Welcome to Lightning Reviews!
For the uninitiated, this is where we run smaller, more bite-sized reviews of books, usually as a pair or trio.
I think the subject line here pretty much says it all. We have a book with mermaids and a book with dragons being reviews. Both are queer and magical.
After the Dragons
author: Cynthia Zhang
After the Dragons is a subtle, tender love story set in a near-future Beijing in which dragons are as real as the climate change which has brought drought to the city.
Eli, the biracial son of two professors, has come to Beijing as an exchange student, wanting to learn more about the city that his grandmother loved too much to leave, even when faced with a terminal diagnosis. Kai has received the same diagnosis as Eli’s grandmother, but is doing his best to ignore it out of existence by focusing all of his energy on rescuing and rehabilitating abandoned dragons.
Kai and Eli’s prickly, affectionate relationship is at the heart of this book, and I especially appreciated the tension between autonomy and beneficence. Kai’s illness is chronic and life-threatening, and while treatments are available, there is no cure for it. Eli is a medical researcher, a natural caretaker, and not someone who is good at leaving well enough alone. Also, obviously, it’s difficult to accept that the person you are falling in love with is going to die young. I appreciated that the story had room for us to sympathise with both protagonists, and where they were coming from.
I also really liked the plot thread about the dragons that Kai is determined to rescue. The dragons themselves were a delight, but I also liked the way the book showed the value of doing something on a small, individual scale, even when a problem is massive. The story neither pretends that one person can single-handedly fix a structural problem, nor suggests that what one person can accomplish has no value. I feel like that’s a really helpful thing to be reminded of right now.
After the Dragons is more fantasy or science fiction than romance, and it has an atypical narrative structure – I am not sure I could say, even now, precisely what the story was about. It felt more like a short, important chapter in the lives of two people, rather than a story in which a problem is presented and then overcome, with all threads neatly tied up at the end. What it did have, in abundance, was a sense of place and of atmosphere, and I really loved that.
This is a hard book to grade. I am very sure that there are readers out there who are going to love this with all their queer-affirming, dragon-loving, slightly-dystopic, climate-fiction-appreciating hearts, and I really want this book to find them! But for me, the story was slightly unsatisfying. Too much was left unresolved for my taste.
Perhaps the issue is that I tend to read a novel with a central romance through a romance reader’s lens, and for me it didn’t quite work on that level. While the story has a happy-for-now ending, for me, this was overshadowed by Kai’s illness. But on reflection, I wonder if I’m missing the point. There was such a strong theme in this story of the importance of doing small kindnesses even when you can’t fix the larger problem, and perhaps that’s reflected in the nature of Kai and Eli’s relationship – happiness which is ephemeral is still meaningful and worth celebrating. (Having said that, I think I still prefer to imagine that the protagonists of the romances I read are always going to be happy and healthy and in love – and this story simply does not permit that fantasy.)
I found this book hauntingly beautiful. I loved the worldbuilding, and I really liked both Kai and Eli. I think it works brilliantly as speculative fiction. I’m not so sure it works as a romance… but I’m not sure it was trying to do so.
author: Kat Leyh
How can it be that it has taken me this long to discover Thirsty Mermaids, the graphic novel by Kat Leyh? This bawdy, body positive, inclusive story is my new favorite, and I’ve been reading a lot of mermaid stuff recently so that’s saying a LOT.
When mermaids Pearl, Tooth, and Eez decide to use magic to become human, they only plan to be human for long enough to get some booze. But once Eez turns everyone human, Eezy can’t turn them back again and they rely on Vivi, a human bartender, for help as they sort out legs, clothes, capitalism, and life in a small beachfront town. Their struggles are hilarious and, in Eez’s case, painful. The story allows the characters, especially Eez, a lot of depth (harrrr see what I did there) as we learn more about mermaid culture, why it is so important that these three mermaids and one human stick together, and why life on land is especially hard for Eez.
This book is jubilantly, exuberantly body positive, LGBTQIA+ positive, and just generally wildly joyful in every panel. A variety of hair colors and textures, skin colors, body types, gender identities, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities are represented. The supporting characters are warm and loveable, even (especially) Vivi’s protective sister who is appropriately concerned about three strangers moving into Vivi’s place and not paying rent. These are all people/mers/other who enjoy life and who enjoy and love each other.
The art is bright, bold, and blocky with a lot of sweeping brush and ink strokes that match the mers’ large personalities. Be aware that there is a lot of nudity and a fist fight, although the fight has a very funny ending. There is also a depiction of dysphoria and how other characters support the person experiencing it. While some serious issues are addressed, the characters are mutually supportive and resourceful in meeting them. This book made me happy from head to toe.
– Carrie S