Queer Book Club: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk coverThis is the first in a new trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, set in the same world as the Raven Cycle and featuring some of the same characters, particularly Ronan and Adam. Whereas the Raven Cycle focused around a group of school friends uncovering a supernatural mystery, the new trilogy focuses on the world of dreamers like Ronan, who can bring back objects from their dreams and, on the other side, people who believe them to be a serious threat to the world. The action is set after Ronan and Adam have left school and Adam has begun college, so whilst the Raven Cycle was solidly YA, this novel is at the upper end of YA, edging into adult. Genre-wise, the story sits somewhere between paranormal and fantasy.

If you read my Raven Cycle review, you’ll see I’m quite the frothing fan boy of the first series, so I was excited to get my hands on this new book. The new story has a different feel to it: the world is harsher, the stakes are higher, the action is more violent and the future feels bleak. There’s more compromise than hope as Adam, Ronan, and Ronan’s older brother, Declan, negotiate their way around living adult lives with the dangers dreaming can bring. There are new characters: Jordan Hennessey, an art forger, and the copies of herself she repeatedly dreams and brings back in a nightmare she can’t escape; Carmen Farooq-Lane, a member of a shadowy extra-governmental organisation tasked with taking out dreamers, who they believe will end the world. I particularly enjoyed Hennessy and Jordan, her first copy who she gifted with her first name, and Hennessy’s interactions with Ronan. Carmen Farooq-Lane is harder to like, but her character also shows the most growth in the space of this book and I could see her coming to a confrontation with her fellow hunters in the future.

I’ve seen Stiefvater come in for some criticism in the past for her characters being overwhelming white, and some additionally felt the Asian character in the fourth book was mishandled. Jordan Hennessy is black and Carmen Farooq-Lane is POC. It’s not really for me to say whether she succeeds with these characters, but the cast of characters feels more racially diverse than the Raven Cycle, so I’ll be interested to see reactions to them. Hennessy is also bi or pan which, although only referenced, is cool.

As an Adam/Ronan fan, it was a joy to see their story continue. Their relationship was such a lovely surprise in the Raven Cycle – one of the rare times in my life where I’ve thought I was reading a het-only story and been pleasantly surprised by an apparently incidental homoerotic vibe actually blossoming into something. Their story lines generally represent the darker elements of the original series, so it’s no surprise this shift in focus has led to a darker book. Ronan’s dreaming is explored in much more detail in this story, including the limits it places on his life. Ronan becomes trapped both by the need to dream and the need to be close to the West Virginian ley line that seems connected to him and his dreaming. We see Adam go off to college and try to reconcile the poverty and violence of his past with what he hopes will be a brighter future. The greater exploration of Declan’s life and motivations was another rewarding aspect to this story, with glimpses into the shady underworld their dreamer father frequented.

Then there’s the mysterious Bryde, an apparently powerful dreamer who haunts Ronan’s dreams, whose name is whispered with excitement in the occult underworld.

There was plenty here to pull me in, from Stiefvater’s well written, complex, morally nuanced characters, to the mysteries of the overall story arc, from Bryde to the impending dream apocalypse. I love how the dream magic is written and how everything is edged with danger. Stiefvater’s prose isn’t perfect, but it’s alive and enthralling and I found myself drawn into this story in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. The first half of the story is fairly slow in pace, in a similar way to early Raven Cycle books, but I found enough in the establishing of characters and plot to keep me involved and the slower start made for a richer story. My only criticism was that occasionally Hennessy’s Britishism sounded slightly off to my British ear. And that “crumbs” as a favourite curse word has already been claimed by Danger Mouse sidekick, Penfold, in the British children’s cartoon series, which was slightly distracting. These were minor points, though, in an overall extremely rewarding read.

As a rule, I’m not generally a fan of series where the books don’t have some sort of self-contained narrative arc, and this one very much ends on a cliffhanger, but having read the first series, I knew what to expect and know it’s worth coming along for the ride.

I think this story would probably make sense without reading the Raven Cycle. There’s enough background information fed in and enough that’s new to this trilogy that it works as its own thing. But I’m not going to be the one to recommend you don’t.

Update: Poetry Tarot and More Queer Book Club

rainbow books close up

Need more green queer books! (Image belongs to Ambrose Hall.)

It’s been one heavy year-and-a-bit for me and I’ve slacked off on the blogging while focusing on other things. But I’m missing it. The other day, I happened to look at the stats for this blog and was surprised to find that, despite my absence, people still visit every day. I always hoped my index of queer book reviews would be a helpful resource, so it’s great to see it being used. Maybe it’s time to add to it.

So, I’m going to get back to writing reviews of queer books I read: that’s, by my definition, any book with significant queer characters in it, of any genre. (Or LGBTQIA+ characters, if you prefer.) I’m hoping particularly to root out some good queer horror and dark fiction from the past 10 years. As always, I’ll only review books I feel broadly positive about. I’ve been scouring genre lists in preparation. I’ll include some recent and some older books. I won’t be bankrupting myself buying piles of expensive hardbacks, so I make no claims that this will be a “latest books” resource, but I will make sure to include more recent books.

In writing news, I’m pleased to share that I’ve just had a poem accepted for the blood orange tarot. As a secular tarot enthusiast, I’m really excited to be part of this project. The poem comes from a month’s poetry challenge I did in November with a couple of poet friends on Scribophile (online writing community). It was a Chapbook Challenge (courtesy of Juliette van der Molen at Mookychick). I didn’t manage 30 poems, but as an occasional poet, I was very pleased with the 16 I wrote.

All My Fiction Publicly Visible on Medium

I’ve not been writing a whole lot of shorter work recently, as I’ve been focusing more on longer projects, but I’ve decided to make all my work on Medium publicly visible.

You can find my stories and poetry on my profile here: https://medium.com/@ambrosehall

Or you can access it through this collated list I’ve made: https://medium.com/@ambrosehall/a-collection-of-curious-things-475cb2d8d8cc . There’s a mixture of genres and subject matter, so this might be the easiest way to navigate.

I hope you enjoy reading my stories.

Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales (on Medium)

child readingMyths, folklore and fairy tales have a big influence on my writing. This is my first foray into non-fiction on Medium: “Why Telling Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales is an Act of Healing”. It’s a mixture of personal experience, writing about writing, and reflections on the impact of queer representation (or lack of) in the stories we grow up with. You can read it for free, it’s not behind a paywall. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too.

Short Story: Falling, Parts 1-4

black snake scalesI’ve posted all four parts of my new short story, “Falling,” on Medium. Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning and a friend link to all parts below, so you can read them for free if you’re not a Medium member.

His body stretches across the Cour Napoleon, surrounded by the rubble his fall has made, the cracked stone and concrete. If he moves a leg, his foot will crash through the glass pyramid, but he’s still. He must move. He must shrink his vast body to fit the proportions of the mortal world. But he can’t find the will required. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of his wings.

Few in the crowds of tourists can bear it. Some have fallen to their knees and are openly weeping in the street. Most turn away, gather up their loved ones and return home, or the closest haven they can find. One or two hardened souls point their iPhones at him. He sheds tears for them, for their lost awe and wonder, these maimed souls. His tears puddle beneath his face.

A hand touches his arm. A small hand, but he knows it doesn’t belong to a human.

“Gabriel.”

Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. There are also friend links within each part that you can use to navigate by. I hope you enjoy the story.

Check out the hosting publication, The Mad River, for stories and poems of magic and madness. They have a Dark and Holy Writing Challenge coming up.

Short story: Falling on Medium

 

white feathersGabriel has fallen to Earth and God has left his throne. Read Part 1 of Falling.

I’ve just had the first two parts of my short story, Falling, published in The Mad River on Medium. It’s four parts in total and will all be published in the next few days. I’ll stick links to the whole thing up here when it’s finished. (Medium have created new friend links to get past the paywall, so I can now share those here, but the first part is free, anyway.)

Falling is a story of queer angels, old gods, syncretism, identity and social media tribalism. Some sort of hybrid mythic sci-fi mix. (I’m not very good at sticking in one genre, but I’ve really blown the envelope up here.) I hope you enjoy it. Most of my short stories have been coming out pretty long this year, so this is a bit of experiment in posting a longer work in parts, to see how it goes.

Flash Fiction in Infernal Ink Magazine

Here’s some horror for the month of October. Infernal Ink Magazine has published my flash fiction, “Doll Parts”, in the Fall/Winter issue. It’s a little erotic horror story about a rubber doll.

Here’s the blurb for the magazine. Please be aware that this is an adult magazine of erotic horror and contains some extreme content. The stories and poems are mostly not queer. (My story is gender-bendy.) My poet friend, Kristin Garth, who I interviewed on this blog a little while ago, has one of her sonnets in this edition too.

Infernal Ink Magazine Fall/Winter 2018

IIM Cover Fall-Winter 2018 smallr

Infernal Ink Magazine is a literary magazine with a focus on publishing extremely dark and violent adult fiction and poetry. Consider your triggers warned.
In this issue we have our interview with musician and vocalist David Ingram, who discusses with us music, life, and Dr. Who. In the “The Author Bordello” we have Rajeev Singh, author of The Erotic Muse. In addition to this we have fiction and poetry from Thomas R. Skidmore, Sean Mulroy, Kristin Garth, Sidney Williams, Michael David, Matt Scott, Douglas Ford, Wendy A Rohn, Victor H. Rodriguez, Ashley Dioses, Jaap Boekestein, Ambrose Hall, J.B. Toner, and an anonymous poet.
This magazine contains adult content and themes and is not meant for readers under eighteen years of age.

 

Queer Book Club: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You coverWhat Belongs to You is (adult) gay contemporary fiction. It’s taken me a little while to review this one as I needed to let it settle. It’s a tough read, not because of the style or the length—it’s a fairly short novel and elegantly written—but because watching the main character manhandle their emotions and cycle through their self-loathing is difficult to witness. If those don’t sound like things you want to read about, this isn’t the book for you.

The story is about an American teacher living in Sofia, who starts an on-off relationship with a young sex worker, Mitko. The narrator (who I don’t think is ever named) becomes fixated with Mitko, but their relationship is always an uneasy one, complicated by the narrator’s self-loathing and their uneven economic status. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the narrator is far from easy with himself, that likely every decision he’s made in adulthood has been complicated by feelings left over from his childhood and his father’s rejection of his sexuality. I thought the emotional layering was well done. The way the narrator constantly fails to make the best choices for himself creeps up on you with slow frustration and then begins to make sense when more of his past is revealed.

The only thing I didn’t get on with, and this is more a visual discomfort thing for me, is that there are no paragraphs in the middle section of the novel. It’s a retrospective section about the narrator’s adolescence and his complicated relationship both with his own sexuality and with his father. Whilst perhaps the format reflects that mire of emotions, it made my eyes hurt and I’m not grateful for that.

Overall, this is a fairly heavy read, but it’s worth it for Greenwell’s handling of the ways our past shapes our present. I like the unreliable narrator and I’m interested in the ways we lie to ourselves about our own emotions. I also like a book that pulls the reader into the atmosphere and emotion, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s a book that leaves readers the space to do some working out for themselves and I think it’s worth the effort.

Queer Book Club: Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Regeneration cover

An actual book review from me, for a change. I’m rather late to the party with these ones, as they were published in the 90s, and the first one has since been made into a film, but I enjoyed them so much I thought I’d dust off my reviewing hat and recommend them here. I’ll cover the whole trilogy in one review, as I read them back to back in a frenzy of enthusiasm, and would now probably fail to separate them very well. The trilogy is adult historical fiction, comprised of: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

The trilogy is set during WW1 and begins in the Craiglockheart Hospital, where Dr W.H.R. Rivers is treating soldiers experiencing battlefield trauma. The characters are a mixture of historical figures, including Rivers, and the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, as well as fictional characters, such as Billy Prior, who becomes the focus of the second and third novels in the trilogy. The trilogy doesn’t shirk from featuring the sexuality of the characters, particularly as the trilogy progresses.

What I liked most about this trilogy is the way Barker tackles the subject matter with compassion, but not sentimentality. The characters are complex, often difficult, and morally conflicted. There are no easy answers served up for any of them, and their understanding, both of themselves and the world around them is always a hard-won thing. Billy is a brilliantly drawn character—acutely aware of the class divide he awkwardly straddles, as an officer from a working class background, at peace with his bisexuality, but troubled by his sadistic desires, wryly self-aware of his own limitations in some ways, whilst self-deluding in other ways. Whilst the portrayals of the historical figures were interesting and well done, it was Billy that really made the trilogy for me.

This is human nature, in all its messy complexity. These books have gone straight onto my list of favourites. I can’t recommend them enough.

More queer fiction reviews coming up in the near future, as I have some on my reading pile.