Subjectively speaking: series round-up

Black and white photo of some pebbles, each painted with text: Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards

I’m on three panels for this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, which means nominees have dominated my reading this year. I’m making solid progress on Best Series, so time for a quick recap and a longer look at two of the nominees: Los Nefilim by Teresa Frohock and Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan.

Subjective Chaos requires Best Series nominees to be complete series with an over-arching plot and shared characters; no shared world stories, and nothing in progress (although several authors have surprised us by adding to ‘complete’ series later on, as is their right and our pleasure).

As ever, I’m planning to read at least half of every series (and I’m choosing to reread The Expanse, because this is the excuse I’ve been looking for). As of today, I’ve read at least the first volume of everything except Noughts + Crosses (which will be the first read of my upcoming holiday); so this means I theoretically have at least 5 books left to read.

Current favourites are (to no regular reader’s surprise) The Expanse and Witchmark. I’ll be reviewing Witchmark during Wyrd & Wonder; today, I want to talk Los Nefilim and Girls of Paper and Fire.

Los Nefilim – Teresa Frohock

Book cover: Los Nefilim - T FrohockGay angels fight Nazis in Barcelona is a helluva pitch, and I suspect my mistake in engaging with it is that – being a chronological sort of reader – I started with the prequel novellas rather than diving into the novels. The prequels are neither gay angels fighting Nazis, nor a particularly good introduction to Frohock’s world. 

This is a ‘they live amongst us’ urban fantasy with a fabulous historical setting (Barcelona on the eve of the Spanish Civil War) that focuses on how the eternal war between angels and daimons is echoed by events in the human world. The magic system is based on music, which is both fabulous and ironically inconvenient as the protagonist has chromesthesia. Add a central gay relationship and contrasting healthy and unhealthy father/son relationships, and there’s a lot to like on principle… if it were better executed.

My problem with the prequels (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide and The Second Death, available in a single volume bind-up as Los Nefilim) is that they feel underwritten and overambitious. Each novella has a novel’s worth of material squeezed into just 90 pages. In Midnight’s Silence is particularly rough, with far too much exposition and rather too little character and world-building, doing no favours to a plot that (nominally) tries to tackle delicate issues of social acceptance and sexual consent. It didn’t help that every female character was so predatory; or that protagonist Diago has more trauma shovelled into his history with each novella to lend tension to his character.

While the novellas improved as they built on each other (the three novellas forming three acts in a single narrative), I felt all three were rushed and needed to give plot, characters and world more room to breathe. I appreciated that the climax of Without Light Or Guide forced Diago to acknowledge and accept that he is loved, and to use the strength that brings him; I loved the growing relationship between Diago and his son. But overall, I was disappointed – although I can’t go past gay angels fight Nazis, so I’ll give the series one last chance and read the first novel.

Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan

Book cover: Girls Of Paper And Fire - Natasha NganOn paper, this is the nominee I was going to hate: a YA fantasy of rebellion and romance from the perspective of a royal concubine. I approached it with trepidation, forewarned that it featured sexual assault and dismayed to discover the heroine is not like other girls (she has golden eyes), has lost her mother (YA does hate mothers) and has her dog killed in the opening chapter (because nothing says evil oppressor like pet murder). 

In spite of the inauspicious start, I ended up admiring Girls of Paper and Fire for combining familiar tropes with difficult themes. Ngan builds her world around imperial aggression in a kingdom where your race (human, demon or mixed) determines your social caste. Humans – or Paper caste – are the lowest of the low, providing labour and sport for the ruling Moon caste; and each year, eight girls are taken to court to serve as the demon king’s concubines. Lei’s unusual golden eyes win her an unheard-of if unwanted ninth spot in this exclusive club, which she cannot decline without dooming her family.

This sets up a sumptuous court setting where Lei’s dismay – and dawning realisation that she is attracted to another girl (yes, the romance here is f/f) – contrast with the expectation that a Paper Girl will seek to impress the demon king and set herself up for life. Unlike most of her cohort, Lei is as badly prepared for life at court as she is reluctant to embrace it; but as each girl is summoned to the king’s bedchamber it becomes clear that appearances can be deceiving.

There are many familiar tropes – kindly mentors, a bully who is dealing badly with her own issues, a young cinnamon roll who must be protected, a warrior seeking to avenge their family, secret and deadly gifts – but in spite of her golden eyes, Lei is just a sweet, scared common girl with no hidden powers to help her deal with her fate. The result is a narrative that handles its brutal themes of surviving racism and sexual assault with surprising sensitivity; where both love and resistance take many forms (including, of course, love as a form of resistance) and strength can only be found within oneself.

Whilst Girls of Paper and Fire still isn’t entirely my cup of tea, I heartily recommend it – although with caution, given the subject matter.

Next time, on Subjectively Speaking: an SF or a novella round-up, depending what I get to first!