Welcome to my website!

This is the official website of writer Victoria Janssen, author of A Place of Refuge, three science fiction hopepunk novellas following three former guerillas who’ve escaped to a utopian planet after losing their fight against a fascist empire. They’re figuring out how to live a life that’s not focused on the constant fear of death, with the aid of pastries, therapy, and other people.

You can also find these novellas at Goodreads, StoryGraph, and LibraryThing.

Email: victoriajanssen [at] yahoo [dot] com. Twitter.

You’ll find website navigation at the top of this page. Scroll down this page for blog posts, or if you’re looking for a particular post, use the search functions to the right.

I hope you enjoy your visit!

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#TBRChallenge 2022

This year, I’ll again be participating in the TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian. My goal is to post reviews of a themed book on the third Wednesday of every month. Feel free to join me! Tag your social media posts with #TBRChallenge. The monthly themes, and my choices to fit those themes, are listed below. All of the books are from my To Be Read shelves (physical and virtual) as of December, 2021.

January 19 – Quickie
Instead of Three Wishes: Magical Short Stories by Megan Whalen Turner.

February 16 – Fairy Tale
Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise.

March 16 – Grumpy
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki.

April 20 – Location, Location, Location
A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney.

May 18 – Tales of Old
Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

June 15 – After the War
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.

July 20 – Vintage
Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

August 17 – Blue Collar
Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart.

September 21 – Animals
Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape.

October 19 – Flirting with Danger
Exile by Lisa Bradley.

November 16 – Lies
The Conductors by Nicole Glover.

December 21 – Festive
Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub.

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#TBRChallenge – After the War: The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson is nonfiction about, well, the time after the First World War. I took this month’s theme very literally!

I bought this book because I’d read a previous work by the author, The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which I wrote about in this 2011 post. At that time, I was doing research for a fiction project set just before World War One and looking forward to reading her next book. However, shortly thereafter, I abandoned that particular project and moved this book into the TBR, where it has languished until this year. This year, sadly, is perfect for reading about postwar angst because there are rather more resonances than one might at first think between 2022 and 1919: conflict and upheavals in economies and labor; a pandemic, which in 1919 also overlapped with the mass destruction and death of the terrible war; and the realization that surviving a time of great upheaval does not mean everyone can go back to how things were before the war began. (We all know there’s always turmoil somewhere, right?)

Nicolson’s description of the two minutes of silence on November 11, 1919 struck me.
“At precisely 11.00 a.m. all movement stopped.
In that silence many prayed that the meaning of death would somehow be revealed. But some questioned whether such understanding would give them relief from unhappiness. No one who had lost someone in the war (and it was estimated that three million people had lost someone close) was immune from grief. Many tried not to give in to it, believing that acknowledgement of the intensity of their feelings would lead them to the verge of collapse. Some found that after the initial shock a state of denial was in itself a comfort.”

This book, like its predecessor, is essentially an armchair trip back in time, giving an overview from above but also diving down closer to examine individual experiences, from several points of view. (Content warning for period-typical racism in quotations, particularly in the chapter “Release.”) You don’t need prior in-depth knowledge of World War One or the period following to understand and enjoy this book, and I feel it’s a good starting point if you’re interested in social change and recovery, or just history in general. There’s a detailed bibliography that I’d like to have a deeper look at. Overall, this book is a great addition to my collection of World War One reference materials.

Another point of interest: the author is the granddaughter of writer Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was a small part of the English delegation for the Paris Peace Conference; it seems likely this helped her to obtain access to material that gave interesting insights into some elite Britons of this time period.

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My May Reading Log

Fiction:
Strong Wine by A.J. Demas is third in a trilogy about former solider and all-around mensch Damiskos and his spy/dancer lover Varazda, set in a world reminiscent of Classical Greece. I’d recommend reading this series in order, as a lot of book one, both characters and plot, is revisited in book three. Damiskos has been visiting Varazda in Boukos and wants to move into his household there; Varazda and his household want this too, but they haven’t yet sat down to discuss it. Also, Dami still needs to tie up some loose ends back home in Pheme: give up his apartment there, retrieve his horse, get his army pension, and visit his parents. Dami’s parents have gotten themselves into money troubles again, and are hoping to marry Dami off to his former fiancée, Ino, who in the interim married someone else and was widowed. Ino’s awful parents, who originally broke the engagement for a better prospect, are now hoping Dami will take over the fertilizer business Ino inherited from her husband’s family and make them rich. Ino is only interested in being a silversmith, which she learned from her husband and stepson, though, and Dami is in love with Varazda. After learning all this, a chance encounter leads to Dami being accused of murdering one of the villains from book one. Luckily, Varazda had become worried when Dami didn’t respond to his letters, and makes his way to Pheme to help solve the mystery using his badass spy skills. Also solved are various problems plaguing Ino, Dami’s brother, and Dami’s parents, and the story ends happily. I enjoyed this whole trilogy quite a bit and highly recommend it.

The Missing Page by Cat Sebastian is second in the Page and Sommers series, post-World War Two mystery with a male/male romance. The first one, Hither, Page is one of my favorites by this author so far, which is probably not surprising given my interest in people dealing with trauma after a war. Leo Page is an orphaned former spy and James Sommers is working as a country doctor after his wartime experiences as a surgeon left him with PTSD. In this second installment, essentially a Country House Mystery, James has been invited to the reading of his uncle’s will; however, he hasn’t seen this part of his family in decades, ever since the disappearance of his cousin Rose. His legacy turns out to be a photograph, with the bulk of the estate going to whomever solves Rose’s disappearance. Many family secrets are uncovered as Leo and James investigate, and their romance becomes more settled. I solved the mystery, correctly, fairly early on but still enjoyed the book quite a lot, and am hoping his young relative, an actress, becomes a recurring character.

Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu features the titular Aunty Rosie Lee, a widow with her own restaurant in Singapore and an insatiable curiosity. Aided by her employee Nina and the policeman Salim, and the power of being a well-off and well-liked elder, Aunty Lee solves the mystery of a body found on the beach of the Sentosa resort area. There are some great bits involving Singaporean cuisine; I could have read a lot more of those parts! Content warning: there are several queer characters dealing with homophobia in different ways, and one of the murders results from a person being abandoned without medical care, which I found distressing even though it is not shown directly. This being a mystery novel, justice is served in the end.

Fanfiction:
Riptide by sergeant_angel is a very long alternate universe story which integrates characters from the Young Avengers comics with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on Kate Bishop throughout; she ends up in a relationship with Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, and most elements of the Avengers movie series are altered with Kate and other Young Avengers characters in more prominent roles.

before the door of hell lamps burned by basketofnovas (slashmarks) is the first story in a very, very long Harry Potter AU in which Sirius Black survives and becomes Harry’s guardian; Sirius also takes over as official Head of the extensive Black family, and considerable politics ensue, and the plot diverges wildly from canon. The author seems to have intense interest in just how wizarding, especially pureblood, culture might work on a micro level as well as knowledge of real world English medieval culture and law that could be used to extrapolate about wizarding history and cultural practices. The author has re-envisions canonical events by considering whether characters could be interpreted as unreliable narrators, and/or creating new backstory to cast a new light on their actions. Most of the focus is on Harry and Hermione throughout. Since I love neepery and alternate interpretations of all kinds, this sort of wide-ranging AU casting everything from a different point of view is catnip to me. After a while the story does get bogged down a bit by the weight of its revisionist worldbuilding, but since I wasn’t reading for a fast-moving plot, I didn’t mind. The author eventually rewrites the entire Harry Potter series with a focus on pureblood culture and the many failings thereof, as well as a great deal of speculation about different types of magic; the story has little in common with its canonical origins, overall, and could easily have been original work.

other plans by MyCupOfTea is a Check Please! alternate in which Eric Bittle did not attend Samwell, instead meeting Jack Zimmerman later, when Bitty is finishing college and Jack is playing in the NHL. Bitty is working several jobs and rushing towards graduation; Jack came out as bisexual a year earlier and is trying to discover what being queer means to him, via his photography hobby. It’s a lowkey, sweet story and I liked it a lot.

My May TBR Challenge book was Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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#TBRChallenge – Tales of Old: Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson is set in New York City before the United States has entered World War Two; it seems to be an alternate history in subtle ways. In this world, people of color with mystical/magical talents are known as having “saints’ hands,” which are not necessarily as helpful as one might imagine. The hands or the power that enables them want their possessors to push back against White supremacy, but the humans with powers have difficult decisions to make: how do they fight when the battle seems hopeless? How do they protect the ones they love? How do they save themselves?

Systemic racism is the underlying theme that ties the whole story together. Racism is present both as a constant thrumming background and manifesting in how the characters are treated by those who have power over them. There are overt racist acts, but there’s also the awfulness of bland, ordinary, everyday racism, which continually affects the options available to the characters and the choices they are able to make, explored from a number of angles. It’s ultimately a tragic story for the protagonists, but with a glimmer of hope at the end.

One of the three human point of view characters, light-skinned Phyllis LeBlanc/Pea Green, left her Black family in Harlem to “pass” and use her uncanny accuracy with objects as a knife-wielding assassin for a white mob boss, Victor. She is ostensibly allowed to choose who she kills and does not kill, but she feels trapped in the criminal life after so many murders. She increasingly mourns the growing distance between herself, her remaining family, and her former and future lover, Dev Patil. Dev, the second point of view character, is Hindu and British-Indian who grew up in New York state. Like Pea, Dev walks an ambiguous border between white and not-white that offers him choices but never as many choices as he needs. The third point of view character is Tamara, a Black oracle (who apparently doesn’t have saints’ hands) who fled racist violence and now hides behind Victor’s whiteness and power; she attempts to resist racism through avoidance, and eventually must confront this choice. Finally, there are some scenes from the point of view of the hands/magic itself.

Throughout, the characters face complex decisions with no perfect choices available to them. Throughout, there is nowhere to hide from racist oppression. It’s a lyrically-written, thoughtful, densely layered novel. I’ve only brushed the surface here. I feel it’s best experienced without too many spoilers, so I’ll stop here, but I will say this was, for me, the best and most ambitious of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novels so far.

Here’s an excellent interview with author Alaya Dawn Johnson at Black Nerd Problems.

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My April Reading Log

Fiction:
Can’t Find My Way Home by Gwynne Garfinkle is a ghost story that’s also a period piece. Vividly set in mid-1970s New York City, it features Joanna Bergman, a young actress in a soap opera who’s developing an intense crush on a married co-star while simultaneously trying to deal with her guilt and grief over the untimely death of her best friend, Cynthia. The story moves back and forth in time between Joanna and Cynthia’s college years, when they were activists in the antiwar and antiracism movements, and the present day in which Joanna has attempted to move on after Cynthia’s death, for which she feels partly responsible. Joanna’s encounters with a ghostly version of Cynthia result in her experiencing a range of different outcomes from the fateful night of Cynthia’s death. I actually stayed up late to finish reading the novel because I truly could not predict the ending. The characterization is marvelous, and I especially loved the details about the production of daily soap operas. Note that I know this author, but I was not a preliminary reader and did not contribute any critique.

Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian is third in the “Seducing the Sedgwicks” series, in which sickly, repressed Martin and traumatized ex-Navy midshipman Will renew their boyhood friendship and finally acknowledge that their feelings for each other are far more intense than friendship. Despite some heavy themes relating to past abuse for both characters, the tone is fairly light and sweet.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers felt like it ended too quickly, but is otherwise utterly charming. Sibling Dex, a tea monk on a far-future utopian moon, is searching for crickets and meaning, both of which they hope to find in a vast wilderness set aside by humans after ecological catastrophe. There Dex encounters Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a self-aware robot who engages them in a number of engaging philosophical discussions. I also liked the backstory: robots who became sentient the Factory Age and were thereafter released by humans from their labors, after which humans began to mend their polluting, capitalistic ways. The robots wandered off into the newly-freed up wilderness and did their own thing; Dex is one of the first to encounter a robot in generations. In the interim before the story begins, both cultures grew and changed; it appears they have much to learn from one another. It’s pleasant and thought-provoking.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang starts off as an Asian-American contemporary romance between Anna, a socially-awkward professional violinist and Quan, a self-made fashion industry CEO, but there is a lot more than that going on in this story, some of it intensely emotionally difficult. Spoilers ahead. Anna is on leave from her orchestra after unexpected internet fame left her unable to be satisfied with her violin playing; instead of playing through a piece written specifically for her, she keeps feeling critical and going back to the beginning before she can finish, over and over and over. She’s trapped in an awful relationship that her family wants more than she does; then her oblivious, entitled boyfriend tells her he wants an open relationship. Anna subsequently meets Quan on a dating app. Quan is healing emotionally from an experience with testicular cancer; his best friend and business partner encourages him to get back into dating. Meanwhile, Anna learns she is on the autism spectrum and Quan is contacted by Louis Vuitton, who want to buy out their small children’s clothing company. Already a lot, right? While in the midst of developing an incredibly sweet relationship, Anna’s father has a debilitating stroke, and the whole middle section of the book spirals into Anna’s difficulties with her family, and with her father’s condition and care. Quan is there for Anna whenever she needs him, and though she inadvertently hurts him, their support of each other ultimately saves them both. It was upsetting but gripping to take this journey with them, and I stayed up late to finish the book and find out how both their lives were made better by supporting each other. The story has a long tail in which Anna slowly recovers from autistic burnout with Quan’s help, and reconnects with her mother.

Servant Mage by Kate Elliott is a novella set in a world where a magical monarchy has been overthrown by sort-of Cromwellian fascists who forcibly take all magical children and brainwash them into indentured servitude. It’s definitely in conversation with the style of epic fantasy in which the monarchy is always good and right. The protagonist, Fellian, is a fire mage whose mother and Older Father were executed by the government for sedition. She’s rescued from servitude by rogue monarchist mages who need her help; Fellian negotiates with them for a fair exchange, then helps them with a couple of missions. However, in the end, Fellian is still not converted to the monarchist cause, and has plans of her own. What I really would like to see is where Fellian goes from here.

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney was my TBR Challenge book for April.

Fanfiction:
What Livin’ is For by LadyJanelly crosses over Leverage with the movie version of The Losers for a delightfully slashy romance matching up Eliot Spencer with established couple Carlos “Cougar” Alvarez and Jake Jensen. For a threesome story about three mercenary soldiers, it’s amazingly sweet.

The Distant Sky by fallintosanity (yopumpkinhead) for Alyndra crosses over the television show Supernatural with The Books of the Raksura and really makes it work. Villains on Earth steal the queen Consolation; Moon and his terrifying mother Malachite look for her, soon with the help of Dean and Sam. Then more Raksura arrive, including Jade, Chime, Stone, and Kethel. Sam and Kethel end up bonding. It was great and I loved it.

The Humbling River by mysterycyclone focuses on Tony Stark’s relationship with Peter Parker/Spiderman, but Peter is missing and later presumed dead for a good portion of the story, so there’s a lot of angst. However, spoiler, Peter is not dead, and Venom is biting people’s heads off which is not surprising because Venom. The Venom reveal was in no way a surprise to me, but I enjoyed the characterization knowing it would have a happy ending.

Heart Full of Gasoline by sdwolfpup is a massive Jaime Lannister/Brienne of Tarth romance mashed up with Formula One racing. I have not read or seen Games of Thrones, but I was easily able to follow the characters and plot. Jaime is notorious for having been involved in a crash fatal to a champion driver, and has difficulty finding crew; he hires Brienne, from an out-of-the-way island, to be his chief mechanic. Brienne had a brief foray into the racing world cut short by cruel misogyny; she’s willing to try again because she loves racing. The racing plot focuses on both their journeys, including Jaime’s conflicts with his conniving, villainous father and Brienne’s fight for respect, first as a mechanic and race engineer, and then as a driver. Meanwhile, their romance weaves throughout, and they build up a large Found Family. The characterization is great and there’s a very satisfying happy ending. Content warning related to Game of Thrones canon: Jaime suffers a racing accident and his right hand is amputated. General content warning: Brienne suffers from self-consciousness due to her height and muscular build, and considers herself unattractive; realistically, she doesn’t magically recover from these lifelong issues though they do improve when she’s happy in her relationship.

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#TBRChallenge – Location, Location, Location: A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney was on my TBR for two reasons: first, I know the author, and second, I knew it involved at least one fictional quilter, and I love reading about quilting. It’s mostly a ghost story, though not a straightforward one; the ghost’s story is a puzzle which you grow to understand in bits and pieces of information coming from different times and settings and characters.

The town of Shimmer is surrounded by Chesapeake marsh, in coastal Maryland, the Eastern Shore. Art graduate student Xavier Wentworth goes there to study their long tradition of African-American “outsider” artists at the local Whitby-Grayson Museum, especially quilter Hazel Whitby and painter Shadrach Grayson. Xavier himself has moved from making art to writing about it.

I was very much amused that Xavier calls Whitby’s improvisational quilts “tapestries,” as if he can’t bear to use such a utilitarian name for fabric art. He points out that the quilts “aren’t functional.” Perhaps he associates quilt with Craft rather than Art, and places Craft lower in his artistic hierarchy, as his academic advisor does with casual verbal brutality. Perhaps he just wants to fight against a common perception that quilters, or at least Whitby, can’t be artists. Both of his academic advisors, the white gay man Giordano and the Black woman Devine, herself an artist, are doubtful Xavier will find enough to write about in Shimmer. Giordano calls the project “bourgeois mysticism” and Devine calls it “an art movement made up of Magical Negroes.” (For the record, I think the Art/Craft binary is useless except to expose the prejudices of those who are determined to force work into smug hierarchies of validity. But I digress…I could digress on this for a really really long time, but I won’t.)

As you might guess from the title, color is a huge part of this book, especially a vibrant shade between pink and purple that is the major focus of Whitby’s work. However, Gidney’s descriptions of the town, the people’s clothing, and their houses all feature lots and lots of color description, emphasizing its thematic importance. The fuchsia color flows through the whole story and through the obsessive art created by a sequence of artists who live in Shimmer.

My favorite thing about the book turned out to be the vividly drawn cast of characters, who get their own point of view chapters, some set in the 1860s, some set in the present, some set a decade or two earlier as we see events in the present-day characters’ pasts. All of these pieces gradually make a picture of the ghost and her origins, much like the quilts made by Hazel and the collages made by Tamar. I loved the small insights I had throughout the story.

If you’ve never tried Gidney’s work, this is a terrific place to start.

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My March Reading Log

Fiction:
Rescue Operations: Changes of Life by L.A. Hall, sixteenth in the Clorinda Cathcart’s Circle series, includes the return of Josh Ferraby to England amidst a complex plot, involving a vast number of people, to free a woman from an abusive husband and settle her where she can have a new life. Meanwhile, all anticipate the return of friends from their long journey to the Antipodes. At this point, I don’t always immediately remember the identity of all the very large cast of characters, many of them children of characters from the original Comfortable Courtesan series, but I’m starting to get a handle on more of them. Luckily, this is a series that rewards re-reading.

Forgotten in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) is fifty-third (!) in the Eve Dallas series of science fictional mysteries set in future New York City, starting off with the discovery of present-day and long-past murders in close proximity. In recent installments, I’ve noticed Roberts seems to be subtly updating what I call the “Jetsons future” of the books. The computers are still voice-activated, but she hasn’t used android cops/domestic servants/guards in a while, and “wrist units,” which seemed to be Dick Tracy-like communication units, aren’t mentioned as much. Some characters still carry a PPC (Personal Pocket Computer), which can be used to print documents. “Links” in the books are now a lot more like smart phones, I think, than they were when the series began in 1995. Tracing all that technology throughout the series could end up being somebody’s dissertation, maybe. Also of interest, there’s another wealthy and powerful villain, contrasted unfavorably with a retired mobster who nonetheless has a code of honor. I could not help making connections with real-life real estate dynasties in New York City who engaged and are engaging in criminal practices, and am pretty sure that was on purpose. I personally feel this book and the previous one include a fair amount of Roberts venting about present-day politics, while still keeping to her usual concerns of standing up for, and protecting, those who cannot protect themselves. For the most part Robb’s cops are strongly moral and dedicated to justice, with “protect and serve” being more than lip service; that’s a future I would like to believe in.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor has been on my TBR for a while. It’s a novella in which a young Himba woman from the future version of Namibia, a mathematician and technologist, becomes the first of her people to be accepted to an interstellar university. She decides to go to the university against the wishes of her family. En-route, the ship is violently taken over by aliens, with Binti and the pilot being the only human survivors. Binti is able to communicate with the aliens through a piece of ancient technology she found in the desert and had with her on the ship; the device only initiates their interactions, however. The story revolves around issues being resolved through communication and willingness to learn about another culture.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian is a historical male/male romance between a former highwayman and the son of a duke, loosely set in Georgian England, by which I mean the aristocrat has some fabulous high fashion outfits, but there’s not much depth to the historical detail; however, the story does interrogate the idea of aristocracy and their ill-gotten riches. Cynical Kit, famous highwayman with a tragic past, had to give up his criminal life after a life-changing injury; he’s slowly and reluctantly seduced by Percy, Lord Holland, a flamboyant duke’s heir with impressive swordsmanship who needs to steal an important item from his awful father. It was a fun romp with secondary characters doing their own things in the background, some of which will no doubt be important in the sequel. My favorite was Betty the fence and critic of Kit’s love life.

Sword Dance and Saffron Alley by A.J. Demas were recommended by a Romance blog I follow, and they are absolutely gripping. The first two in a trilogy, the plots combine mystery with the ongoing romance between ex-soldier Damiskos, still dealing with the life-altering injury that cut his career short, and freedman eunuch dancer and spy Varazda, who is navigating a romantic relationship for the first time. The setting is secondary world fantasy based on Classical period Mediterranean culture; there are elements of Athens and Persia in particular; Damiskos’ military service has echoes of Afghanistan or a similar area destabilized by ongoing conflict and ruled by warlords. Content warning: this world includes slavery and enslaved eunuchs in a country the story does not visit.

Soulstar by C.J. Polk is third in the Kingston Cycle. Former nurse, medical student, and activist Robin Thorpe has worked for years towards freeing Aeland from monarchy in order to institute democracy. When these efforts bear fruit, and captive witches are freed from punitive asylums, she is finally reunited with her spouse after a gap of twenty years. Robin comes from the Samindan culture, which is beautifully depicted in ways totally integrated into the story. None of the characters’ goals are easy, and they have many opponents of different kinds. Everything takes community effort and thinking outside the box, so the resolution is very satisfying. My only very minor complaint is that a lot happens, in quick succession, and I would have welcomed slower pacing in order to feel the progress more fully.

Fanfiction:
The Warfare of Genghis Khan by victoria_p (musesfool) is a very short crossover between Leverage and Captain America, both concerned with justice in ways I’d love to see further explored.

The Hellhound of the Rockefellers by Flourish for kateandbarrel crosses over Elementary with Sleepy Hollow. I’d only seen most of the first season of Sleepy Hollow and a couple of episodes of Elementary but I could easily follow this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. As you might guess, it has a mystery plot with supernatural elements.

Silver and Gold by scioscribe is a very long alternate universe story in which MCU Odin gives eight-year-old Loki to Heimdall for fostering, which leads to a much happier ending. Because I’m a huge fan of Found Family, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It has several appealing original characters and some fun worldbuilding, especially relating to the Vanir and the Jotun. Heimdall of the Nine Mothers only has three left when the story begins, but I could’ve read an entire epic just about them.

the more you say the less i know (wherever you stray, i follow) by notcaycepollard is an excellent AU of both Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which factors in Sam Wilson’s back story. Sam meets Bucky while still deployed in Afghanistan with the Falcon program. They end up on the run together, with subsequent changes to the movie’s plot that I found very satisfying.

My TBR Challenge book this month was Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, which is awesome.

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#TBRChallenge – Grumpy: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki blends: a detailed portrayal of a particular mostly-Asian neighborhood in California; the competitive world of classical music, including performers and luthiers; a transgender queer violinist; lots of lovingly described food; and Faustian bargains condemning souls to the underworld. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s a gripping story and I loved it.

Content warnings: mentions of death by suicide; racism; the unexpected murder of two people; and domestic abuse of the transgender woman character Katrina. She also experiences frequent microaggressions and harassment in the course of the book. (She later experiences a validating, happy ending.)

Alien beings, refugees from the oncoming Endplague of a galactic empire, are making a home in a doughnut shop while building a stargate…inside the giant doughnut atop the building. They’ve taken on human forms as the Tran family: captain/mother Lan; her Aunt Floresta; and her children Shirley, Markus, Edwin, and Windee. Meanwhile, renowned violin teacher Shizuka Satomi is seeking her seventh pupil, who like her previous six, is meant to sell their soul to hell, through her, in exchange for a brilliant career; this happens via a cursed violin bow made by the family of Lucy Matia, a luthier descended from a long line of luthiers, all male. Shizuka’s music cannot be heard anywhere on Earth until she delivers a seventh soul; should she fail by her February deadline, she dies. She and her accompanist/housekeeper Astrid have returned to Shizuka’s childhood home, in the same neighborhood as Starrgate Donut. Meanwhile, Katrina Nguyen runs away from her abusive family, only to be taken advantage of by the person she thought would help her. Katrina dreams of a career playing gaming and anime music on YouTube; she might be willing to trade her life to achieve her dreams. When she and Shizuka meet, it seems clear where the story is heading…except that isn’t where the story is heading. The specific details of the different worlds colliding make the plot and its outcome fresh and surprising.

There are many dark themes, but ultimately, this is a hopeful book, perhaps more so because the hope comes after serious darkness. Every one of the characters, even the minor ones, has an arc of self-discovery as well as in relation to the other characters. Lan, Shirley, Shizuka, Katrina, and Lucy all suffer from feeling they’re good not enough for the lives they actually deserve. Over the course of the book, they find their own power within, and figure out how to live the lives they want when the world is against them both passively and actively. In the end, this book is about wanting to live, and about discovering the things we truly live for.

I loved this book, and I look forward to more from this author.

Excerpt at Tor.com.

Strange Horizons review by Cat Fitzpatrick.

The Rumpus review by Krithika Sukumar.

Posted in lgbtqia+, sf/f | Tagged | 3 Comments

Embracing Refuge launches today!

Embracing Refuge, third in A Place of Refuge, launches today!

Cover of Embracing Refuge - a dark-skinned woman with short hair and cyborgian implants on her neck on a green background with planet and spaceship.

Is it too late for a cynical super soldier to right the wrongs in her past?

Enhanced soldier Faigin Balfour defected from a fascist military to the revolution. Once the deadliest of warriors, now she fights to settle into a peaceful life on the utopian planet Refuge. Her two closest friends, Talia and Miki, are there to help, and have invited Faigin to join their loving bond for a peace they can all share. Faigin’s not a romantic, but she still craves the intimacy they offer. That’s something she’s willing to work on. For her, though, love is not enough. She needs to contribute something of herself to the planet that saved all their lives, to pay back some good for the harm she caused. She needs a mission.

Refuge has no need for killers, so how can she find value, now, in the technological augmentations that changed her body and shaped her life? She’ll need to confront her past as child soldier and lethal guerilla, and ponder what actions she can take in the present to uphold life instead of death.

Can a killer become worthy of utopia?

Not your usual space opera, A Place of Refuge features badass lesbians in space, the kindness of strangers, banter, close-knit friends, found family, trauma recovery, and lots of delicious food.

Excerpt:
Faigin Balfour did not talk about her feelings, she did not think about her feelings, she didn’t even feel her feelings.

She snickered to herself and twisted in her chair, rubbing one gloved hand through her short, spiky hair. She stared balefully at the therapeutic worklist displayed on a virtual screen in front of her. It wasn’t true she didn’t have emotions, it was a million parsecs from true. It was more that she didn’t like to deal with her emotions, if didn’t like had more violent connotations. It had always been easier to just ignore painful thoughts and get on with the thing that had to be done next, because what was the point? The thing still had to be done, and someone had to do it, and that person might as well be Captain Balfour. Doing the thing at least gave a sense of accomplishment, while wallowing in unpleasant emotions did not.

Right now, the thing in front of her was this bloody worklist. Doing the thing meant reflecting upon her feelings. She blew out her breath and slid her finger along the various emotional scales in the display, as quickly as she could. Weeks in, she still hated this drill. When she’d finished it, the three freeform questions glowed an intentionally-soothing, annoying blue at her, requiring answers. About how she was dealing with her feelings.

She did talk about things with her most intimate friends, Miki Boudreaux and Talia Avi, but that was because they had known each other for over a decade. They’d spent most of that time fighting against overpowering odds with Jon Churchill’s dissenters, in rebellion against the oppressive Federated Colonies.

The threat of death, near escapes from death, and the occasional occasion of a comrade’s death tended to lead to more intimate conversations, but that wasn’t a workable strategy for day-to-day sharing. She was still thinking about the recent evening she and Miki and Talia had spent remembering and grieving Jon’s death.

Jon had left them, over a year before, on a mission that ended in his death. Then they’d thought Talia had been killed. Then, she and Miki had been captured by the FC.

After all that, they’d learned Talia was not dead. By then, the rebellion was quashed, the surviving dissenters had scattered to the stars, Faigin and Miki were hurled with extreme prejudice into a top security Federated cell…but Talia was alive. That had been a good day.

Talia had been imprisoned by the FC for thirteen months. The Supreme Commander of the FC military, Olawale, used her life as a bargaining chip, and for her sake, Miki and Faigin had agreed to make one last sensational appearance, flee the FC forever, and be declared dead, the rebellion with them. But they fled with Talia. All three of them together.
Now, they lived on the planet Refuge, a place Faigin had never even heard of until Miki, after much slinking around in data collections where she wasn’t allowed, had suggested it might be a place where the three of them could be safe. So far, she’d been correct.

Talia and Miki seemed committed to staying on Refuge indefinitely. Faigin would have liked to be committed. But after a month of private accommodations, excellent medical care, and copious quantities of delicious food, Faigin still couldn’t help but feel that everything they’d found here might be ripped away at any moment.

Gritting her teeth, she tapped the empty space following the first question, which wanted to know the healthy coping strategies she’d utilized this week. Exercise was acceptable. She exercised every day. Not only was it one of the few reliable mood-lifters she knew, but if she didn’t exercise, the interfaces installed in her body by the Federated military registered complaints with her muscles and nervous system.

Digging in the frozen dirt was really another sort of exercise, but according to the list she’d been given, gardening was a separate category from exercise, so she could enter that as well, and that activity had included meeting with some of their neighbors here in Port Liminal, so it counted double. Only one more and she could move on to the second question, which was unfortunately worse…oh, yes. She had eaten something new, in fact several new things, because Talia and Miki had brought back an assortment of pastries from their tour of bakeries in Port Liminal.

The medic Kaliska Dass sat nearby, her tall stout form curled snugly into a round red chair. She looked up from a scan of Faigin’s innards and commented, “I’m not going to mark your answers right or wrong, you know.”

“I’m not worried about that.”

“Faigin. My worklists aren’t going to bite your face off, either.”

“Are you sure?” Faigin enjoyed Kaliska’s deadpan humor, though she hadn’t told her as much.

Kaliska’s solemn expression didn’t waver. “They’ll only bite off your toes, to start.”

Faigin snorted a laugh. “This second question is confusing. The line between healthy and unhealthy activities can be very thin.”

“Can it?” Kaliska had a deep voice; on these words it dropped even lower, and her gaze grew steely.

“You said getting drunk was not a healthy activity. Sometimes that’s the only coping mechanism available.”
Kaliska’s expression, and her voice, eased again. “Have you been drinking a lot?”

“No…not what I would consider a lot.” Faigin looked Kaliska defiantly in the eye. “I am going to list drinking with Miki, while we all talked about Jon being dead, as a healthy activity since our last meeting.”

“All right.”

“What do you mean, all right?”

“The worklist is for you, not for me. Fill it out however you want. Just fill it out.”

“Why does it always ask for three of everything?”

“I can change it to four of everything.”

“Bloody hell.”

All retail links to Embracing Refuge.

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My February Reading Log

Fiction:
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers is a novella about crowdsourced interstellar exploration, astronauts sent off from a world suffering the ravages of climate change, with the twist that they do plan to come back, after interfering with the places they find as little as possible. Content warning for a distressing animal death. The four astronauts of varying gender expressions and ethnicities leave their families behind and go into torpor for interstellar travel. Their somatotypes are altered during torpor to deal with the conditions of the next planet or moon, so they emerge strangers to their own bodies. Each section is about a different environment they encounter, and the life they find there, and how they deal with it. Also, they must deal with the very belated news from Earth which can be emotionally difficult, and eventually frightening; they must make some difficult decisions. I found it gripping, thematically intense and thought-provoking.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk is second in The Kingston Cycle, secondary world fantasy that very loosely maps onto Edwardian/post-World War One Europe, in the sense that the technology level is roughly equivalent, and a terrible war has just ended. After the world-changing events at the end of Witchmark, the story picks up almost immediately from the point of view of Miles’ sister, Grace. Her life has been very different from his, raised as their father’s favorite to hold political power and manage wealth, but she’s now coping with revelations of how that power was gained and maintained, and attempting to make things right. There’s a lesbian romance subplot and also a one-sided romance subplot that the reader notices but the protagonist is oblivious to. I had pre-ordered this book, and started reading it quite some time ago, but lockdown brain meant I put it down pretty quickly. Once I started again last week, it went very quickly! I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as its predecessor, because Witchmark had more WWI-adjacent stuff, but I still think it’s excellent.

February’s TBR Challenge book is Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise.

Fanfiction:
something to believe in your heart of hearts by napricot is a lovely Fake Dating rom com featuring Bucky Barnes and Sarah Wilson in a sequel to the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I liked this a lot, especially Sarah’s point of view.

The Mechanics of Poetry by omgericzimmermann (HMS Lusitania) is a Check Please! romance between Will “Dex” Poindexter, of a large Catholic family in Maine, and Derek “Nursey” Nurse, whose parents are wealthy and exceedingly neglectful. Nursey spends the summer with Dex at his grandmother’s and it takes a while for them to realize they have feelings for each other and that a relationship is possible. Content warning for Dex’s homophobic older brother; Dex hasn’t come out to his family at the beginning of the story. Bonus Bitty, Jack, Ransom, Holster, Shitty, Lardo, and a cute threesome of younger students.

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