I really have no idea how to start this (seriously, this opening has had multiple failed attempts plus weird, frustrated placeholder text :P) soooo a) I’m doing a book review! b) it has lots of queer representation! and ladies! and dragons! although there’s really only one dragon (is that a spoiler? I think it might be, with enough sleuthing skills) c) head below the cut for as spoiler-free a review as I can do of the first two books in the Mangoverse fantasy series by Shira Glassman.
I am unfortunately thrown off my game a bit for writing this review (more on that at the end of this review) and so I’ve lost my really detailed mental notes on, and layout of, what I wanted to say, but, basically, these books are ‘nice’. Which may not come off as special or high praise, but it is. To be able to spend a hundred-something or two-hundred-something page fantasy novel reading about dragons and magic with mostly female (and queer. and brown. and Jewish) lead characters and to have them go on adventures, solve mysteries, and deal with difficult things (and people), and to know and have proved that nothing terrible is ultimately going to happen to them is ‘fantastic’.
Seriously. I am trying to figure out how to properly convey how much that means and how awesome it is to have a light, short read like these two books because I just feel like there are people who want the books to be longer, and pinnacles of writing craft and construction, and the next great epic fantasy series (incidentally, there is an in progress series that fits those criteria that I love) and/or be a harrowing examination of the tortured souls of the protagonists before I can say, “Hey, these books are cool. Check them out.”
But, a short young adult fantasy novel where a demisexual warrior woman and her dragon rescue a lesbian queen and then fly her around to look for a wife and then end up rescuing nuns from a curse and [spoiler spoiler spoiler ;)] ‘is’ super freaking awesome. And the sequel is about a bisexual prince and his strike-leading gay lover and the queen and her bisexual wife and her warrior woman friend and [spoiler] trying to help them and also find a solution to the queen’s need for an heir … and these are short young adult fantasy novels that are meant to be easy to get and easy to read. ‘And’ they end happily.
And I probably could have just opened with the first sentence of the previous paragraph, especially since it’s an extended version of the hook that hooked me originally. 🙂 Granted, I had to wait until one of the publishers involved had a one day giveaway on book one (in e-book format) and an awesome fan of the series gave away a couple of e-cards for people to buy the e-book of book two with to read the series, but the premise/promise of a demisexual warrior lady taking a queen girlfriend-looking on a dragon peaked my interest and the author’s behaviour (and then the actual book) kept it. 🙂
Which brings me to one of my major points of personal joy with the Mangoverse series and The Second Mango in particular – Rivka being demisexual. Which she is. Oh my gosh is she ever. And it’s written and handled really well in text and the author, while not having done so intentionally (the writing Rivka as demi part, not the writing her well and respectfully part), is cool with and has embraced people reading Rivka as demisexual. After having made sure that the way she writes/wrote Rivka is compatible with and not troublesome in regards to having her be ace-spectrum.
This really shouldn’t be praiseworthy behaviour (and I don’t mean that as a slight to Shira – I mean it in a this should be part of a basic level of decency way), but it is. The only other (also accidentally, btw) ace-spectrum character I’ve come across who felt so natural and right and personally identifiable ended up getting handled in increasingly poor ways (including in disability-related ways too) and put through a cure narrative that ended with healing penetrative sex. After which she later married the boundary-pushing (disability related and related to her abusive parents), ableist man who “cured” her and had a child with him (despite not having any previously expressed desire to have children that I can remember). I am ‘not’ here for that … stuff. Especially coming from a show headed by a queer person and with so many queer characters as part of the main cast. Not that the show didn’t pull other troublesome stuff (I actually found the exact moment once where they turned my other favourite character from a delightfully pansexual lady with serious survival skills into someone who was secretly really an angry lesbian who had only had sex with men because she was in denial), but a) this is supposed to be about Shira’s books, not the show that I shall not name ;P b) my spidey sense turning out to be true with this ace-reading character getting a cure narrative was the last freaking straw in sticking with the show for queer solidarity and queer interest. I quit before the wedding finally actually happened and so missed that and the baby, but caught up much later via wikis. I, well, at least I know.
Other than that, there are so few ace or ace-reading characters that all that’s really left, especially of the easy to find examples, are the cold, jerkish white dudes of tv. And even then, the people involve will basically bend over backwards to say, “No no no, of course ____ isn’t asexual! They’re just x, y, z, and also an asexual character would be so ‘boring’ and there’s nothing interesting there to explore.” It’s … frustrating, to say the least. Plus, even if they would react in a different way to people reading their characters as ace, there is still the problem of this amounting to ace people = brainy but cold, jerky, rude, etc white dudes. Not that there aren’t aces who are brainy, cold, jerky, and/or rude and there is also stuff to poke at with these characters and the creators involved in terms of neurodivergence (because they will also start bending over backwards with that to deny it or try to go with other stuff that’s really uncool and not much better than saying no, ____ definitely is not neurodivergent), but, basically it amounts to not really getting representation and also getting the same general character over and over again. Plus amoeba jokes.
So, again, it is rain-dragons-and-rugelach levels of awesome to have Rivka’s backstory and present-day discussion with Queen Shulamit written the way they are in The Second Mango and to have the author basically go “Boom! It’s canon!” to readers after having the idea brought to her and doing enough checking to be comfortable that she was doing demisexual Rivka ‘right.’ Which, in case she still has any doubts, she totally did. 😉
Now, this is going to get into other things I enjoyed about the series (but especially The Second Mango – seriously, Second Mango is like getting a big, reassuring hug and a “Here, have this to make up for all that other stuff”), but part of why I love the Rivka flashback section and her present-time talk with Shula is that things aren’t pinned down with words. Even if this ‘wasn’t’ young adult lit, not everyone knows special words and terms ‘and’ not everyone quite fits into them either. So it’s lovely to read Rivka’s recounting of experiencing no attraction to anyone, her slow-developing interactions with [spoiler], and her realizing her desire for [spoiler], and her then explaining to Shula that she isn’t wasting her life by saving herself for someone who is [presumed to be] dead, she simply isn’t interested in anyone else that way and is totally fine with it. And Shula accepts and understands. Which means the world to me. And, incidentally, is a lot of what the book is about and what its sequel carries through with – people who are different kinds of different (yeah, yeah, I know) accepting, supporting, and ‘believing’ each other.
Which brings me on over to Rivka, Shulamit, and food, because that’s another area where I really appreciate how things are described without using specific/special/specialized words and terms. For both general societal reasons and really terrible backstory ones, I basically feel like problems with food (when applied to ‘me’ – want to be clear on that) only “count”/are serious if you drop down dead/need to be taken to the hospital if you eat something. It’s really hard to get over (especially if you’re finally somewhere it’s safe and you’re believed and supported but also increasingly food insecure … and in danger of going back where it’s ‘not’ safe and you’re not believed and supported on anything disability and food related) and so it means a lot to see trouble with food treated in more nuanced, inclusive terms and to see someone with similar issues being believed and supported. ‘And’ have it also be included that a lot of people ‘don’t’ believe them and that it hurts, physically and mentally, to not be believed.
I also appreciate the humour, besides the subtle descriptions of fowl not agreeing with Shulamit or her reactions to the idea of eating wheat (instead of saying food allergy or intolerance). It’s really freaking funny when you have your own disagreements with food and, as part of a series of traps leading up to the wizard’s castle, the heroines are covered in honey and then magically pelted with grain … and joke about it. When it could make one of the two seriously ill if any gets inside her mouth. And I was going to say being pelted with potatoes (which I can sometimes eat, sometimes can’t, but spent most of November eating as next to my only food source) would be safer, but they’d probably hurt a lot more to be pelted with. 😛
Trying to figure out what I haven’t covered yet and what I can cover without giving spoilers, but I think my effusive general praise and description of what happens in each of the two novels really does cover a lot. 🙂 I do have some concerns about the language used to describe body parts in both Second Mango and, especially (given the introduction of bi and gay male leads and the Shula needs an heir subplot? thread in the main plot? not sure how to classify it), Climbing the Date Palm, but the manner of speaking does make sense in context and with Shulamit’s limited, but growing, experiences and I know that the author plans on introducing multiple trans characters in the next two books. So, fingers crossed Queen Shulamit (and the rest of the main cast – there’s already been a great scene with bi female character gently but firmly calling the bi male character out on some of his ideas about what it’s like to be bi and female, so no one is a perfect queer/immune to correction and development of understanding) will be getting more development in her character and her word usage in the next two books and an awesome series won’t be ruined by designating certain body parts as male and female.
Which brings me to another point of language concern – the use of “willing women” to describe sex workers. I think it is simply meant to be a neutral, in-universe term for sex workers, but the sometimes use of quotation marks around it in the text gave me an unpleasant itching feeling, like the quotation marks are meant to convey that the willing women aren’t really willing. In which case, wow, would that be an icky pile of sex workers can’t consent (and thus also can’t be raped) harmful nonsense. But, again, I think it actually is fine this time and the quotation marks are just meant to convey that willing women is a colloquial phrase or something similar ‘and’, also, from my general sense of the author and based on the fact that the only one who does not view sex workers in neutral terms in the series is a king in Climbing the Date Palm who has other hang-ups around women (and, well, a lot of other people – guess who the bisexual prince’s gay love is leading a worker’s strike against? 😉 ), I think it’s actually okay. But, also, the author is easily accessible and loves to read reviews and answer concerns, so bringing it up can’t hurt. 🙂 Also, I would not be being this sweet and nice about it if I didn’t think it really was the rare case of it actually being neutral and okay. 🙂
I think out of what I can recall (emphasis on what I can recall 🙂 ) of my original points to bring up all I have left are the sex scenes and the stuff with Kaveh (bisexual prince) and his father and his new family of choice, sooo … dragon tongue or the delicate juggling act of unsafe family first? ;P
I guess sex first, since I already mentioned the dragon tongue. 😛 This maybe should have gone under my discussion of describing things without naming them, but I really enjoyed how the sex scenes in The Second Mango described feelings and emotions and ‘enjoyment’ but didn’t really get into specifics, especially with Rivka and [spoiler]. Very much appreciated, since it’s then clear how much everyone wants and is enjoying what’s happening but you’re free to fill in the blanks as you wish (or not fill them in and just quickly pass over the sex scenes – which is nice if sex scenes are a Do Not Want for someone or if they are okay with them but want them quick and vague). Which is why I was a little disappointed with Climbing the Date Palm, although the discussion of how much [spoiler] enjoys dragon tongue (I promise it makes sense and is not as … weird and creepy as it could be, in context) made up for the Clearly Having Penetrative Sex scene quite a bit. As did the narrative actually dealing with the question of contraception. Which conveniently laid the seed (I was not trying for the terrible pun, I promise) for the solution later on in the novel as to how Queen Shulamit could conceive an heir without needing to have a type of sex that she is very much averse to.
So, basically, if you’re not that into sex scenes in your fantasy, the ones in this series aren’t that long and don’t tend to the explicit (and the contraception is a magical spell that later gets reverse-engineered so that Queen Shulamit and her wife can conceive with the fantasy version of in-vitro fertilization, so there’s the info bit in book two you’ll miss if you want to skip over the scenes entirely. otherwise I don’t think you’ll miss anything specific by not reading the sexy scenes 🙂 ), and if you are … they’re nice. ‘And’ equal opportunity, so near everyone who’s interested in sexy fun gets to have sexy fun, regardless of gender or orientation. 🙂
Aaaand this really needs to wrap up (I’m exhausted and demoralized, plus this is loooong) so – Prince Kaveh! I really do ‘not’ want to give spoilers here, although the ones around Rivka are already a revealing mess :P, but I also want to compliment Shira on how she resolves the major plot thing. So. Without saying too much, I really appreciate that the resolution involving Kaveh’s father isn’t just a magical (total. permanent) change of heart or the evil abusive king/unsafe parent is defeated and/or destroyed and the realm and his son are totally free of him and sunshine and daisies appear. It ‘is’ a happy ending, a very happy ending for everyone involved, but it feels genuine and real and lets Kaveh’s situation with his father and his feelings about it be complex. Kaveh is lucky in the amount of security and protection that Queen Shulamit can provide (granted, food insecurity ‘could’ happen but it would require a country-wide problem and same with housing – plus Kaveh and [spoiler] have [other spoiler]’s property and earnings too), since that really helps in maintaining and estabilishing boundaries, but he also has a number of people who are on Team Kaveh and are there during the Shabbat at the end of the book to talk with him and support him. I’d have to reread, but, while everyone is very firm about him not needing his father’s approval or to please any of his unsupportive (at best) family members, I don’t recall them speaking to him harshly because he does still harbour feelings about the people who raised him and are closely related to him. That is … indescribably nice to me, especially when paired with the fact that, again, Kaveh doesn’t just magically cut ties completely with his father and other relatives in a giant cloud of righteous glitter and ride off into the sunset. There’s a careful balance and while his father does a pretty okay thing in the end, it’s still with a cost and careful balancing and his father is also still the same person. He isn’t suddenly a wonderful, safe human being or father and he is also someone Kaveh still has to deal with and maintain some degree of ‘friendly’ contact with. So, a) massive thanks to Shira for writing Kaveh and that part of the story like that b) I have so many solidarity fist bumps and hugs for Kaveh. So many.
And I think that’s about it. I think I did end up mostly recalling everything I originally had planned as a topic, but there are also so many awesome little details and personal moments of enjoyment that it’s probably best just to stop. Especially since not everyone reading it is going to identify with Queen Shulamit admiring some of the nuns/statues, getting flustered over admiring, and passing cleaning duty over to Rivka instead (this sentence makes more sense with spoilers). And also, I’m trying so hard to avoid spoilers. 🙂 But, if you enjoy fantasy and want a nice light read with a diverse cast and lots of adventuring and sleuthing and bonding (seriously. this series does friendship and emotional intimacy so well and none of the care-taking is one-sided) and authentic feeling but guaranteed happy endings, this might be your thing. 🙂 Especially since if you get the e-books from Prizm or Torquere Press you can download them as many times as you want, in multiple e-book formats, on anything you can log into your account on (or you can e-mail yourself the .pdf and read it out of your e-mail on your mobile device). Which sounds like an ad, but, honestly, it was awesome, especially since I read the first book in the aftermath of a migraine and couldn’t really manage more than laying down and holding a mobile screen where I could see it (laptop was out due to weight and positioning) and reading something to divert me from being out of commission work-wise. 🙂
Note: And here’s the part that was just going to be a polite note about how I’m still not up to writing (and trying to promote/get signal-boosted) a new donation post but my partner and I need help making one of the bills this month ($260-something auto loan payment), plus money for food and gas, since long-term unemployment for him is still long and I’m still disabled and only working part-time. But now there are far bigger problems than waiting on the paycheck for December that I wrecked myself earning and trying to allot it and get enough extra in so the auto loan payment gets made, we can get groceries, and the utilities and rent get paid.
Basically, provided this goes up soon (so there isn’t a change in day), middle of the day today a summons got delivered to my partner notifying him he’s being sued by one of his creditors. For what I’ll round up to $3,700. This money, as you should be able to guess, does not exist. If it did exist, my partner’s car would not have gotten repo-ed last month (we got it back, but I really do ‘not’ want to talk about that – giant fistbumps of solidarity to Prince Kaveh though and, no, it’s not an option that can be used again) and we’d be a lot more food secure and, well, a lot less stressed and probably fewer days-with-migraines (and other chronic pain fun) for me.
Throwing myself into writing this review like I had planned has helped to temporarily occupy me, but this is a really paralyzing and dismaying situation and so much bigger in scale than the kind of help we’ve been needing off and on for months and I/we just don’t have the support network in place for dealing with it.
So, if anyone can at least help with making sure the car payment gets in before the overdue date and we can still eat and get gas up until the court date (next Thursday), that would be awesome. 🙂 I really don’t like buzzkilling my long happy review but I didn’t have the spoons for writing a standalone donation post ‘before’ the summons happened. And I can only brave face it for so long, because this is seriously end of the line, game over if we can’t come up with the money for my partner to settle with the creditor and I don’t think we can.
But, anyways, if anyone can help us out, the donation info is:
PayPal: the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org (works internationally and shouldn’t have send/receive issues at this point. unless you’re very generous, in which case I might cry?)
Venmo: http://www.venmo.com/capesandwhips (only works inside the U.S., but does not require your legal name and doesn’t have send/receive limit concerns)
And that’s it. Thank you all for reading (and for donating, if you donate – I’ve not been having good feels about being a disabled queer person and this just made it worse and … not going to talk about my partner or analyze his feelings on here, but I want him to stick around and I want to stick around too 🙂 ) and go read Shira’s books! 🙂 Next one is out on the 21st of this month and is full of musicians! And mystery! And a homeless trans character! Who gets a happy ending! Speaking of which, Shira is donating her royalties from the first few months of sale on the new book to charities that help homeless trans youth, so, again, pre-order the book if you’re able. 😀
P.S. I think I caught all the typos but I have a migraine (again) and my bad eye’s been acting up more, so apologies if any slipped past me. I’m also working on an ill-suited-to-me external keyboard so that doesn’t really help matters (is it obvious getting the external keyboard that will accommodate me properly or just getting the dead laptop keys fixed is Not Happening?). 🙂 Also, I wanted to mention that with the characters and relationships in the current two books and the next two, Shira is actively working to avoid reinforcing stereotypes about various types of queer people while also not kicking anyone under the bus in the name of the cause. I realized I left that out and it’s way too important not to mention (that show I wasn’t naming earlier was quite happy to kick bi people under the bus in various ways). 🙂 And I left my joints in one position too long while writing this so I’ll just have to recommend browsing Shira’s tumblr to find out more. 🙂 It also has lots of cute art, including a/the dragon with a hoard of rugelach. Dragon has good taste. 🙂