Winner of F(r)iction‘s Spring 2021 Poetry Contest.

Wormwood made
her moon shine.
The Good Book

lied. The last days
came first, came
in the fertile years,

each one a breast.
Her lips made words
to plant a new nation

full of old county dirt
before the weather
was on her body,

burning like a broad
lawn, her hair like drawn
flames, her mother’s screams

once wood, are now dust
and oranges. She notes how
limbs break mid-flow

like a misstep,
like a shifting line, whitening
even the fullest fires.

her arm is, just as night is,
silence. Dark acres
and white clover

are a gesture
towards the curve
of her bended knee.

A Review of You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen

Published February 8, 2022 by Inkyard Press.

There is something incredibly heartfelt and tender about Laila Sabreen’s debut novel You Truly Assumed, and I believe it develops out of the passion and innocence our three main characters exhibit. This book makes a choice to venture into the repercussions of terrorism and the associated Islamophobia by starting off the story with a terror attack near The Capitol in Washington, DC. What sets it apart and makes it a fascinating read is that firstly, it has three female, Black, Muslim characters, which makes it beautifully intersectional, and secondly, it is set in the YA genre. There continues to be a dearth of writings about how the youth of our generation feel about massive political events and how such prejudices impact and reverberate in their lives. This story is a serious attempt to shine a light on those prejudices. 

When reading up on the significance of decolonizing literature, one thing that comes up over and over again is the impact it has on representation. As a woman of color, I too grew up devouring books in which I couldn’t identify with any characters and it makes me happy that there will be young adults who will find stories where women of color take center stage. Our three powerful leads—Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah—are all Black and Muslim. While all young women, they are portrayed as individuals, with their own desires and faults, and this makes Sabreen’s writing much more thoughtful and a better representation of the real world.

Sabriya grows up in a mixed-religious family, while Zakat comes from a town that has a strong presence of a Muslim community. Farah is brought up by a single mother and has difficult ties with her father. Each of our characters is taking their own journey but they still connect with each other powerfully and sincerely. The bedrock of these ties remains the blog that they have created together to share their experiences of being Black and Muslim and offering that same opportunity to express themselves to people from those very communities. In the same story, we are covering a range of ideas from the identity crisis that they go through, to the importance of having strong community ties, to how that strengthens them and keeps them grounded. We also get to know about their dreams, the fears that haunt them, and the hopes that keep them going.

Our characters are brought together by Sabriya’s written reflections about the terror attack, which when left on her blog site, becomes viral. This is where the title of the novel comes from—the blog is named “You Truly Assumed.” Zakat and Farah soon join in to offer their own unique talents to elevate the blog, which continues to grow. Each of them feels the aftermath of the terror attack in different ways, but in spite of that, they make space for each other’s narratives and recognize what brings them together. They learn what makes them the same as they start this journey to make Black, Muslim women feel seen and heard. I also like how this story plays with the use of technology and social media, which at present has become a powerful, omnipresent tool to build and sustain connections among people across states, countries, and even continents.

When writing about young adults, we can’t ever forget the passion that drives them in the face of the problems of adolescence. Adults can intellectualize or desensitize themselves in the face of hurt, fear, and pain. Our characters here are thoughtful, kind, strong, and so incredibly brave. They are falling in love, mending friendships, renewing their faith in families while at the same time tackling this massive, painful burden of Islamophobia. They carry the larger picture in their heads and there is so much passion in their actions to make a difference. They truly believe that they can change the world.

One might complain about how the narrative—even when working with such a heavy topic—has a very simple arc. Our characters engage in seemingly small acts of fighting against prejudice and discrimination and standing up for themselves. They have difficult conversations with racists, challenge discriminatory behavior, and attempt to go to a vigil for someone from their community. But isn’t that what we want to tell our youth? That your voice matters, what you feel matters, and every small step you take towards fighting what feels overpowering matters?

It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book feeling hopeful and inspired, even excited. I am looking forward to the impact that this book is going to leave on our young people, how it will kickstart sensitive discussions on the histories that Black, Muslim people live with, as well as the intersectionality of struggles, especially those that have to do with identity politics. It is far from the simple and linear trajectory that people like to believe and it has a deep-seated impact on the day-to-day lives of those identifying with marginalized communities.

While many YA books are full of humor and the lighter things of life, it takes an incredible amount of thoughtfulness and sensitivity to mesh the genre with the serious, overpowering, and challenging. Sabreen skillfully manages to do just that. She reminds us that if you truly believe in the cause you are fighting for, all you have to do is take a step in that direction, no matter how small. She reminds us of the power we hold, the importance of having faith in our voices and stories, and how much all of it matters. This is exactly what the youth of today need to hear and this is exactly what You Truly Assumed tells us.

A Review of Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Spoiler Warning!: This review contains extensive spoilers for Zoe Hana Mikuta’s novel, Gearbreakers. Published June 29, 2021 by Feiwel & Friends. “[W]hen the times were desperate enough, when the people were frenzied enough, at a certain point we went past praying to deities and started to build them instead.” In that opening sentence, Mikuta winds...
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A Review of Reset by Paolo Pergola

Published October 1, 2021 by Sagging Meniscus Press.

Reset by Paolo Pergola is an engaging exploration of what it means for your life to be put on hold in an instant, forcing you to critique your existence and your society. Most of the book takes place in a hospital room where the protagonist, Lapo Pardini, has spent months recovering from a serious car accident. A morose scientific researcher, Lapo experiences significant memory loss after the accident and as his memories return, he is able to examine them. In the hospital, most of his days consist of counting ceiling tiles and contemplating his life and his choices. Reset is a stunning exposé of the chaos and angst associated with being human. Lapo outwardly expresses what is often in many of our hearts. Somehow, this book made me want to cry, laugh, scream, and breathe a sigh of relief all at the same time.

Despite the fact that Lapo is trapped in a hospital bed for over a hundred pages, the book feels action-packed. Pergola takes readers on a cerebral journey chapter after chapter. In a way, it’s more exciting than if we constantly witnessed a changing location. Since most of the narrative exists in Lapo’s head, readers must connect with him on an intimate level. Even the conversations he has with others are told to us through his perspective. This narrative style creates tension as readers empathize with, cheer on, and grow frustrated with Lapo throughout his recovery.

While Reset is about new beginnings after Lapo’s accident, it feels timely in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the book, we see Lapo become disenchanted with the “outside world” and all the conversations and elements of day-to-day life that feel pointless. Lapo insightfully expresses “I do like living, but I want to stop doing, I just want to think, to remember.” He doesn’t want to split his time between responsibility and enjoyment. As we all process what has happened in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it almost feels like we’re waking up. As Lapo questions the life he was suddenly snapped out of, I couldn’t help but recognize those feelings in myself and in my peers as we examine the way our lives used to be and question where we’d like to go next. All the pressure for him to suddenly resume life after this accident, after just getting his memories back, is overwhelming. It kind of feels that way for us too in this next phase of the pandemic.

Throughout Reset, we see Lapo remember all the dreams he once had and didn’t pursue. We see him question the decisions he did make and whether he likes the life that he had before the accident. While reading the book, I sometimes wanted to take Lapo’s side, as I felt like the other characters only offered mundane conversations. At other times, I couldn’t help but be frustrated with Lapo’s lack of drive or enthusiasm. I was surprised at how many different emotions and thoughts the author was able to pull out of me in such a short time.

The narrative itself flows beautifully. It’s rare to encounter a book in which it feels like every sentence serves a purpose. Paolo Pergola skillfully gives readers a book that is engaging right to the end, without that common lull in the middle of the book. However, I did find myself wishing for more insight into certain character relationships, like how Lapo’s relationship with his wife, his colleagues, and his friends had changed since the accident. It felt like some threads were left untied at the end of the book, but overall, it was a very satisfying read. If you are looking for a book to captivate you, move you, and make you think about things in a different way, this is definitely one to pick up off the shelf.

A Review of The Stolen Kingdom by Jillian Boehme

Spoiler Warning!: This review contains extensive spoilers for Jillian Boehme’s novel, The Stolen Kingdom.

Published March 2, 2021 by Tom Doherty Associates

What happens to magic when it’s been stolen? How might that power manifest in those who were never meant to have it—and in those from whom it was taken? And when circumstances throw the descendants of those lines together, how can they overcome the century-old conflict they inherited? Jillian Boehme asks these questions in her new YA fantasy, The Stolen Kingdom.

The story opens in Perin Faye, a kingdom ruled by the corrupt Thungrave royals, with both a royal wedding and a war on the horizon. First, we meet Maralyth (Mara) Graylaern, the headstrong seventeen-year-old daughter of the kingdom’s most prized vintner. She soon discovers that she is the long-lost heir to the throne when rebels kidnap and extort her into participating in a coup that will make her queen. Next, we meet Prince Alac Thungrave, nineteen years old and second in line to the throne—and the magic—that his family stole from Mara’s ancestors. He hates his role as the overlooked son and wants nothing more than to leave behind the magic corrupting his father and elder brother, dreaming instead of a peaceful life making wine. When Mara must enter into a plot to murder the royal family, she must pose as a noble to gain entrance to the elder prince’s wedding, where she and Alac first meet. As the day of the coup draws ever closer, she struggles to hide her true identity and purpose from Alac as they both contend with their growing feelings for each other.

I regret to say that I found the premise of this book a lot more compelling than its delivery. Boehme has laid a lot of good groundwork here but often doesn’t follow through. More than once, I felt the story rushed through significant plot points and dwelled too long on others, with underdeveloped characters and concepts, and I found myself wishing for more depth in a lot of places. For example, the magic system feels weak. For Mara, the “rightful” heir to this magic, using this power is easy and intuitive, requiring no significant effort to wield or learn. This makes her power seem limitless and unearned. In contrast, Alac’s father and brother seem to only hoard the magic for themselves, claiming to have “tamed” a darkness that used to terrorize all of Perin Faye. Furthermore, many of the characters do not extend beyond their tropes, and as a result, I often found it difficult to invest in their development arcs. There are also frequent references to the Thungraves’ oppressive rule of Perin Faye throughout the story—including Mara once calling out Alac’s ignorance and privilege—but we witness very few examples of such.

That being said, I do feel this book has some strengths. The descriptions, particularly of the food, are lush and vivid, such as “soft-boiled eggs in a nest of sautéed mushrooms, several thin slices of ham, and two steaming buns dotted with sage . . . served with butter and several jams in beautiful, cut-glass jars.” I also appreciate that so much of the novel centers around vineyards and gardens, which serve as good touchstones for a story in which magic can either give life or wither anything it touches. Boehme does a good job of building the suspense as well, particularly in the last one hundred or so pages of the book, when she raises the stakes even higher and the characters must face darker, more complex challenges.

But what intrigues me most about this book is the concept that the Thungraves are hoarding stolen magic, and I admire how Boehme chose to use that concept as a plot device. Outsourcing the central conflict to the magic and describing corruption as the heirloom of a terrible wrongdoing—corruption as a tangible, malleable thing—is an interesting choice. It allows Boehme to create a (more or less) peaceful resolution to the conflict—that is, a resolution that doesn’t come about through a climactic battle, which I think should happen more often in the fantasy genre. Mara and Alac must find resolution through restoration, not retribution.

This is the kind of story that left me wishing the author had given me more because the story has so much promise. And while this book wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, I still plan to keep an eye on Boehme in the future. This is a writer with potential, and I’m interested to see what comes next.