No one else is gonna cheer me on like I have to cheer myself on. Ha!

SW: Speaking of research… Writing a book that’s considered “own voices” means you’re writing about a character whose identity or experience you share in some way. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that no research is required. What kind of research did you do for Want: that is, for what topics, and what form did it take (e.g. reading, traveling, interviewing people, etc.)?

Cindy: I think my main form of research was actually going back to visit Taipei in 2013. It was a mother-daughter trip (with my mom), and it was lovely. I tend to naturally be a very sensory writer, and nothing is more sensory than to be on location of the place you are writing. I really wanted to bring Taipei alive in WANT—it was an ode to my birth city. In the end, I wound up using many locations in actual scenes of places I had visited. I had taken hundreds of photos, visually, everything can be an inspiration, a moment captured in time that I could relate to the reader. For me, it was a trip of a lifetime (seems strange to say because I was born there, but it was), and this book holds a very special place in my heart!

SW: I visited Taipei in both 2015 and 2016, and both times I took tons of pictures because there’s so much to take in. If I ever decide to write a book set in Taipei, I’ll probably already have half the hard work done. Which brings me to the next question… What would you say was the hardest part about writing Want?

Cindy: I would say the tech stuff, which thank goodness I had friends who could help me with, and also most definitely writing in first person contemporary teen boy voice. I can much more easily fall into the narrative voice of my Xia titles. Fantasy is what I have written for years and what I’m comfortable with. Grasping Zhou’s voice was a challenge, but when I did manage, I loved what I heard from him.

SW: You’ve mentioned in the past that you faced barriers in getting published because you wrote about Asians. Do you have any advice for aspiring Asian authors who are writing about Asians?

Cindy: F ‘em! 🙂 ha! Is that not good to say? Seriously though, it was a very personal choice on my part. And as a writer, and especially someone who wants to be published, you are going to be faced with hard and difficult choices all along your journey. I knew that I wanted to stay true to my stories and the characters in my head. I knew that I wanted to write what I loved and what drew me. Because writing is so damned hard already! And there are no guarantees in publishing. So why NOT write what you love? It’s too easy to lose your way in the craft as well as in the business. So my inner compass was always: Is this the story you want to tell? Are these the characters that matter to you? That simplified things for me.

SW: I’ll keep this in mind as I work on my own Asian stories. ^o^

Speculative YA seems to be your genre, but have you ever considered writing a contemporary YA? Contemporary YA could definitely use some more cute Asian boys. ;D

Cindy: #cuteasianboys 4evah! I always say never say never, but I honestly and truly cannot imagine NOT writing genre. I mean, I love to read to be whisked away, to be transported. It’s not that contemporary stories do not do that, it’s just that I want literally more magical journeys, I guess? So I don’t think I would? But again, never say never!!

SW: Well, if you ever do venture into contemporary, I will be first on the list of people demanding to read it! Now, for the last question. Do you have any hints as to what’s next after Want?

Well… I’m headed to Shanghai mid-May to do research for the sequel? I’m very excited about this trip. My first ever visit to China was in 2014 when I was asked to be the resident artist for a private school in Hangzhou. I was able to stay in Shanghai for just two nights, and the city totally captivated me. It just felt like the right location for the WANT sequel to take place. I won’t say anything else, other than I’m excited to write this story!

SW: Excuse me while I scream with excitement!!! I’m probably going to die waiting for more news about this sequel. But in the meantime, I’ll keep myself busy with a bunch of other amazing diverse books. Thanks a bunch, Cindy, for doing this interview! Can’t wait for my copy of Want to arrive! >o<


cindyauthor1dCindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Her most recent duology Serpentine and Sacrifice were both Junior Library Guild selections and received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in June 13th, 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at http://cindypon.com.

You can add Want on Goodreads here.

You can find Cindy on social media:

Cindy is doing a pre-order giveaway through her local indie bookseller, Mysterious Galaxy. If you pre-order Want from Mysterious Galaxy, you can get a signed and/or personalized copy of the book, and you’ll receive the following art prints:

a post card featuring illustration of Zhou and Daiyu by Jason Chan

WANT_postcard01a

and a peach blossom brush art card by Cindy herself

peachblossoms1

Review for Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

zahrah-the-windseeker

Note: This book was published with the author’s name as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

My Summary: Zahrah is an outcast for being born with dadalocks, which according to rumor, mark her as having special powers. The only person who doesn’t shun her is her best friend Dari. Then, when the two are the process of exploring her newfound power, Dari is hurt. Zahrah is the only one who can save him. She must venture into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to face her fears alone in order to find the cure.

Review:

Like Akata Witch, Zahrah the Windseeker is packed with creativity unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy. The wondrous, the strange, and the terrifying collide in this coming-of-age adventure.

Through lush details and immersive storytelling, we are introduced to Zahrah’s world, one where Earth is but a myth that people tell stories about. Zahrah lives in the Ooni Kingdom, which is home to a diverse array of peoples but isn’t free from prejudice. Those who are born dada, with the telltale dadalocks that contain vines, are feared for the rumored powers. Through Zahrah’s character and the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, the story explores the nature of prejudice and the role of fear and ignorance in motivating discrimination and isolation.

The worldbuilding for this story blends fantasy and science fiction elements, with magic and technology coexisting or fusing together. Like in Akata Witch, there’s an emphasis on knowledge and learning, which I absolutely adore. Zahrah and Dari visit a library to obtain more information on the mysterious Greeny Jungle that everyone is warned away from stepping into. They find a guide by a group of people known as the Great Explorers of Knowledge and Adventure Organization, who are dedicated to exploring and documenting the depths of the Greeny Jungle for posterity and fighting against the fear that surrounds it.

With this field guide in hand, Zahrah sets off to find the cure that will save Dari from dying from the poison that infects him during their first visit to the Jungle. The guide isn’t complete, so Zahrah has to fill in some of those gaps for herself through first-hand experience. Lots of it. The wonderful thing about this adventure of hers is that you never what will get thrown at her next. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse. More importantly, Zahrah is absolutely terrified throughout the whole ordeal. You are there with her as she is running, screaming, hiding, flailing, etc.

I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that not feeling or expressing fear is the ideal way to be a kickass girl, but that’s a reductive and unrealistic way of understanding fear and bravery. It’s perfectly natural to feel afraid of things that are going to come and attack you out of nowhere. And unless you’re some kind of trained martial arts expert, you’re not going to know exactly how to handle something jumping at you from the bushes. You act on your untrained reflexes and it’s a mess.

The author isn’t hesitant to show Zahrah’s awkwardness and screw-ups. The important thing is that she slowly but surely learns from her mistakes as she faces these tough situations and gets smarter and more experienced at preparing for what’s ahead. And she persists in spite of the overwhelming fear because the risk is worth the reward: saving her friend Dari. It’s vital to teach girls not to see fear as weakness, and to demonstrate that they can cope with fear in order to do the things that matter.

In my opinion, Zahrah is a perfect balance of a flawed but admirable heroine. Although she has special powers, she isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful, and much of her strength comes from her emotional resilience rather than anything outwardly apparent or flashy. This is what makes her real and compelling protagonist. Beyond the speculative elements, her character development is what carries the story.

There were three problematic lines I noted. One was the association of menstruation with womanhood, which is trans-exclusionary. The second was a place where “men and women” was used to the exclusion of non-binary people. The last was some ableist language where Zahrah calls Dari a “lunatic.” Other than that, there wasn’t anything majorly problematic that I noticed.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to fantasy-lovers. Although it’s categorized as YA, since the main character is fourteen and there isn’t any sexual content, it would be appropriate for upper middle grade readers as well.

Review for The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

the-abyss-surrounds-us

My Summary: Cassandra Leung has been part of the family business to train Reckoners, sea monsters that protect ships from pirates while crossing the Neo-Pacific, for her entire life. Her first mission with the Nereid is supposed to be a walk in the park. But everything goes wrong, and she is captured by pirates and forced by pirate queen Santa Elena to train a newborn Reckoner pup to protect the Minnow. If she succeeds, it will disrupt the delicate balance of power in the Neo-Pacific. If she fails, she’s dead meat.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the story for what it was. The premise, the plotting, and the worldbuilding were solid. I was definitely hooked by the story and enjoyed watching the progression of the Reckoner pup’s training and Cas’s inner struggle with the gray areas of her moral landscape. The story combined high-stakes suspense with thought-provoking questions and themes.

But under the surface, several things felt off to me about the racial representation. Cas herself is supposed to be Chinese, but aside from a few small touches, there are virtually no references to her Chineseness. It felt really superficial. And then my inner Chinese-speaker went “umm…” when Cas brought up a possible variant for the Reckoner pup’s name. His name is Bao (包), the Chinese word for “bun,” as in steamed bun, pork bun, etc. The pronunciation of 包 is basically the same in both Mandarin and Cantonese, with a high flat tone.

When Santa Elena asks Cas about her naming him after steamed buns, the narration follows with “‘If you’d like, you can call him Bao Bao instead,’ I tell her, shifting the vowels slightly as I speak.”

Bao Bao does indeed mean “precious baby,” as the story points out a few sentences down, but there are two things that are off about this sentence.

One is that Bao Bao is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese word/phrase, 寶寶. The Cantonese equivalent is Bou2Bou2 (using Jyutping for the romanization), with a different vowel sound than Bao. Mandarin and Cantonese are related but distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible (Cantonese and other regional Chinese languages that aren’t mutually intelligible with Mandarin are referred to as dialects for political reasons), and while it’s possible Cas knows both, the narrative doesn’t ever indicate that she understands anything besides Canto. Her last name is Cantonese, she hears some Cantonese while she’s on the docks somewhere, and that’s it.

Even ignoring the Mandarin vs. Cantonese part, the  bit about “shifting the vowels slightly” is an inaccurate way of describing the difference between the pronunciation of Bao and Bao Bao. In Mandarin, Bao for bun involves the first tone, Bao Bao has the third tone for both syllables (usually pronounced as second tone-third tone though). The vowel sound is the same for both Bao and Bao Bao, it’s the pitch that’s different.

Although a majority of the supporting cast were POC, their characterizations were likewise superficially diverse. Santa Elena’s race/ethnicity isn’t explicitly mentioned as far as I can remember; I read her as being Filipina because of her physical features, her name (Spain colonized the Philippines, so Spanish names are a thing), and the fact that the Philippines is in the Pacific, but she could be Latina.

Two different characters are described as being Islanders. In this future world, the Pacific Islands have been flooded into nonexistence due to rising sea levels, and there is a group of artificially created islands known as Artificial Hawaii, where I can only assume the Islanders, who are descendants of original Pacific Islanders, live. This generalization of these characters as Islanders with no reference to their specific heritage/ethnicity strikes me as problematic because it homogenizes Pacific Islanders, who despite their linguistic and cultural similarities and ancestral relations, are still a very diverse group of peoples.

The narrative doesn’t give us any details as to the history of the Pacific Islanders following the flooding of the Pacific Islands due to Global Warming. Did they all move to the islands of Artificial Hawaii or some of them flee elsewhere? How many of the nations survived? Did they retain their distinct cultures or intermix and blend their cultures? These are important questions because in the present day real world, Pacific Islander cultures have been and continue to be threatened by the effects of colonization and globalization. Given this reality, the loss of these cultures in an imagined future would be a big deal.

One of these two Islander characters is Chuck, who’s described as a “princess,” specifically the daughter of “the man who owns Art-Hawaii 5.” That’s all we get about her background. To me, this reads as a thing that was thrown in for the hell of it to “spice up” her character, as there is no deeper sense of where Chuck comes from, i.e. her roots, which is an important part of Pacific Islander cultures from what limited knowledge I have.

The other Islander is Hina, the cook aboard the Winnow, who aside from being described as brown and “giant,” is completely in the background and does not contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. Where is she is from and her exact ethnicity is a complete mystery.

There was a third reference to Islanders, when Swift tells another character to “dream of an Islander prince who’s going to take you away from this wretched life,” which to me reads as “fantasy of an ~exotic~ brown man sweeping the white woman off her feet to take her to his exotic utopian island kingdom.” That line did not sit well with me, and I’m wondering why it was even necessary.

One other more significant supporting character who’s a POC besides Chuck is Varma, who’s Indian and Hindu. My quick Internet search told me that Varma is a surname. It’s never mentioned whether Varma is supposed to be his given or family name, it’s simply what everyone calls him. If that was supposed to be his given name, that’s poor research on the author’s part. If not, then the narrative should have been more clear about that. The only other reference to him being Indian and Hindu is one line where he says a prayer in Hindi.

The last POC is Lemon, who I remember being described skinny without any other memorable physical details. Going back to skim the book, apparently she’s Aleut and can “speak the ocean’s language.” There’s something a little “mystical POC guide” about that description, but maybe it’s just me.

I think the author tried to go against the “white-as-default” trend, but it didn’t quite work for me. Although one character, Code, was explicitly labeled as white when Cas first laid eyes on him, Swift’s character was not similarly described in racial terms. I can’t remember either of Code or Swift having their skin color described the way Santa Elena, Chuck, etc. were described as brown. The only physical characteristic I can remember about Swift is her blonde hair, which isn’t exclusive to white people, whether naturally or dyed, but generally gets coded as white.

Throughout the story, the only [human] characters that get much development are Cas and Swift. Cas could have been white and not much would have been different. I started off excited about the POC but walked away feeling a bit cheated.

I’m still going to read the sequel, The Edge of the Abyss to see what happens (I have the eARC from NetGalley). I’m hoping maybe some of the POC will get more development.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action-packed sci-fi read, go for it. If you’re looking for good POC rep, this isn’t the book for that.

 

 

Review for The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published as a part of my Favorite Books of 2016 post or showed up in the #DSFFBookClub discussion during December 2016.

My Summary: In a post-apocalyptic world in which tectonic shifts have merged all land masses into one continent, Ashala Wolf is a leader of a Tribe of young Illegals, children who manifest supernatural powers that are seen as a threat to the sacred Balance of the world. A mission gone awry results in Ashala’s capture, and she must resist the government’s attempt to forcibly take her memories from her to use against the Tribe and escape the clutches of people who see her as an abomination.

Review:

This was one of the last books I read in 2016 but also among my favorites. I’ll admit that one of the gaps in the scope of my reading is indigenous authors (Native American or otherwise), so I was glad to find this gem by an indigenous Australian (Pylaku) author in my favorite genre (SFF).

One of the things I really liked about this book was the worldbuilding. People with supernatural abilities are mostly seen as a threat and are classified as “Illegal,” but it’s a little bit more complicated and nuanced than that. There are some whose powers are mild and/or useful enough for them to be granted exceptions by the government and thus exploited. And there are others that can “pass” as normal and therefore slide under the radar. I can’t help but think about the parallels that can be drawn between this system and systems of oppression in the real world, whether it’s assimilation into the dominant group, attempts to “pass” as a member of the dominant group, or striving to become more “acceptable” to the dominant group in some way.

Ashala’s character is descended from the indigenous people of former Australia (“former” because in the story, all of the continents collided and reshaped to form a supercontinent). Although the story is supposed to take place in a “post-racial” world, it isn’t completely divorced from real world notions of difference in terms of culture/ethnicity/race. Ashala in particular is able to communicate with a powerful divine entity, the Grandfather Serpent, who is among the creators of her ancestral people and the Firstwood, where she and her Tribe take shelter. Her conversation and relationship with the Grandfather Serpent and the Firstwood anchor the story in a deeply spiritual place. That was an aspect of the story I really enjoyed.

The structure of the story is nonlinear since it takes you backward in time multiple times as more of her memories are revealed. Moreover, there’s unreliable narration. The misdirection is written so skillfully that you don’t realize just how much you’ve been tricked until the reveal comes along and yanks the carpet out from under you. It’s layered in such a way that each new memory shifts your perspective and what you understand to be true.

Although there are many books that tackle the question of human progress vs. nature, this one stood out to me in the execution. The idea of balance is normalized into an ideology that structure the society and politics of the dystopia. Moreover, the narrative calls into question whether the dichotomy of humanity vs. nature is really valid, and whether what we view as “unnatural” is necessarily bad.

As far as problematic content goes, most of it was minor. There was one place where a character’s eyes were described as “almond-shaped,” which is a stereotypical shorthand for East Asian features that I wish would die in a fire. In another, the narrative used “his or her,” thereby excluding non-binary people. The more repetitive issue was ableism. One of the villains was described as mad and necessarily mad in order to do the morally depraved things she did. That was the one damper on this otherwise great book.

Issues aside, I’m eager to read the sequel, The Disappearance of Ember Crow. The third book, The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is coming out on May 9th in the U.S.

Recommendation: A good book for people looking for diverse SFF in YA.

Review for Dove Arising by Karen Bao

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Phaet Theta spends her time cultivating plants in Greenhouse 22 on the lunar colony she’s grown up in. All she wants is to become a bioengineer. Unfortunately, she is forced to set aside that dream and join the Militia to earn enough money to keep her family afloat. Just when she thinks she’s reaching her goal, her mother is arrested, and nothing can be the same for her ever again.

Review:

Well, I’m glad I picked this book off my extremely long backlist to read. I walked into it with some reserve because of the 3.5 star average reviews on Amazon and came out the other end wondering why it’s underrated (in my opinion).

If I were to describe this book succinctly by referencing a familiar work, I’d call it scifi Hunger Games, minus the fights to the death on live TV, and with POC. But that’s not really doing it justice, which is what the rest of this review is for.

There are familiar tropes in this story: a corrupt government, a love triangle (sort of), and a high-stakes mission for the protagonist. What makes it stand out to me is the worldbuilding and characterization.

The author has a background in science, an ecology degree to be specific, and that definitely shows in the book. The integration of scientific facts into the story lends it a sense of realism that keeps the speculative elements grounded. It’s hard for me not to read scifi with a critical eye due to my background in aerospace engineering.

Though it’s not mentioned in the jacket blurb, Phaet is of Chinese descent. The major characters include four other POC. One is Umbriel, Phaet’s best friend, whose ancestry is never explicitly named but who is described as having dark hair and eyes and thick eyebrows (I might be misreading the text but it seemed to imply he was also Chinese?). Two of Phaet’s fellow Militia trainees are WOC: Vinasa, who is Indian and Irish; and Nashira, who is half Saudi, a quarter Nigerian, and a quarter Jamaican. The last is Yinha, the person who’s in charge of training the Militia recruits; like Phaet, she’s Chinese.

While race and ethnicity don’t have the same level importance in Phaet’s time as they do in our present-day world, the society she lives in isn’t entirely race-blind either. Someone makes a racist joke about Yinha’s eyes at one point. Also, Phaet, Vinasa, and Nashira have a brief conversation about their respective hair textures while they are getting to know one another, which was refreshingly real to read. Nash’s hair is difficult to keep in the style required by the Militia, which echoes the ways in which natural hair is stigmatized in the U.S. military.

Nor have people completely lost connection to their Earthbound roots. Bits and pieces of Chinese culture are referenced throughout the story, making Phaet’s Chineseness more than just a superficial thing. She knows the story of her great-grandmother’s migration from China to the United States, and then to the Moon, so in her own way she’s part of Chinese diaspora, with an extra migration and nationality (Lunar) added.

Phaet’s character is built around her competitive spirit and her loyalty to and love for her family. Her motivations are strongly tied to the desire for her family’s well-being, making her a sympathetic character. Though she does compete for the top rank among the recruits, a lot of that is driven by necessity–the salary will be enough to get her family financially stable–rather than personal, individual ambition. The centrality of her relationships with her mother, younger brother, and younger sister made the story compelling to me as someone with close bonds with my own family.

I mentioned a love triangle, and there are hints of one, but it’s far from being the primary plotline of the story, so if you’re sick of/averse to love triangles, don’t worry, this is not Twilight or The Hunter Games. Romance isn’t that important in general, which is a relief. (Though I’m disappointed that there are no queer characters to be found, except for one that maybe could be read as queer, but what’s new, sigh.)

Phaet’s ascent in the ranks of the recruits is not a given or an effortless task. She has some muscle from the manual labor of working in a greenhouse, but it’s not enough to make her an excellent athlete and trainee from the get-go. She has to work hard and do extra exercises and training in order to progress. There are no shortcuts.

The book doesn’t shy away from exploring the psychological effects of her Militia training. She becomes more desensitized to violence and even power-hungry, which creates conflict between her and her family and Umbriel, who are uneasy with the changes they see.

Speaking of conflict, the conflicts that drive the plot are multiple: interpersonal conflict between Phaet and other Militia recruits as well as between Phaet and the people she loves, and then also the broader conflict between Phaet and the oppressive society and government she lives in, and even within herself in the form of conflicting values and priorities.

From the beginning, the pace of the story is set at a brisk clip. Although Phaet spends half the book training, it’s not without incident, marked by fights with people who are out to sabotage her and dangerous, even deadly evaluation exercises. Then, the political intrigue kicks in, as well as the conflicts with her family caused by the changes she’s undergone, and at the end, we have a cliffhanger that sets you up for the second book.

And I’m ordering that second book (Dove Exiled) right now. The third book (Dove Alight) is due later this year, so I guess I picked the best time to read this book, as reading it earlier would have meant a longer wait. Woo.

Recommendation: Based on the Amazon ratings, I’m guessing it might be hit or miss depending on the person, but I say give it a try! It’s a solid debut novel and first installment to a science fiction series. (The author is my age and already published, I’m envious.)

Review for Exo by Fonda Lee

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

Note 2: My review is based on the text in the ARC that I received in exchange for an honest review. The book will be go on sale on January 31st, 2017 and is published by Scholastic Press.

My Summary: It’s been over a century since the alien zhree colonized Earth. Donovan Reyes is the son of the Prime Liaison, the one of the highest positions that a human can hold in the colonial government. He has the benefits of erze status that sets him apart from most humans and has been through bioenhancement that equips him with an exocel, which acts as armor and weapon alike. However, his stable life and bright future as a government security officer is thrown into chaos when he is kidnapped by an anti-zhree revolutionary organization, Sapience. All of a sudden he is a bargaining chip in a political crisis and must find away to escape with his life.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The worldbuilding is great, with the right amount of detail to breathe life into the political system, social stratification, and scientific advancements that shape life on this future Earth. People of color actually exist (it’s sad that this is a remarkable thing because POC are so often erased in scifi) and they aren’t “othered,” they’re just there, being people.

In terms of plot, this book is filled with twists and turns, action and suspense, climax and denouement. The stakes are high on both a personal and big picture level for Donovan, so I was invested in everything that happens.

The action and suspense are balanced by character growth, relationship developments, and thought-provoking themes. Donovan’s worldview is challenged by the things he learns from Sapience. The book explores his complicated relationships with each of his parents, who stand on opposite sides of an ideological conflict. Multiple times, he’s forced to make tough calls on who to defend, who to side with, and the bigger question of whether “peace” among humans is worth the cost of their freedom.

Despite the gray areas presented, however, I found it difficult to sympathize with Donovan for various reasons. One of the biggest ones is that he’s part of a privileged class that reaps the bulk of the benefits of the alien colonizers’ regime, so of course he’s more inclined to think of the zhree as good for humanity.

Also, I also can’t help but make connections to real life political situations, in which colonizing powers rationalize their subjugation of indigenous peoples through the “we brought them technological advancement; they’re less civilized” argument. There was nothing stopping them from introducing technology through equal cultural exchange except greed and ruthless, self-serving ambition. The idea that any culture is inferior to another is based on racist (in this case, speciesist) standards of evaluation and serves as a convenient rationalization of subjugation.

I don’t believe the so-called benefits of colonization can erase the violence that it perpetrates. Superficial peace isn’t justice. Branding anti-colonial movements as terrorism is a dangerous twisting of reality that ignores the violence of colonization itself. Although Donovan comes to understand Sapience and its members and ideology better, and he does genuinely care about the future of humanity, it still feels like he clings to his internalized zhree colonial mindset.

The  other major issue was the cis/heteronormativity. You’d think a futuristic book would feature more queerness and all, given all the gains we’ve made in recent years toward visibility and acceptance, but there is a glaring absence of any non-cishet characters. I’ve gotten to a point where any speculative fiction set in the future that doesn’t have LGBTQ+ characters reads like a dystopia to me because it implies either we’re all dead/locked away out of sight/mind or we’re all deeply closeted out of fear–or both. Given that we’re at a flashpoint in history regarding LGBTQ+ rights, this erasure, however unintentional it may be, is honestly upsetting to me.

There was also this low-key sexism toward Donovan’s love interest, Anya, who was initially described as “too young and pretty” to be a terrorist…like, what? What does your age or physical appearance have anything to do with your political ideology…? I also didn’t really buy the romance that happened; it felt rushed and forced. I could sort of see why Donovan liked Anya because she’s loyal, brave, passionate, and caring, but I didn’t really get what Anya saw in him given how arrogant/disdainful, self-righteous, and privileged he acted around the Sapience members at the beginning. Thankfully the romance wasn’t the focus of the story.

The last thing I didn’t really like was the ending. I can appreciate open endings if they’re executed well, but the ending here left me unsatisfied. There were too many questions left dangling. As far as I know, this is a standalone novel, but it feels like there should be a sequel to resolve those loose ends. But maybe that’s just me.

ETA: I just found out that there’s a sequel coming, so I guess I’ll actually get some closure. I am planning to read it when it is released.

Recommendation: It was an entertaining story, just not quite the diverse/inclusive scifi that I was looking for.

Review for On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: The year is 2035. A comet is hurtling toward Earth. Only some people have been chosen to leave Earth on generation ships and colonize habitable planets far away, and the rest will be left behind in shelters to wait out the catastrophe. Denise, who is autistic, has resigned herself to being one of the disposable ones. Except a chance encounter reveals that there’s one ship still on Earth. Suddenly, Denise and her family might have a chance at escape, but she has to earn her way in. With her mother addicted to drugs and her sister missing, it will be more than just a piece of cake for Denise to overcome the trials ahead of her.

Review:

As with Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but didn’t get around to reading it until now, motivated by the reading challenge. Also like my previous book, it surprised me by being so much more than what I was expecting.

Although there are many books that explore apocalyptic scenarios, few do it with the nuance that Corinne Duyvis does. Through her protagonist’s marginalized positionality, she unpacks the prejudices that shape society’s evaluation of people’s worth.

Denise is autistic, so ableism is a big factor in how people perceive her. But it’s more complex than that. She’s also biracial (her father is Surinamese, her mother is white) and not white-passing in the Netherlands. The intersectionality of her autism, Blackness, and girlhood means that her disability is often invisible or overlooked because the poster child for autism is a white boy. If she does anything that seems off, it’s dismissed as acting out rather than showing symptoms of a disability.

Her individual family members are also venues for social commentary. Her sister, Iris, is trans, and her mother is addicted to drugs.

Iris transitioned prior to the events of the book, and she is able to pass, so her transness isn’t a central issue. However, it is brought up when it’s relevant and appropriate. For example, when Denise talks about the antiblackness of people’s comments on her physical features, she remarks that Iris got that plus transphobic remarks because of her gender-nonconformity pre-transition. Denise also has to correct her mother when she mistakenly refers to Iris as her “brother.” I appreciate that the author does not deadname or otherwise misgender Iris, even when discussing pre-transition events, as this is a common blunder that cis authors make.

Their mother’s drug addiction and the way people treat them because of it illustrate how pervasive the dehumanization of addicts is in society. There is a lot of victim-blaming involved, and an assumption that drug users are ultimately disposable. It is hard for Denise to defend her mother sometimes because her mother is manipulative and exploits Denise’s autism to garner sympathy for herself. She violates her daughter’s boundaries and treads on her agency when it’s convenient. Although her character walks a fine line, I thought there was differentiation between the addiction and her mother’s toxic behavior. Even while she is sober/clean, she still treats Denise in horrible ways.

Aside from touching on the systemic biases people have, the book also sheds light on the way we value people based on our personal relationships with them. An important theme is the choices we must make when resources are limited: do we choose to follow “everyone for themselves and their own”? Is there room for compassion and empathy for strangers?

The plot of this book contains so many twists and turns that I was never entirely sure what the ending would look like. There was potential for it to go many different ways. But the ending I got was something beautiful. Not a neatly-wrapped, fairytale ending, but one brimming with hope for humanity, with life-affirming values.

Recommendation: Read this book!

Review for Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Jessica Tran was born into a family of larger-than-life people: her parents are Andover’s local superheroes, her older sister is also a superhero, and her younger brother is a science prodigy. Having lost hope for any powers of her own to manifest, she applies for a paid internship, thinking it will be drudge work. Except it turns out her employers are the town’s supervillains, and her crush Abby also works there. Her internship soon brings more surprises, including a discovery that will change her understanding of everything she knows about her world.

Review:

The moment I found out about this book, I knew I had to get it. The title grabbed my attention because it reminded me of the #NotYourSidekick hashtag on Twitter a while back, which drew attention to the absence of Asians in U.S. media as anything other than side characters. Finding a mainstream American film or show featuring Asians as the central characters is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This past year has shown some improvement, given the airing of Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken, but Hollywood’s erasure and exclusion of Asians is still a barrier to overcome.

Anyway, the concept of this book was everything I needed: Asian American superheroes, bisexual main character, F/F romance, and so on. And C.B. Lee delivers.

The fact that Jess ends up working for a villain was already enough of a twist on its own (not a surprise one since it was advertised clearly in the description, but still), but this book threw in several more twists that I was not at all prepared for. Between the superhero-supervillain arc and the good-god-will-they-just-date/kiss-already romance arc, the suspense kept the story moving.

Exciting plot aside, this book features a cast of well-developed, diverse characters.

Jess is second generation Vietnamese and Chinese. Her parents were refugees from a conflict in Asia after World War III who gained employment from the North American Collective’s government as C-class superheroes in the (NAC=U.S., Canada, Mexico). Although the story takes place in the Twenty-Second Century, Jess’s experience as a second generation Asian are familiar to me: cursing in Vietnamese, going to Chinese school on the weekends, internalizing and perpetuating xenophobic values and then realizing how hurtful the whole “fob” thing is, feeling like you don’t know nearly enough of your heritage languages, etc. Speaking of languages, the Vietnamese and Chinese bits that appeared in the book had the tone/diacritical markings on them (except for one place, not sure if that was an error or not), so I was happy about that.

The racial diversity of this novel extends beyond Jess’s family. There is an established Asian community within Andover, there are other Asian students at her school that she was once friends with, and one of her teachers is Asian. Jess’s two best friends are not Asian, but they are POC. Their races/ethnicities are never explicitly stated, but I was able to infer that Emma is Latina (most likely of Mexican heritage), and Bells is a Louisiana Creole of Color. Their race informs their characters but doesn’t constrain them.

Now, let me talk about the LGBTQ representation in this book. Aside from our bisexual protagonist and her female love interest, we also have a trans boy (Bells) and a minor character, Darryl, who is the president of the Rainbow Allies, the LGBTQ student organization at Jess’s school. In a publishing industry where LGBTQ characters are often the single token non-cishet person in a sea of cishet characters, this book is a welcome change.

One of the awesome things about the way the LGBTQ characters are handled is that the story isn’t focused on their coming out journey. Jess’s [accidental] coming out is referenced for one paragraph, having happened before the events of the book began. Bells began his transition before the events of the book as well. Moreover, his transness isn’t a spectacle used for shock value; it’s casually referenced and revealed when Jess asks him if he’s worn his binder for too long.

Aside from this, there’s also dialogue surrounding pronouns. Jess meets the mysterious M, who is dressed in a mecha-suit, and asks what M’s pronouns are. She also corrects Abby when she uses they pronouns instead of he pronouns for Bells. (If y’all want to be good allies to trans folks, normalize the act of stating your pronouns and asking people for theirs when you are introduced.)

Another nice touch was the way the Rainbow Alliance was described as a clique of gay guys who were friends with each other and socialized more than anything else. Those of us who have experience in LGBTQ circles and communities know that many spaces that are designated LGBTQ are actually mostly about the G while leaving everyone else on the margins. I remember reading about an author panel at a conference that happened recently (last year or this year) that featured only gay [white] men. The depiction of the Rainbow Allies was super relatable for this reason.

Moreover, I understood Jess’s frustration with how depoliticized the organization was. My university has a bunch of Asian American student organizations, and they’re mostly there for socializing; the ones that do service work rarely do targeted service for Asian American communities or causes, just general service work.

The book manages to make commentary on a number of other issues in an organic fashion. For example, it points out the rampant sexism of in our 20th and 21st Century media. At one point, it’s mentioned that Jess has test anxiety, in a passage that acts as a subtle critique of standardized tests and curriculum.

Between all of these things, big and small, Not Your Sidekick is an amazing book, and I can’t wait for the sequel, which is scheduled for release in 2017! (It’s called Not Your Villain and focuses on Bells!)

Recommendation: Read this book and share it with your friends!

P.S. I love the cover art and chapter heading illustrations. They capture the essence of the story so well.