Mini Reviews: A Spark of White Fire (Mandanna}, Girls Made of Snow and Glass {Bashardoust}, Damsel {Arnold}

These are all related in that they are all fantasy about women. Actually they're all fairy tale/foklore related too so yay, good on me for actually accidentally stumbling on a theme.
title: A Spark of White Fire
author: Sangu Mardanna
pages: 311
format: ebook ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5
genre: Science Fiction
topics: South Asian, Royalty, Mythology 

3 stars - I liked it

Don't let my rating scare you off. This is a book where I had some technical and plotting issues that gave me pause, but the story and worldbuilding were thrilling, so I enjoyed it over all. A SPARK OF WHITE FIRE is a science fiction reimagining of the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit/Hindu epic. The premise was what hooked me the most. Sangu weaves such a fascinating world from the source material, mingling fantasy with her scifi. The gods are still very influential and always meddling in the characters' lives; the MC has as patron the Goddess of War, who appears many times.

Honestly, most of the missing stars are from polish. I found the plotting somewhat clunky at times, mostly in the beginning. Certain events seem to happen too easily, some of the plot beats are relatively predictable and there's a bit too much exposition shoved into awkward "let's talk about this thing we know" conversations. It made the start a little rocky. Mechanical stuff like this tends to bug me more than most people. The second half is much tighter, which tells me that Sangu was really getting into her stride, and bodes well for the sequel. Which I fully intend to read.

Kinks aside, it's a thoroughly enjoyable book with much to love. The main character, Esmae, is fierce, determined, and compassionate. There's a snarky prince with secrets of his own, who's very compelling. I loved all the political intrigue and divine meddling. The crux is less on space battles than characters, from the complex sibling relationship betwen Esmae and her exiled brother Alex to the tenuous trust between Esmae and the prince to the conniving machinations of an evil uncle to the totally amazing and shocking and heartwrenching denoument. I had a lot of fun with it, and I'm sure that if you're familiar with the Mahabharata, there are many easter eggs I missed that will totally delight you. See @chasingfaes on why she adores it.

Contagion by Erin Bowman
title: Girls Made of Snow and Glass
author: Melissa Bashardoust
pages: 384
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 5/5
genre: Fantasy
topics: Fairy Tale, Feminism, Lesbian character 

5 stars - it was exceptional

With GIRLS MADE OF SNOW AND GLASS, I definitely fell in love. It's a sapphic retelling of Snow White, told from the alternating perspectives of the "evil" queen and the exiled princess herself. It's a beautiful treatise on how women are boxed into types and how they can step out of those boxes and reclaim their power. The writing is lyrical and melodic, which ups the atmosphere of an old fairy tale or modern poetic epic. There were so many heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions.

The characters are complex, deep and flawed and lovely real people. Their tangled, emotionally fraught interactions power the plot much more than the fantasy elements, which seem rather to serve as metaphors for their personal struggles. The queen, Mina, is a girl with a heart made of glass and a vicious father, who insinuates her way into the king's favor because becoming queen is a way to never be powerless again. Lynet is a daughter made of snow in the image of the dead queen; made to be a poor replacement for someone else, she struggles to be her own person.

The plot is dreamlike, alternating between Mina's past and Lynet's present (in which Mina is now a grown woman), and unfolding in a poignant tale of two women fighting to control their own lives under the thumbs of domineering men and an oppressive society. The core is really their relationships. Their inital mother-daughter bond is fractured by the pressures of a society that pits women against one another, in which the only way to life yourself up is to destroy the other. Mina fears that Lynet's royal future will sideline her, stripping her of all the power she fought so desperately to gain. Misunderstandings and betrayals lead into a final conflict where each woman is forced to contend with the fact that they were made to live for someone else, and it doesn't have to be that way. Lynet also falls in love on the way with a woman who doesn't expect her to be anything but herself.

Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous book.

Contagion by Erin Bowman
title: Damsel
author: Elana K. Arnold
pages: 320
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5
genre: Fantasy
topics: Fairy tale, Feminist  

3 stars - I liked it 

Since we're talking about women and fairy tales as metaphor for oppressive power structures, it's a great time to talk about DAMSEL. Arnold's fairy tale is more allegory than story, which was my only hang up; I enjoyed it, but it felt a little too obvious the whole time that it was trying to say something, rather than to be a compelling story that also says something. The metaphors here are not subtle. Like, the princess saves a lynx cub and names it Sorrow. That kind of not subtle.

But you can tell that it comes from a place of rage, and that rage gives it some power. Despite the heavy handedness, it was a worthwhile read. Arnold plays with all the traditional fairy tale tropes and framing but twists it in her own way. The framework and familiarity lulls you into a false security. You know this tale. The prince saves the princess from a dragon. The princess goes to his kingdom to start her new wonderful life. But Arnold begins to sow seeds of discord early on, little sinister clues that tell you this is no happy fairy tale. The prince is eerily possessive. The old queen is mysterious and sickly and domineering. And no one in the palace seems to care anything about what the princess needs or wants. These little hints spiral and spiral into more obvious horror as the princess discovers the dark truths behind what everyone else just accepts as "the way things are." You'll want to scream while reading it (because some of the people are so recognizably awful), but don't worry: Arnold delivers a satisfying end.

DAMSEL isn't the kind of book where you ship characters or fall in love with the adventure and the world. But it's a clever book, redolent of the unease modern women have with the roles we've been forced to play. It would make for great discussion material in a class. The writing is also just lovely. It makes me want to read another of her books that's more traditionally story driven.

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