Intellectus Speculativus

The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.

On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
~~~~~
JY Yang is one of the voices in the genre fiction community I always want to hear more from: intelligent, angry, nonbinary, queer, not white or Western. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could hear from them in not one, but two novellas this autumn; and imagine my greater delight when Tor.com sent me ARCs of the pair of them… today I’ll review The Red Threads of Fortune, and on Thursday I’ll review the simultaneously released companion volume, The Black Tides of Heaven.

Silkpunk is a relatively meaningless genre descriptor, seeming to apply to everything with an East Asian influence on it; but The Red Threads of Fortune really does seem to solidly fit into the silkpunk designator. Not only is Yang using strongly East Asian influenced cultures as a starting point from which to build their secondary world, but they’re also using the political side of the silkpunk label; The Red Threads of Fortune is heavily engaged in discussions of, and resistance to, systems of various kinds, and is in dialogue with real world racism and assumptions. There’s a theme of resistance to authority, and of the way some authority collaborates in or overlooks resistance to higher authority; there’s a theme of personal relationships having political impacts; and so on, all fascinating and thought through. None of this is heavy-handed; instead, Yang makes them essential to the plot and world, seeding their themes throughout the novella, and rarely taking sides on the issues they raise but making it clear that these are issues to be considered.

That could suggest The Red Threads of Fortune is a very intellectual story, more of a thought piece than anything with emotional resonance. That’s very much not the case. Yang’s plot is built around heartbreak, love, resentment, and emotion; this isn’t a book about politics, really, but about the human heart. Specifically and mainly, the human heart of our protagonist, Sanao Mokoya. Mokoya has suffered the heartbreak of the death of her daughter, in a move that superficially resembles the opening of The Fifth Season, but has a completely different emotional reaction; Yang doesn’t pull punches, and Mokoya’s depression and grief are bluntly portrayed. However, Yang isn’t brutal either, and Mokoya isn’t a caricature of sadness; she is a complex, rounded, interesting character, one whose every interaction is coloured by the loss of her daughter but also by the way her mother raised her, and by her love life, and her emotional ties. Yang gives us a rounded and full emotional character to really connect to, even when she finds it hard to connect to others.

Around Mokoya, Yang arranges a number of other similarly complex characters; her twin, her husband and the father of her daughter, the person she has worked with since running away from her husband in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, and most interestingly, Rider. Rider is a nonbinary character of a different racial and cultural background to the rest of the characters, and The Red Threads of Fortune relies heavily on emotionally connecting with them as well as with Mokoya; Yang really builds on and uses their relationship, and the way it develops, in a beautiful, powerful, and sweet way, without ever making it untrue. There are bumps and problems between them, and the emotional truth of the negotiation of the relationship is brilliantly moving.

Themes and characters don’t make a plot, necessarily. The Red Threads of Fortune slightly falls down on this front; the core plot is simple, and effective, and self-contained, with brilliant emotional resonances. The monster-hunting transitioning into politicking is brilliant, and the way Yang ties personal grief and responses to that into the plot is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and the romance feels very true. However, the way Yang ties the story into a wider world doesn’t feel complete; the references are obviously intended to be meaningful, but they don’t actually connect with the reader on the terms of The Red Threads of Fortune alone, and that takes some of the force of the story away.

The strengths of The Red Threads of Fortune more than makes up for the weaknesses; this is among the most beautiful and most deeply human books I’ve read in some time, and JY Yang is a truly fantastic talent whom I will follow wherever they lead.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

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Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

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Velveteen lives in a world of super-heroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.

It’s all the same world. It’s all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.

Join us as award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes us through the first volume of Velveteen’s — and Velma’s — adventure.
~~~~~
Seanan McGuire, alongside My Little Pony and other franchises, adores the X-Men comics franchise; she’s long expressed a strong desire to write for them. It is, perhaps, no surprise then that since 2008 McGuire has been writing her own series of superhero stories, and posting them on her blog; these are the tales of Velma Martinez, or Velveteen. In 2012, ISFiC collected the first nine stories into a single volume, Velveteen Vs. The Junior Super Patriots

Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots is an interesting combination of (genre-savvy) humour, commentary on poverty and pressures on child stars, feminism, and straightforward superheroism; McGuire doesn’t simply tell superhero stories, but also uses those stories to comment on the tropes of the genre, especially as they apply to characters like the Teen Titans. The emphasis placed on the way child superheroes are treated, and the mistreatment of them, is fascinating, and McGuire is unsubtly linking that to the treatment by companies like Disney of child stars – and the responses of those stars when they hit the age of majority. It’s a sensitive portrayal, although Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots‘ portrayal of the marketing departments of megacorporations like Disney takes their villainousness and really does send it up to supervillainous levels.

The stories that themselves make up Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots work well as a single narrative; the exceptions to this are the two flashback stories, which seem a little clumsy as a way of filling in backstory as compared to how McGuire tends to do it across the rest of the collection. Those two stories feel weaker in part because they’re not looking back on events with rueful hindsight and Velveteen’s sarcastic commentary, but instead simply drop us into those parts of her life. One of the things that really lifts the collection is Velveteen’s voice; throughout, she’s worldweary and frustrated and very self-aware, and that gives these stories a great feeling.

The real strength of the collection is, in fact, that level of characterisation. While some of the characters are a little two dimensional – Action Guy, for instance, and Marketing – the rest are absolutely fantastic; Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots has a better cast than most superhero comics from the Big Two you’ll read. They jump off the page and sparkle with wit, verve, and humour, and even those who look like two dimensional jokes, such as the crab-human hybrid, are shown to have really well considered and developed backstory if you look a little deeper with McGuire.

The other failure of the collection is, surprisingly, a plot-level one. Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots feels frustratingly unfinished; as a collection, there are at least three, if not more, substrands of major plot set up and foreshadowed as huge world-changing things that are just left hanging. While McGuire makes each story fun and action-packed, the fact that so many end with their real plot left hanging, and that this collection doesn’t resolve anything, leaves a slightly hollow sense when the stories are consumed together.

In the end, Velveteen Vs the Junior Super Patriots is rather like an arc in a Marvel or DC comic: setting up some things excellently, and with great characters, but with a very frustrating feeling of McGuire not really having concluded anything that matters.

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The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente, illus. Annie Wu

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The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics

From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress.

In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.
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Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators has spawned, in the years since 1999, one of the most storied and respected careers in superhero comics (that of Simone herself); numerous conversations about feminism and the role of women in superhero narratives; and the very term “fridging“. Now, Catherynne M. Valente has gotten involved in the conversation, with a kind of running together of superhero fridging narratives and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, The Refrigerator Monologues

The Refrigerator Monologues is essentially a mosaic novel, made up of a series of characters describing how they came to be in the afterlife; essentially, the stories of fridged women, from their own perspective, rather than centring the men. Valente links the monologues with a broad framing narrative, the Hell Hath Club, of the fridged women sitting in a kind of cafe-bar in the underworld discussing what brought them there in a setting reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The frame narrative isn’t much, although it’s quite a fun afterlife – Valente makes a lot of the fact that things don’t exist until they’re extinct, and that the dead exist in the clothes they’re buried in.

What this is really about it the narratives of the different fridged women. The Refrigerator Monologues is set in its own superhero continuity, which shares recognisable similarities with especially the DC universe in terms of what superheroes are present, what villains are around, and what powers look like. Valente brings characters like Mary Jane, neck snapped by Spider-Man trying to save her, and Harley Quinn, lover of the Joker, to life in their own right, and gives them their own stories; The Refrigerator Monologues oddly doesn’t really centre them in their own stories though. These are the same stories we get told in comic books, with more anger and more wit, but still tending towards how the deaths of the women have impact on the men.

They’re good stories, though. Julia Ash’s story, ‘The Heat Death of Julia Ash’, is a kind of intimate retelling of the story of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, from her own perspective; it refocuses the story on the unfair way Jean Grey is treated by the X-Men, and the way Professor X disposes of her once she becomes inconvenient. ‘Happy Birthday, Samantha Dane’ is the last monologue in the novel, and arguably the titular one; it ends with Samantha dead, stuffed in a refrigerator, recalling the famous Green Lantern #54 scene which gave the trope being sent up here its name, and looks at the effect of the life of a superhero on those around them. Perhaps the least strong monologue is that of Harley Quinn replacement, Pretty Polly; her whole monologue feels very much like it is based on the worst, most abuse-justifying portrayals of Harley, and never really seems to question those portrayals nearly as much as it needed to, instead of just retelling them.

In the end, The Refrigerator Monologues is a fun, angry little novella; it isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and it’s really very much worth reading for every comics fan out there, if only to spot all the references Valente has dropped in to comics and creators!

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The Hero And The Crown by Robin McKinley

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Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it. It was the story of her mother, the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, to get an heir that would rule Damar; and it was told that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a daughter instead of a son.

Aerin was that daughter.

But there was more of the story yet to be told; Aerin’s destiny was greater than even she had dreamed – for she was to be the true hero who would yield the power of the Blue Sword…
~~~~~
In the same conversation that brought The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to my attention, The Hero and the Crown was mentioned and recommended, in this case by the amazing Amal El-Mohtar; she rarely steers me wrong, so I picked up a copy of this classic Newbery Medal winner…

The Hero and the Crown has a slightly odd structure, for a fundamentally simple book: it starts in media res, before a poorly signposted jump back, and catching itself up again after almost half the book. The plot covered by this jump back is the childhood of Aerin and the way she has prepared herself for the moment that the book starts at, while the second half of the book is rather more climactic: it covers the grand epic fantasy quest we’re all used to in this kind of novel. McKinley combines both well, but there’s a lot more drive and heart in the book before Aerin discovers her destiny; up until that point, there’s humour, there’s darkness and light on recognisable scales, there’s humanity. After that point, all that becomes eclipsed by the grand destiny Aerin has to deal with; once she’s discovered that she has a destiny, The Hero and the Crown stops having a plot that feels like messy elements in a life that work together, and becomes much more single-focused.

The other thing we lose a lot of is personality, at that point. Until then, The Hero and the Crown follows a hero with a very strong personality; not necessarily a strong person, but a self-willed, driven one, who is curious, demanding to know things or discover them, who is willing to perservere until she can find a way to get what she wants. Afterwards, she becomes rather more simply a puppet of her destiny; McKinley doesn’t make her stupid from this point, but she does lose her stubbornness, her determination, and also her individual grit and courage. The rest of the cast was, on the whole, never as well fleshed out, tending towards archetypes like the good king, or the slightly awkward older relative (with inevitable end results); thankfully, the exception to this, Teka, retains her brilliant humour and sharpness through to the very end of the novel.

As a book for children, The Hero and the Crown doesn’t have a simplistic morality; although the Northerners are evil and strange (they’re also physically deformed), the Damarians themselves aren’t paragons of purity. McKinley’s novel has a strong strand of looking at bullies and the response to bullies, as well as looking at people as shades of grey, to it; the Damarian courtiers may be cruel to Aerin, and shallow, but they also have characters of their own, and motivations, and they respond to their own sorrows and griefs.

In the end, McKinley’s classic isn’t quite as classic as I was hoping; while Aerin is fantastic for half the book, The Hero and the Crown could have done without the lashings of Destiny and Fate that it has.

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Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

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Sybel, the beautiful great-granddaughter of the wizard Heald, has grown up on Eld Mountain with only the fantastic beasts summoned there by wizardry as companions. She cares nothing for humans until, when she is 16, a baby is brought for her to raise, a baby who awakens emotions that she has never known before.

But the baby is Tamlorn, the only son of King Drede, and, inevitably, Sybel becomes entangled in the human world of love, war and revenge – and only her beasts can save her from the ultimate destruction…
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Patricia A. McKillip has been publishing fantasy novels for nearly forty-five years now, perhaps most famously The Riddle-Master of Hed; but her second novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, is one of her longest lasting works. I saw Max Gladstone admiring it on Twitter, and given his tastes, took a look myself…

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one of those novels that feels like it is drawing on older, ancient forms of literature; like Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword before it, McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld has the feeling of a saga about it – although in terms of plot, it is perhaps more like a Greek tragedy. The opening of the novel sets the scene; it draws on a long heritage, the genealogy of characters, and a wider world. It also sets up the themes of the novel: agency, and specifically female agency; and the consequences of actions playing out over time. The whole feel is that of a saga, and McKillip embraces that kind of dramatic gravity, with stories within stories abounding, and hints of other stories yet again. The writing isn’t heavy handed, but it is weighty; a kind of gravitas, without being leaden or dull, but really brings out the magic.

This is a saga with a very close focus on Sybel, the woman who can call beasts who we meet through her father and grandfather at the start of the novel. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is all about her as a woman and a wizard; at different times, McKillip focuses on each of these qualities, not to the exclusion of the other, but as complementary aspects of her character, driven by those around her. It’s an interesting novel in the way that McKillip doesn’t give us Sybel’s innermost emotions, much of the time; we see a lot of action, and the emotions of others, but there are parts of the book where we’re inferring Sybel’s feelings from her actions, and McKillip plays that very well.

The whole cast is incredibly human; they’re flawed, broken people, who are healed or hurt by turns, and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is fascinating by the way our relationships with others are defined by our pasts. Hence, much of the book is defined by the relationships between Sybel, Coren, and Tamlorn; Coren delivers Tamlorn to Sybel as a baby, and returns later, and the complexity of that initial delivery plays out its consequences across the whole novel. McKillip even gives the beasts themselves fantastic characterisations; they’re rather more one-dimensional than the humans, but still brilliantly scintillating and really individual.

The thing which really gives The Forgotten Beasts of Eld resonance more than forty years after it was published is its themes. There are two joint themes, of agency and its loss, and of the consequences of actions. The first one is explored from the very start of the book, with McKillip talking about wizards using their powers to call women to them for the purpose of childbearing; she doesn’t explicitly label this rape, but it’s very much there in the way she talks about it. The way the magic of calling people and controlling their will plays out across the novel makes the rape analogy stronger and more powerful as it goes on.

The other theme very much feels like it is approached in the same way as Greek tragedy; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is all about consequences. McKillip loads a number of Chekov’s Guns across the course of the novel, but doesn’t fire them all; instead, she sets them up so each of them will fire the next, each triggering reactions from other characters who then trigger reactions again. There’s a feeling of inevitability about the events, although McKillip consistently plays with that, so some expected events don’t play out how one might expect.

There are flaws; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld ends incredibly neatly, with everything tied up, and the inevitability and messiness of the novel seems to vanish in a simple ending that McKillip deploys to make everyone happy and get their just desserts. Similarly, the plot has strained moments that it brushes over by concealment; how certain aspects of the story happen, how events come to pass, can be a little strained and under-explained, which leaves moments where the suspension of disbelief has to work that bit harder.

In the end though, suspending your disbelief in these moments is worth it; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a beautiful novel in which McKillip deals with hugely important themes with a deeply humane touch and magical prose.

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Defying Gravity by Corey J. White

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Before she escaped in a bloody coup, MEPHISTO transformed Mariam Xi into a deadly voidwitch. Their training left her with terrifying capabilities, a fierce sense of independence, a deficit of trust, and an experimental pet named Seven. She’s spent her life on the run, but the boogeymen from her past are catching up with her. An encounter with a bounty hunter has left her hanging helpless in a dying spaceship, dependent on the mercy of strangers.


Penned in on all sides, Mariam chases rumors to find the one who sold her out. To discover the truth and defeat her pursuers, she’ll have to stare into the abyss and find the secrets of her past, her future, and her terrifying potential.
~~~~~
Child soldiers, kids turned into psychic weapons, found families, government conspiracies? We’ve seen all this before hundreds of times, perhaps most notably in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity is another entry into this long tradition: so, what does it bring to the field?

Killing Gravity‘s great strength is its voices. Despite the fact that almost every character is of a type we’ve met before – the friendly soldier who went AWOL, the extremely unfriendly and violent merc (female, in this case, though that’s becoming less rare), the AIs with a slightly warped approach to the world, and the psychic who was experimented on by the government to make her into a weapon – this isn’t a book where are two-dimensional or simple archetypes without any flesh on that bare bone framework. White not only gives each one a distinctive cadence and approach to the world, but distinctive mannerisms too, which very rapidly establish their characterisation. This is most obvious with the way Mars pushes people away and struggles with herself, but even supporting characters like Trix’s violence and her anger at the world and the situation she’s in. Where Killing Gravity does break free of archetypes a bit more is in the captain, Squid; they are calm, meditative, open, and rather fascinating in their whole characterisation. They’re also genderqueer, something that the book never really makes a big deal of and just allows to be a thing that is unremarkable.

The plot of Killing Gravity isn’t so strong: if you’ve seen Serenity, you already know it, really. A supersecret research group engineered girls to be psychic warrior-witches, and one escaped; inevitably, the group wants to track her down and recapture her. White’s story is concerned with that; it starts in media res, in the immediate wake of an attempt to capture Mars, and plays out the consequences of that attempt and the experiments done to Mars. It’s not a flashy story in that regard, but what White does do is give it some emotional resonance, with Mars’ original liberator, and with the family she finds along the way. That’s slightly let down at the very close of the novella: any sense of resolution is undermined by White’s determination to set up a sequel in the most obvious and inevitable way possible. While it fits with what’s gone before, the heavy-handedness of it still frustrates.

Killing Gravity doesn’t have the most complex plot, and White matches it to simple writing style; this is a breeze to get through, a very quick read. That isn’t to say the prose is bad; far from it. The simplicity of the prose, and the way White lets it do its thing without adding layers of complexity of verbosity to it, means there’s nothing coming between reader and characters. This is especially true of action sequences, which are fast paced, bloody, and visceral. White doesn’t shy away from the emotional consequences of action sequences, and wounds actually mean something in the novella, but the cinematic nature of the action is what we’re really here for: this feels at times like it was written for adaptation onto the big screen, with its sweeping vistas, weird visuals, and pitched battles.

In the end, Killing Gravity isn’t doing anything new in the genre; that’s not where its strength lies. Instead, White’s skill is in doing things we’ve seen before, and doing them very well indeed. I could wish for a more original plot, though…

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Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.

Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
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There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…

Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).

Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.

Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.

The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.

Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.

In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.

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