Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler (NSFW)

A masterfully written story dealing with consent, mutual need, and racism, but read further before you decide if this NSFW book is right for you.

"Fledgling" by Octavia E. Butler

Readers considering this book need to know about the "underaged" consensual sex. We learn early on that Fledgling's narrator "looks 10 or 11," and then she seeks out and has sex with a young man who firsts protests that he's uncomfortable with her apparent age. Many readers will correctly expect consent themes in a vampire book (more on that later), but that particular detail deserves mention.

Now, by the time we encounter sex in Fledling, we're made to understand that, if anything, it's the humans she meets that are at a power disadvantage--physically as well as physiologically. Later, we're told by one of her kind (an "Ina") that she's at an appropriate age for her kind to explore sexuality. Her appearance is used to accentuate her otherness, and its certainly not the first speculative fiction novel to play with the appearance and sexuality of "nonhuman" creatures. We're not surprised to learn later that our MC is much older than she appears, but its worth noting that she's physically incapable of having children yet, which harkens back to "10 or 11" territory.

Fledgling tackles a lot of fascinating power and consent issues that are expertly woven together. For example, humans become addicted to the Ina who feed on them as part of a symbiotic relationship, and these human symbionts do have to obey their vampire's commands. On a political powerplay level, our MC is genetically superior to all other vampires, yet the violent politics of ancient biogtry threaten her life from the outset. 

All-in-all, Fledgling is a powerful, engaging story about how racism unfairly puts the burden of knowledge and preemptive action on its victims, with death waiting on the other side of failure.

Butler's thought-provoking take on vampire lore questions the conflation of pleasure with need and sex, and power with the right to order and possess. Ina communities are essentially polyamorous to suit their need for several blood donors (symbionts), and symbionts receive the benefits of a longer life with faster healing. Throw a bit of ageism in there, where older Ina try to dismiss our MC as a "child" who is too mentally damaged by her trauma to testify against her oppressors, and one can see why Butler chose to create a protagonist that's younger than the elders in charge of the justice system. Since age-ism is a thing, can we call the dismissal of victims trauma-ism, or is there another term? Whatever you call it, I much appreciated how Butler wove both issues naturally into the text.

However, I would have preferred a protagonist who appeared older. That one line gave me pause and nearly caused me to quit reading, and reading the rest of the book hasn't convinced me that this detail was necessary. Having a sexually active character who appears "10 or 11" sounds like pedophilia. Many books do feature sexually active minors, but usually in the 14+ range, an age where real teens are sometimes sexually active (40% of never-married teens ages 15-19 are sexually active in the US). The only reason the book didn't lose me so early on is because I knew that the narrator would end up being older than she appeared, and I'd heard Octavia E. Butler recommended many times. While it is important to the story that other Ina see her as a child, this particular detail seemed to be designed for shock value. I fear that this detail potentially overshadows other aspects of the book. If not for this one detail, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book for anyone who does not mind the NSFW exploration of consent and need. I found the book thought-provoking and moving overall, yet this makes me want to find a similar author handling similar themes, rather than necessarily pick up another book by Octavia E. Butler.

I'm open to suggestions for further reading--either of books by Octavia E. Butler featuring "older" characters, or books like Fledgling by other authors. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: Strong Fort Spathi by Heather C. Wright

Strong Fort Spathí by Heather C. Wright is a delightful ticking-clock urban fantasy with engaging characters. Although this first book stands well on its own, readers will want to see more of best friends Sinikka and Jordan, their pack, and the wolf who's fallen head-over-heels for Jordan (m/m).
Strong Fort Spathí (Swords & Shields Book 1) by [Heather C Wright]

Strong Fort Spathi follows werewolf Jordan as he scrambles to find his missing Spathi--his magical shield and, more importantly, his best friend since childhood, Sinikka. Jordan's only clue is Sinikka's scent disappearing into thin air and his magical bond with Sinikka, which lets Jordan know that his best friend yet lives. That small reassurance and the help of his packmates might keep him sane enough to entertain visiting Oplarchêgós hopeful Andrew Farkas, whose arrival marks the immutable start of the Dokimés, ritual paw-to-teeth contests for the title of Oplarchêgós.
When Sinikka wakes up with twelve other missing witches, she immediately realizes two things: her captors need her for a powerful ritual, and Jordan might not get there in time, if at all. Her captors know exactly how to hide her and how to force her hand, and they're ready to start now. What they don't know is that spilling her blood will give her komistês Jordan the power to find her anywhere on Earth. As the strongest and most knowledgable witch under her captors' thumbs, it's up to her to figure out a way to thwart the ritual and call in reinforcements.
Werewolf Andrew Farkas came prepared for the usual politics of the Dokimés. He did not come expecting to fall for a distraught werewolf consumed by a missing person search, in the middle of his own battle for Oplarchêgós. When Andrew offers to help search, Strong Fort pack politely declines, and his protege Tyler warns him to stay away from Jordan. As much as Andrew wishes to spare Jordan the politics of his attraction, he can't help the way his interest shows whenever Jordan walks into the room. With tension in the fort as volatile as a gathering thunderstorm, Andrew must choose his words carefully if he says anything to Jordan at all.
Strong Fort Spathí delivers an engaging read with great pacing and strong characters that could easily carry a series.
Readers will fall in love with Wright's refreshing portrayal of werewolf pack mentality that kicks toxic masculinity to the curb: Wright's werewolves cuddle and kick ass better for it, because they know that a little empathetic/platonic touch can go a long way to keeping their wolves at bay. The pack offers what we all need on some level: cooperative friendship, where members can support and care for each other without it being misconstrued as amorous. Yet, is romance banished from Wright's world? Hardly. Wright skillfully weaves in a slow burn romance while keeping the pack's puppy pile platonic. Where Jordan and Sinikka care for each other like close siblings, Andrew's infatuation enters the page the moment he walks into the narrative, promising a longer story arc that readers will want to follow in sequels.
Strong Fort Spathi offers readers a kidnapping plot that gleefully defies expectations. Sinikka is anything but a maiden in distress as the stakes rise against her and the other witches. She knows the value of her own agency even in the face of stronger magic, and her bond with Jordan is anything but a crutch. Werewolves are everything we want werewolves to be, and more. Strong Fort Spathí is a delightful urban fantasy that hits all the genre sweet spots while offering its own unique flavor.