Persephone Station

by Stina Leicht

cover of Persephone Station on a star field background with a red moon in the corner

I’ve noticed recently that when it comes to my Sci-Fi/Fantasy category, the “Fantasy” side definitely has the edge.  Persephone Station was a great reminder why I love the Sci-Fi part as well. 

Persephone Station embraces all sorts of aspects of sci-fi, though more Star Wars than Star Trek.  Various types of AI, mech suits, spaceships, planets, alien-life, etc. 

The story jumps between perspectives, but the main story follows Angel, an ex-marine who endured several resurrections during her service.

She now works as a mercenary on Persephone Station, a planet outpost that has caught the attention of the Serrao-Orlov Corporation.  But like all mega corporations, their plan for the planet is full of problems for everyone who lives there.  Angel and her team must figure out where they stand and what they stand for, regardless of the cost.

There’s a lot to like about this story.  The core characters are interesting people and it’s fun to learn more about them as the story goes on.  The perspective jumps help you get a deeper sense of each of them.  Leicht weaves world building into the narrative without huge exposition dumps. While there are places where it seems a little slow, it picks up and soon you’re hooked and can’t wait to find out what happens next. 

The one downside to this book is that there are 3-4 different perspectives, but there’s such a long break between some of them that you lose connection with them.  By the time we check beck in with a specific viewpoint, it feels like a bit more like a forced break from the main story rather than an integral part of the tale.  Things do start to come together towards the end, but I didn’t feel as connected to those characters.  Other things suddenly pop up that weren’t really set up and feel a bit shoved in.

But despite that, it’s still a great, fun read.  I could see this being part of a series, but it’s a stand alone novel for now.  So if you’re looking for a fun sci-fi novel with all sorts of queer characters, interesting world building, and an operatic plot, check out Persephone Station.        

Find it here

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

Find it here

Book Review: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Cover of the book To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

I noticed recently that I haven’t read as many books as usual by this time of year. Then I realized that Almanac of the Dead and today’s book, To Paradise, felt like reading multiple books in one. This is especially true of To Paradise, which is comprised of three distinct stories that share a loose common bond. The book is divided into three parts, each of which could be a book on its own. The core setting remains the same: New York City, specifically, a large house in Washington Square, with each story set 100 years after the previous (1893, 1993, and 2093). The names of the characters also pass through each of these years, which creates an interesting set of questions for the reader: how is this David different from that David? How do I feel about this Charles, knowing what I know about the other ones? That age-old question of “what’s in a name” creates an undercurrent that swirls through the entire work without overwhelming it. 

Washington Square

Set in an alternate history version of New York City in 1893, the first segment of the book (“Washington Square”) focuses on 23-year-old David Bingham. Here, the Civil War did not end in a reunion of the Union, but rather additional splintering. The South remains ceded, reconstituted as “The United Colonies.” The northern-central/Midwestern part of the U.S. is now called “America” or “The American Union.” The West Coast is the Western Union, the Southwest (excluding Texas) is labeled on the map as simply “Uncharted Territory,” Maine is its own Republic, and the rest of the Northeast, including New York, make up “The Free States.” In the Free States, homosexuality is not only legal, but same-sex marriages are commonplace (and so are arranged marriages, complete with marriage brokers) and relatively unremarkable.

David lives in the Washington Square house with his grandfather, the only unmarried and aimless drifter of his siblings. While Free State society has a very open-minded view of homosexuality, it still maintains the usual biases against mental illness, class differences, and race. Free Staters pity Black people from the Colonies for the terrible plight in which they find themselves in the South and the affluent join aid societies aimed at helping them escape, but only to push them out to America or Canada or anywhere else. As a wealthy White man, destined to inherit even more from his famous banking scion grandfather, David is in a position of great respect and power, but his troubling “nervous issues” that occasionally send him into a catatonic state is a secret that needs to be covered as much as possible. 

David’s grandfather, Nathaniel, however, has found a suitable suitor for David, a gentleman from Massachusetts named Charles. A widower, Charles is a kind and dependable man, with a fortune of his own. But then a poor but beautiful and gifted music teacher named Edward catches David’s eye – and heart. Soon David finds himself in a common romantic dilemma: does he stay with the “safe” and practical choice expected of someone of his status or does he give it all up for romance and passion, despite potential red flags? What does it mean to be free? How will he get to paradise?


We leave David’s struggle over his future to jump to 1993, where another David Bingham is confronting his past. This David is a young paralegal in a relationship with one of the big-shot attorneys at the firm, named Charles. Charles is wealthy, living in the same Washington Square house, self-confident and assured. He handles everything, makes all the decisions, and wants David to just be with him and enjoy the comforts he can provide. David tells himself this is ideal, but under the surface, things feel off.

When we meet him, David is preparing for the huge dinner party Charles is throwing for a dying friend.  Death and illness seem to be everywhere, as a disease stalks gay men, striking silently and causing them to waste away. (While never named, it’s clear she’s talking about AIDS.) David observes how Charles’ friends have their own ways of dealing with this ever-present threat, including those who seem to have turned gluttonous, as though by gaining weight they could block the disease while simultaneously proving to everyone around them that they were not sick. 

But all of this suddenly takes second billing when David receives an unexpected letter from home.  David, we learn, is originally from Hawaii and through his father’s side, a direct descendant of Hawaiian royalty. If it hadn’t been for the colonization of Hawaii and the deposing of its queen back in 1898, David could very well have been preparing to take the throne, instead of living royally through his boyfriend.  Something fractured in his childhood, though, driving him to start another life on the other side of the continent. There was some sort of falling out between him and his father, a sickness of a kind that his father couldn’t overcome. 

This section is told in two different formats – one from David’s perspective in the present and his father’s perspective of his past through a letter. Through the letter, we learn of David’s father’s childhood, his meeting of the independence-focused Edward, his brief relationship with David’s mother, his love for David, and his inability to stand up for himself against those who would use him to push their own dreams of Hawaiian independence. Meanwhile, David must figure out if he is ok being swept along in Charles’ wake or if he is following the same path as his father. 

Zone Eight

The letter style continues in the third part of the book.  We begin in 2093 where we meet Charlie, granddaughter of a scientist/virologist also named Charles. Charlie grew up in the house on Washington Square with her grandfather, but only in a small apartment. The house has been divided up over the years and is only for married people. Charlie recently married, and her grandfather moved out, hoping he had done everything possible to protect her. New York is a much more dangerous and depressing place then it ever was in the previous centuries. 

As we learn in greater details through Charles’ letters, which begin in the 2040s, Earth is now continually plagued by pandemic after pandemic, despite scientists’ bests efforts to stay ahead. Some were more virulent than others – Charlie barely survived the pandemic of the 2070s that took so many children. The treatment that saved her life left her changed, erasing her original personality and causing her to struggle with human interactions. 

In addition to the waves of deadly illnesses, climate change has ravaged the planet as well. The government controls Central Park, and set up the Farm, where Charlie’s husband works, to try to genetically engineer plants and animals that could help increase the food supply and/or work as medicines. Nearly all civil rights are suspended – Charlie is left shaking and terrified each time their apartment is searched by authorities.  The internet is long gone – it was, as Charles explained in his letters, too big a source of disinformation that led to people dying. Mass crematoriums are set up on Roosevelt Island to keep up with the dead.  And yet, even with this large-scale horror show, Charlie continues with her daily life, using her ration book to get her allotments of food, wondering if her husband will ever love her, taking care of the embryonic rats at the lab. Despite the horror of everything, life moves along. Until it doesn’t.

Overall, I liked this book.  It was a bit confusing at first with all the names overlapping across the centuries, but I liked the implications of it. So much of this story revolves around questions of fate, destiny, free will, and the cumulative effects of our choices. Despite its length, it never felt long, perhaps helped by the fact that it has such discrete parts. And each part struck different chords in me. The Washington Square book recreates a sense of Victorian novels, diving into the world of the wealthy elite, the duty to one’s class, and the difficulties that can create for love.  Parts of Lipo-wao-nahele reminded me of And The Band Played On, a foundational work on the AIDS crisis, while the scenes from Hawai’i recalled Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn, about a Hawai’ian family dealing with the pulls of tradition, family responsibility, and finding one’s own path. 

Zone Eight, though, simply reminded me of now.  While published in 2022, apparently Yanagihara wrote much of the Zone Eight section before 2020 and the outbreak of Covid.  She did her work though, spending a great deal of time researching viruses and pandemics, interviewing scientists and researchers and figuring out how things might play out with a new virus sweeping across the globe.  Regardless of when she wrote it, she captured so much of the tensions we currently face. 

Generally speaking, when I read dystopian novels, I quickly and easily side with those fighting their oppressors. It’s usually clear-cut, though things rarely are in real life. Charles’ letters force us to see how well-meaning choices can spiral out of control. At one point, Charles tells his family it’s understandable to sympathize with a mother who smuggled her sick child out of the hospital and took him back to her apartment building, where she desperately tried to get someone to help her. He then urged them to think about how many innocent people she exposed to a deadly disease, how many of her elderly neighbors and other children paid the price of her fear – were they not deserving of sympathy? What of the families they left behind? Having lived through this pandemic, those arguments don’t feel so theoretical. But where do the lines get drawn? 

Questions are the foundation of this book. Yanagihara isn’t going to provide answers. But perhaps it is the asking of questions that leads to paradise.  

Thoughts on To Paradise? Did you have a favorite of the three parts? How do you feel reading fictional accounts of plagues and pandemics these days? Leave a comment and start a discussion!

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