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Book Review: 2 DNFs That Other People Like

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 - 07:00

Considering what it takes for a book to make it from my TBR list to actually being read, it’s fairly rare for me to choose not to finish a book. Here are two that I closed unfinished.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir got a lot of hype as “lesbian necromancers in space” (or maybe that’s “in spaaaaaaace”). Evidently that wasn’t enough for me. I got up to chapter 12 and stopped. I found it impossible to care about any of the characters. Gideon was simply annoying and whiny. And the “in space” setting made no sense whatsoever in terms of physical logistics. The story structure would have made much more sense as a secondary world on a single planet, maybe doing the physical isolation via islands? Instead it was “in spaaaaaaace” and didn’t work at all for me. And, although this isn’t the author’s fault at all, I’m utterly  bewildered by the publishing dynamics of which books are promoted as overtly queer and which are left to languish in hints and implications. Gideon gets it, but lots of other books with more central and more implicit queer content don’t. Some day I will give away my gorgeous first-edition, black-deckle-edged hardcover copy of Gideon the Ninth to someone who loved the book and will appreciate it properly.

Merchants of Milan by Edale Lane has a delightful premise: a young woman in early 16th century Italy, using da Vinci-style technology, becomes a masked vigilante seeking revenge for her father’s murder, and along the way finds romance with an aristocratic widow. Unfortunately, both the narrative style and the historic underpinnings failed for me. I wouldn’t have been bothered by the tendency to describe everything in twice as much detail as necessary (we know the exact shade of every character’s eye color) if the focus had felt more aligned with the era of the setting. But that was where I was pushed out of the story. The thoughts, concerns, assumptions, and preoccupations of the characters simply felt too modern to me. In particular, for a sapphic romance, the attitudes of the characters toward sexuality felt out of tune with the cultural setting. For me, one of the joys of reading historical romance is seeing how people negotiate and carve out a happy ending within the specific concerns and constraints of the setting. When both the roadblocks and the solutions rely on 20th century attitudes, I don’t get that joy. Merchants of Milan is the first book in a trilogy, so if you think you might have a more positive reading experience than I did, there’s a lot of story available.

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