The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing

Friends, I have just finished The Calculating Stars, and it blew me away. I would compare this book most closely in voice and style to A Natural History of Dragons, but with a depth of urgency that, for all my love of Brennan’s work, exceeds that series. Buckle up, my friends. This is going to be a long ride.

[Spoilers for The Lady Astronaut of Mars and for The Calculating Stars]

Continue reading “The Lady Astronaut and an expert class in writing”

Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1

I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. This movie is the latest Marvel installment in their current franchise reboot. They’ve done some really fun and amazing ones recently, but there have also been some major flops for me, including Dr. Strange and Guardians 2. For me, Infinity War fell closer to these two movies emotionally than it did to some of the best recent films (Black Panther and Ragnarok, I’m looking at you). I want to unpack that because anytime I don’t connect with something that otherwise is not a total trainwreck, I like to understand why as a writer so that I can watch for similar mistakes in my own creations. My conclusion about Infinity War is that multi-faceted and mostly to do with the difficulty of trying to handle all of the various characters and plot threads they were putting together. Let’s dive in.

(Spoilers for Infinity War and possibly other Marvel movies.)

Continue reading “Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1”

Annihilation: I’m still disappointed in Alex Garland

I’ve been looking forward to the movie adaptation of Annihilation for a long time, largely because I really enjoyed the book and also because of one specific reason: the cast of the book is, with one exception, entirely female. This is a big deal, since the story revolves around a bunch of highly-educated, idiosyncratic scientists going into what is essentially the Everglades if the Everglades were a haunted house. I was disappointed to see such a big name as Oscar Isaac cast in the movie, though I enjoy him in most things, because I knew that would mean that his role as the husband was intended to be expanded. I rationalized that this was probably a good thing. After all, his death in the book is the entire emotional impetus for the Biologist’s entry into the psychotropic-murder-swamp that is Area X. It made sense that he would have a bigger role.

That impetus, at least, did not change.

(SPOILERS, if you haven’t figured that out yet.)

The movie kept a lot of things to love about the book, including the general creep-fest that is Area X. It jettisoned a lot of other things. Some of this was good. All of the characters got names, for example. There was no magical hypnosis to control their minds, and Area X was a bit closer than I expected, but overall they made some good decisions with that. I was also gratified that, when the husband – called Kane in the movie – did show up, the awkward sex scene didn’t happen. I was not particularly into that sex scene, for obvious reasons to do with consent, though it worked in the book in ways it would never have been able to work in the movie.

That’s about the end of the good changes, I think.

As a whole, the narrative the movie went with was not terrible, but it was not exceptional either. While there was no way that the movie could have stayed entirely true to the book – different mediums being what they are – my dominant feeling coming out of this movie was a sense of disquiet. That disquiet had nothing to do with the giant monster-animals eating people’s throats out to steal their voices, though that was creepy. It had a lot more to do with the fact that Oscar Isaac had such a central role in this film, as I had suspected. In the book, the Biologist goes into Area X to find her husband, or at least find out what happened to him. It is clear from early on that the doppleganger that returns is not him, but a copy, and a malformed one. The Biologist is an ecologist, and she relishes the diversity and fecundity of the newly reclaimed landscape, free of human contamination. Her connection with Area X is almost as personal as her relationship with her husband by the end, who, by the way, she does not find in the first book. Instead, we are left to guess at their story. Did she drown? Did she meet him on the island? Are they living together, still, or dead together, their ghosts haunting this new world?

In contrast, the doppleganger of Kane survives. Lena, the biologist, sets out to eradicate the thing that has threatened her love with her hard-earned military skills. She finds video of her husband at several places, including video of his death. Because of the loss she has experienced, she treats Area X like a cancer, not a cleansing. She burns it. And when she comes home she gets a happy-ever-after with Kane’s echo, miraculously alive.

Kane’s fate remains central to Lena’s story, but not in the way that the husband’s fate is central to the story of the Biologist. There are relatively few points of dialogue in the movie that do not center around Kane or Kane’s all-male team. (I cannot think of an instance of dialogue that does not at some point mention Kane or Kane’s team once they have entered Area X, excepting perhaps the scene with the alligator.) There are also three named male characters in this adaptation, one of whom was invented from whole-cloth to cast Lena as an adulterer, a confusing decision at best. I believe this was supposed to be a way to rationalize Kane’s decision to enter Area X, but it felt like an excuse to show Natalie Portman naked. Keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a book told entirely from a female scientist’s perspective, one whose central themes include a profoundly ecological bent (entirely removed in this on-screen iteration), and where the only male character dies within the first two chapters and lives primarily as a ghost in the narrator’s head.

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It is disappointing to watch a movie that might have, in a better world, taken a diverse female cast and given them a gripping, cerebral storyline that didn’t revolve around men – and which fails to do so. Annihilation was not a terrible movie, taken out of the context of the source text. I do not hate it. But there was so much potential for what it could have been. And despite numerous things done right, the movie fell short of that potential.


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Labor Unions in space and hunting for mermaids

I loved Dune, surprising no one. I grew up on it, after all. But one thing that always bothered me about the story of the sandy Arrakis was the “divine right of kings” subtext throughout. If this also bothered you, you’re in luck. I’ve got a book with none of that going on.

Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells is the book, the first in a duology that concludes with Blood Binds the Pack. This is Dune if Dune were written by a pissed off feminist steeped in socialism, and let me tell you that I am here for that. Much like that book, the world-building in this short series walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. There is mining of special minerals that let people cross galaxies in a blink, and people tweaked and blended with those minerals that are used to pilot the ships across these vast interstellar distances. There is also native contamination by the same minerals, and otherworldly symptoms that come out of it.

That, though, is where the similarities end. No sandworms here. Instead, you’ll get biker gangs and labor disputes,  vision quests and corporate espionage. Also, found families and badass women abound. If this sounds like your jam, I encourage you to check out these books.

OtherLands

Changing pace a bit, let’s talk about a book that has made me laugh out loud more than any other both this year or last. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a clever book with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor perpetrated by a very sardonic protagonist. The only complaint I have about this book is that my ship is not canon. I won’t spoil what that ship was, but check this out if you like awkward teen romance done well, elves, mermaids, sword swinging, wonderfully bisexual and otherwise characters, and holier-than-thou brats of a scholastic bent. Also, lots of laughs. So many laughs.

Speaking of bisexual characters, allow me to recommend one last book. Into the Drowning Deep is by Mira Grant, and it is every horror movie you didn’t know you wanted to watch. This is a book with killer mermaids, naive scientists, and a trip out to sea. The main character is again bisexual, and a scientist, and perhaps too driven for her own good. I would certainly not have remained so composed with the mermaids who killed my sister coming for me as well. Expect to feel unsettled and a little iffy around water for a while with this one.


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The Shape of Water: women and sex

I’ve had some time to think about The Shape of Water, which I saw a few weeks ago, and I have decided the thing that most impressed me about the film was not the beautiful composition, nor the aesthetic, nor, even, the commentary on how society attempts to break the outsiders among us into something palatable and how wrong that is. It was the way del Toro treated sex. Specifically, a woman’s sex.

Mild spoilers to follow for The Shape of Water.

shape of water

The movie, for those who haven’t seen it, opens with a sequence of the main character, Elisa, getting ready for her day at the super secret oceanic labs which are going to house the much-advertised fish-man. A very important part of Elisa’s evening is one that is most certainly not shown in film. Each evening, Elisa makes her lunch, runs a bath, climbs in, and masturbates. She does this one screen twice during the film, and each time the shot is framed in such a way as to do two things: to make it clear what she is doing, and to make it clear that you are not the target of it. This scene is not designed to titillate you, not exactly. It’s designed to make you acknowledge the complexity of being in a female body, a female who likes sex.

That last part is a very interesting aspect of Guillermo del Toro’s last two films, Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. In both of these films, the protagonist has been an adult woman. In both of the films, the protagonist has been in sexual situations – a romance arc being integral to the plots of both.

In neither film is the main character sexualized in the way that we, the audience, expect.

Crimson Peak is a good example of this. As the Bustle points out, at no point is Edith Cushing portrayed in any of the ways we expect women to be portrayed during sex. For one thing, she remains mostly out of view, her nakedness taking second fiddle to Thomas Sharpe’s. For another, she is clearly consenting, and her pleasure is accounted for. Del Toro manages to strike a careful, tender balance in this film. Edith is not the wide-eyed virgin, nor is she the ravenous whore. She is a woman, and Thomas is a man, and they are learning and experiencing together.

While the Bustle article crows that this is a new age for Hollywood, I for one have not noticed a sudden dearth of movies featuring the male gaze. I still find, far too often, moments in film that leave me lost and frustrated as I watch a rounded, interesting character become heavily objectified by the camera lens, or worse, a single woman installed as sexual window dressing to men’s struggles. (Kingsman is a terrible example of this, but I digress. We’re not here to talk about people who do this wrong. We’re here to talk about how del Toro does it right.)

Elisa’s role in this film could have easily been one of being unnecessarily sexualized. There were several moments that played off of the viewer’s expectations by skirting close to this but refusing to give into it. Aside from the initial masturbation scenes, one of the most notable ones is the scene where Richard Strickland traps Elisa in his office and makes advances towards her which are decidedly unwanted. This situation could have easily devolved into physical sexual violence. It does not.

In another notable scene, Elisa and her fish-man, unnamed for the duration of the film, have sex and are interrupted by her neighbor, Giles. While in many monster movies, the virginal female lead is the unwilling victim of the monster, in this case Elisa intentionally seeks out, befriends, and then seduces her monster. She is always the one in relative control – the fish-man cannot survive without her help. When Giles walks in on them, he sees a vision – Elisa embracing the fish-man, making clear, unashamed eye contact. Her naked body is not shown, and her position is not obviously erotic outside of that nakedness. The fish-man’s own form hides her, just as Thomas’ form hid Edith. It is not that we haven’t seen her skin before. It is that we see her, in all of her erotic glory, without any attempt at shame or degradation. Elisa is here because she wants to be. You will get no blushes, no guilt, from her.

There were several other things to love about this film. The decision to have a mute protagonist was something I worried about initially, but found myself very much enjoying. I love watching ASL, though I don’t really speak it. And my absolute favorite scene of the movie was also one that was heartbreaking – Giles being rejected at the pie shop was a well-functioning piece that drew clear parallels between the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks and racial minorities within society, with Giles finally speaking up in the face of racial injustice when he realized that it came from the same hegemony that had made his own life so miserable. There’s a lot that can be said about that, and I’m not the person to write it. And of course, as with every movie, there were flaws. I won’t list them here, but I recognize there were things that might have been done better.

All that said, I enjoyed the film, and I look forward to Guillermo del Toro’s next work, and his portrayal of the women in it.

 

 

The Last Jedi

I loved this movie. And if you read this, it might spoil it for you. But hopefully you have made it to the movie already. Hopefully you have gotten to experience it, too.

I’ve read a lot of Last Jedi reviews since the movie came out. A lot. And if you’re recall, the day of the release I posted a blogpost about my hopes for the film. I want to start from that point, and talk about my feelings, and talk about some of the reviews that have stuck with me. I want people to understand why this movie left me glowing, why when I woke up the next morning I was still glowing. This movie gave me hope.

leai last jedi

2017 has been a hard year. It’s been a joyful one for me, too, but I’m not blind to what is happening in our world. When Rogue One came out in December of last year, it felt like the movie we needed. That desperate fight in the rising darkness. The resolution of faith, when hope was gone. I don’t think that I was wrong, in that feeling. I wasn’t entirely right, either. Faith and hope and love must all hold hands. I can have Jyn Erso’s faith, bitter and solid and true. I can have Leia’s hope, the bright vision. And I can have Rey’s love. Rey’s arc has always been about love, and this movie shows us that unshakably.

In my blogpost last week, I talked about how closely paralleled and yet how divergent Luke and Rey’s characters are. In the wake of watching The Last Jedi, I can confirm that Rey is the hero we need. Her character arc continues – as she has come to the force, she comes to it with more skills than her mentor managed in his time. These skills, however, are not just the physical skills that I had previously cataloged. They are emotional skills, too. Rey has learned to forgive others, over and over, sometimes to her own detriment. In fact, Rey’s only character flaw may be that she does not always value herself. She looks up to others, first her lost parents, later Han and Luke, and even, a little, to Kylo Ren. Even though none of these people gives her everything that she wants, though, Rey does not blame them for it. She grows. She becomes what she needs.

In this way, her arc parallels Luke’s in the original trilogy. This, I would argue, is intentional. The thing that Rian Johnson and the new writers of Star Wars want to keep, the inescapable thing that makes a Jedi a Jedi, the thing that Anakin never could hold onto, is emotional maturity. And that maturity requires vulnerability. Without being vulnerable, a Jedi cannot care for and protect what she loves.

Nothing else plays out quite like what we expect, however. I agree with Chuck Wendig that this is a lot of what has made this movie divisive. The Force Awakens trades on the familiar. The Last Jedi steps beyond it. But it keeps the heart.

“They want the familiarity. They need nostalgia.

And this movie burns it all down.

A lightning strike setting fire to a sacred tree.”

– Chuck Wendig

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burning of the sacred tree, the original Jedi temple. Luke intends to burn the past, to let it die as Kylo has tried to do. Their journeys, here, parallel. Luke is tired, he is angry and afraid. His anger and fear are for himself. He has failed. The Jedi will always fail, because they are human, and so there is no point in any of it, not anymore. Luke is lost. He goes to burn the tree as an act of destruction.

Yoda, on the other hand, burns the tree as an act of emancipation. The past cannot die. The path of the Jedi will always exist, because the Force will always exist. Whatever petty symbols of it may remain are crutches. A Master does not need them. This movie keeps the Force at its heart, and burns down the trappings of it.

And yet, at the end, the books, the knowledge of the Force that the temple guarded? They are carried in the Millenium Falcon, safe. Finn finds them, not during battle. He finds them when he is caring for Rose. Rose, who gave herself up to save him, when he had given up on hope and love and let it all go to rage.

Rey’s power to defy the First Order comes from love. Love for her friends, love for the world. When she goes into the cave to face her test, she doesn’t see an enemy. She sees herself. She sees herself, alone, forever. This is her greatest fear, this aloneness. Luke’s fear was to become his father, to fall to the dark side. His fear of the dark side is also what destroys his relationship with his nephew, starting Kylo Ren along his path.

rey dark side

Rey’s fear is to lose her new family, but she has been alone before. It is a fear she has faced before, a horror she has lived through.  It is no wonder that the dark side does not tempt her as easily. She knows that she has survived her fear. It cannot, therefore, consume her. Luke is horrified when she is pulled into the dark side so easily, because he does not believe that she can withstand temptation. He, after all, could not, not entirely. The dark side has marked his life, forever, it has lost him too much.

Luke’s fear moves the plot of this film just as much as Kylo’s anger and Poe’s pride. Each of them must work through those feelings, because “building that emotional intelligence is the difference between the dark and the light.” Luke succeeds, and finds oneness with the Force. Poe begins his journey by valuing his comrades over the cause. Only Kylo does not embrace that emotional maturity, and in his anger and hatred he writes his own downfall. He is so afraid of Luke, so focused on his hatred, still, of his father and the Millennium Falcon, that he fails to accomplish his goal, effectively losing the final battle to crush the Resistance. He cannot grow without bringing himself into balance, and he shows no signs of doing so, even when Rey offers him a clean slate despite everything.

In the end, The Last Jedi is the truest bit of Star Wars cinema that we have seen since The Return of the Jedi so many years ago. No, it does not look the same. Many things have changed, but hell, there’s a whole galaxy out there. Who would want to stay in the same old orbit? The heart of this story, however, remains. It is the new hope of a new generation.


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Blade Runner 2049

I went and saw Blade Runner last weekend and it was really, really good. Very loud, very bleak, but good. I definitely recommend watching the bridging shortfilms, though, for greater appreciation of some of the plot points.

This movie gave me a lot of thoughts. I debated on what to focus on in my analysis of it – the fancy way they sloughed off the old setting, for example, was impressive to me as a writer and moviegoer, and there’s a lot to unpack here about what is “real” and constructed memories. There’s also something to be said about the pacing, which was slow, ethereal, and felt like a horror movie at points (in a good way). There’s also some bad bits, like POC representation in the film, which I felt was not as solid as it could have been, and LGBTQ representation as well (alternate sexualities apparently don’t exist in Blade Runner). But, since mostly I write about women, I thought I’d go with that for this post, though I may come back to those things later.

Spoilers.

Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

The inevitability of sexual assault

After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.

anarchy

Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.

I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.

Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.

I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.

Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.

Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.

If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.

Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.

She doesn’t, of course.

Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.

I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.

That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.

I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.

The Uncrossing by Melissa Eastlake

Hey, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve done a Sunday Review, but here I am with this lovely ARC and a whole lot of feelings so strap in! Considering a few of my recent posts have been less than light-hearted, this should be a welcome reprieve.

So first, let me preface this by registering my biases. Melissa is a fellow Hollins graduate and has guested on my blog. I reached out to her for the ARC in advance of her upcoming October 2nd release. It is a YA M/M Romance. You can preorder this lovely little book for $3.99 at Amazon last time I looked. This is a spoiler-free review.

On to the review!

I don’t read a lot of romances, but I always really enjoy the good ones. My favorite anime genre is definitely shoujo, though I’m picky, and I am a huge fan of urban fantasy and very aware that the line between “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” is often a gray one. I would, however, classify this book solidly in the paranormal romance category if it were being marketed to adults – the romance is the main plot motivator in this book, despite the magical elements. The book is also firmly young adult, with the two main love interests, Luke and Jeremy, both being in their late teens. There’s a lot to love here if you like romantic anime like Princess Jellyfish (with its awkward love comedy between a shining, magical rich boy and the traumatized but brilliant girl who is oblivious to his interest) or Yuri! on Ice (with two male protagonists and the added professional element). Jeremy is a beautiful, somewhat awkward, very anxious little princeling, and Luke is a grounded, charismatic character who can’t leave well enough alone more often than not and happens to be somewhat bound to Jeremy’s family. They both are clear, at times unpredictable, and lots of fun. The story benefits from the fact that, though Jeremy and Luke’s relationship is primary, other relationships are well-developed. These include Jeremy’s relationship with his brothers Sergei and Alexei, the heads of a magical mafia family, the Kovrovs, and Luke’s relationships with his family, who had previously served the Kovrovs and continue to be affiliated with them. There’s a strong supernatural element throughout, and a mystery that potentially threatens the lives of both Jeremy and Luke, as well as their families.

My two critiques of the book were simple. I would have liked to see more of Luke’s relationship with his sister, who he was closest to, and more of his family in general and their past. I really wanted to learn more about them, though I don’t think the book suffered. It’s more of a personal desire. The way their magic worked, for example, and the stresses of growing up in a biracial, bicultural family, were super interesting to me. I’d be interested in knowing more.

On a less selfish note, I do wish that the cover had not been white-washed – the character that I assume to be Luke on the cover does not look like the Luke I had in my head. The author often has limited input on covers, so given the specificity of the text I can’t imagine this was intentional on her part. It is otherwise beautiful, and I’m glad they didn’t flinch from showing m/m affection.

All in all, The Uncrossing was a fun, mostly light-hearted read, with high enough stakes to keep me engaged and characters I wanted to shelter from the world like the precious cinnamon rolls they are. I recommend this book if you are looking for positive LGBT representation and a cute romance wrapped up in magic.

uncrossing

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