Iron Widow

Cover image for Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

by Xiran Jay Zhao

ISBN 9780735269941

“Maybe, if things were different, I could get used to this. Being cradled in his warmth and light. Being cherished. Being loved. But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”

When Wu Ruyi volunteered for Huaxia’s military as a Chrysalis concubine-pilot, her near-certain death in battle against the alien Hunduns was supposed to buy a better life for her family back on the frontier. When a male pilot kills Ruyi before she ever sees battle, the family receives no money for a death in service, and suddenly the second daughter, Wu Zetian, is facing pressure to either enlist or marry to help her family’s position. But her jiejie’s death only fans the flame of Zetian’s rage against the system that sacrifices scores of girls, while the boys who are their counterparts in piloting the mechas are national heroes. Zetian hatches a plan to enlist in order to get close to Yang Guang, the pilot of the famous Nine-Tailed Fox, and take her revenge for the death of her sister. But Zetian’s plan goes awry when she is dragged into battle by Yang Guang before she ever gets the opportunity to kill him. Against all odds, Zetian emerges from the Nine-Tailed Fox an Iron Widow, the rare girl who is capable of killing the boy in the yang seat rather than dying in the yin seat herself. Instead of killing her, the military assigns Zetian to Li Shimin, a convicted murderer who killed his own family, and was only spared only because his unusually high spirit pressure made him a valuable but volatile military resource, much like Zetian herself.

Iron Widow takes place in Huaxia, a science fiction setting that draws inspiration from ancient China. Huaxia hunkers behind the Great Wall, a defensive perimeter guarded by the Chrysalises in order to keep the alien Hunduns at bay. Many characters draw on famous historical figures in this science fiction context, including Wu Zetian herself, who takes her name from the Tang dynasty figure who was the only woman to ever rule China as emperor. However, the vibes here are much more mecha anime than historical fantasy, and the main body of the story follows Zetian and Shimin as they become the most powerful and most reviled pilot pair in Huaxia.

While being a fast-paced science fiction adventure, Iron Widow also reflects significantly on patriarchy and on how women can be complicit in the systems that oppress them. Zetian clashes with her fellow pilots from the moment she enters training. She encounters jealousy from the other new recruits because she has a high spirit pressure reading, and she is immediately assigned the rank of “consort” rather than “concubine.” Zetian also receives a less than warm welcome from some of the Iron Princesses, the elite women pilots who are part of a rare “balanced match” that means they are less likely to die in battle. Zetian has been subjected to foot binding, and her feet were broken and bound by her own grandmother to improve her marriageability. Every step she takes is painful, and the presence or absence of this pain becomes the way that she recognizes whether she is in reality, or the dreamlike mind-realm of piloting a Chrysalis.

Although piloting a Chrysalis involves a gender-based system derived from principles in Chinese medicine, Xiran Jay Zhao signals early on that they are not here to reinforce the gender binary. Rather, the entirety of Iron Widow is about questioning these divisions. Early in the novel, Zetian is in the woods with her friend Gao Yizhi—a rich city boy with whom she has formed a secret and unlikely bond—they see a butterfly with an unusual colour pattern. Yizhi has been teaching Zetian to look up information on his tablet—a device that is only permitted to men—and through this research she discovers that “biological sex has all sorts of variations in nature.” This lays the groundwork for Zetian to question the entire piloting system. Nor is this the only way in which Iron Widow is unusual; after setting up both Yizhi and Shimin as potential love interests, rather than rivalry the novel sees the three taking tentative steps into a polyamorous triad which notably does not just focus on Zetian but also develops the relationship between Yizhi and Shimin.

Over the course of the narrative, Zetian begins to move past the idea of personal revenge and turns her eyes towards the system that enabled her sister’s death. As she discovers the power to pilot she begins to feel responsible not just for avenging her jiejie, but for the lives of all the girls that will die if nothing changes. But she still doesn’t have the full picture of the world they are operating in, as is made clear by two important revelations that result from the battle to retake Zhou province from the Hunduns at the climax of the book. This new information sets the stage for Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin to rock the very foundations of Huaxia in the untitled sequel expected to be published in 2022.

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Facing the Mountain

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

“Why should they lay their lives on the line for a country that had forced them and their parents into bleak concentration camps? Why, if they fought for America, would America not at least release their family members, grant their parents citizenship, and restore their civil rights?”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants—the Issei—were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons—the Nisei—were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point the Nisei became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers, and headed predominantly by white officers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military.

Brown predominantly focuses on three young Nisei men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service despite the discrimination they faced, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role. Many of the young men tried to volunteer shortly after Pearl Harbor and discovered they were barred from doing so. Later the draft would be expanded to include Japanese Americans, and some would refuse to enlist due to the discrimination they and their families had faced. These are the no-no boys, and while they are mentioned occasionally, they are not the focus of Brown’s work. We get glimpses of life in the camps and other trials of those who remained behind through stories of the families and friends of the young men who are Brown’s primary subjects. But the main body of the narrative moves to Europe, where the 442nd served in Italy, France, and Germany.

One interesting aspect of the Japanese internment that Brown teases out in Facing the Mountain is the differences in the experiences of the Hawaiian and mainland Nisei. This comes particularly to light in section entitled Kotonks and Buddaheads, which were the nicknames for the mainlanders and the Hawaiian-born Nisei respectively. Because so much of the working population of the Hawaiian territory was of Japanese descent, it was deemed impractical—even economically catastrophic—to incarcerate them all. Some prominent Issei men were imprisoned, but otherwise the families of the Hawaiian-born Nisei remained largely at liberty. This was a sharp contrast to the harsh realities faced by the families of the mainland boys in the internment camps. Fred Shiosaki’s family was not incarcerated because they lived outside the exclusion zone, but their laundry business was almost destroyed by a boycott. The rifts created by the misunderstandings between the two groups almost tore the 442nd apart before they ever went into battle.

One outlier in Brown’s narrative is Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a conscientious objector even before the conscription of Japanese Americans. While most of Brown’s subjects fought on the battlefield, Hirabayashi fought in the courts, arguing that the curfews, exclusion orders, and evacuation zones were unconstitutional discrimination based on race. Inside the facilities where he was jailed a result, he also fought against the segregation of these institutions, exposing their hypocrisies and absurdities. For example, in a southern prison, Hirabayashi was assigned to be housed with the white inmates, but in a Washington State prison, he was assigned to the non-white dorm. Hirabayashi used these inconsistencies to peacefully agitate for prison reform. Alongside the combat troops, Hirabayashi and the two chaplains form a more philosophical contrast, helping to round out the narrative. Hirabayashi’s story alone would merit a book in its own right.

Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. As with The Boys in the Boat, he succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. With none of the main subjects of the book alive any longer—the last, Fred Shiosaki, died in April 2021—the work of organizations such as Densho becomes even more important to preserving the memory of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II. Brown’s work adds to that with a very readable account of some of those experiences, and a young reader’s edition is also expected in Spring 2022.

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One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?

The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.

This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.

The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.

I’ll Be the One

by Lyla Lee

ISBN 9780062936929

“Only eight years ago, people only knew about Psy and the memeable moments in “Gagnam Style.” Now BTS is everywhere, and people from all sorts of different backgrounds are lined up to audition.”

As a fat girl, Skye Shin is constantly hearing about all the things she shouldn’t do. Don’t dance. Don’t wear bright colours. Don’t eat too much, especially not in public. Even her own mother is so embarrassed about her weight that they haven’t been back to Korea to visit their extended family for years. But Skye isn’t about to let any of that stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a K-pop star, and she knows she has both the voice and the dance skills to do it. With a permission slip signed by her father, Skye auditions for My Shining Star, the first K-pop reality TV competition to take place entirely in America. But in order to win, she’ll not only have to prove her skills to the judges and audience, but also overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions of an industry whose beauty standards don’t leave any room for girls like her.  

Skye is a confident protagonist is who secure in her appearance but we get hints that this has not always been the case. We learn that in the past her mother put her on a series of restrictive diets, and there is a passing mention of a school counselor who may have been instrumental in helping her throw off that attitude and live her life without constantly thinking about her weight. However, I’ll Be the One isn’t the story of her coming to accept herself, but rather what she does with confidence once she has grounded herself in it. There is one brief moment in the story, after a judge has been particularly nasty to her, that Skye considers resubmitting to a dietary regime, but in general she holds fast to her principles and doesn’t let people’s comments get to her. She literally wears rose-tinted sunglasses to her audition, and this is generally representative of her character and approach to the world.

Skye meets a cute girl in line for her audition, but when Lana turns out to have a girlfriend, Skye pivots just as quickly to being excited about meeting other queer Asian young women. The plot of I’ll Be the One does not focus significantly on Skye’s rivals. Rather, the main villain of the book is Bora, one of the judges of the show. She also happens to be the only woman on the judge’s panel, adding insult to injury. Bora repeatedly calls out Skye’s weight and appearance as being an impediment to her having a real career in the industry, but doesn’t seem to be able to see that this says more about the industry than about Skye or the market itself. With a sole vote, she cannot eliminate Skye single-handedly, but this brings the added pressure of knowing that in each stage of the competition, Skye must win the votes of both other judges every time in order to advance.

Because of the American setting, forbidden romance doesn’t play into I’ll Be the One in quite the same way that it featured in K-Pop Confidential or Shine. However, Skye does have a love interest in the form of Henry Cho, who also tries out for the show. Henry is a social media influencer who is the son of two people who are famous in the Korean entertainment industry, but who does not have a career there himself. However, my favourite part about their relationship is something that doesn’t come up until later in the book once they’ve gotten to know one another fairly well, which is that Henry is also bisexual, a nice bit of double representation. Henry is also the character who provides the window into the potential downsides of fame, and forces Skye into reckoning with the differences between a person’s public persona and their private self.

I’ll Be the One was the third K-pop YA novel I read recently, but I think it had a slightly different vibe while dealing with many of the same issues. Much of this is due to the fact that Skye is living at home and only periodically travelling to Los Angeles to take part in the show. It creates much less of an intense environment than stories in which the protagonist is enrolled in a full-time idol training program and mostly separated from their family. With the added aspect of the representation in this book, I think it might be my favourite of the three. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I initially started explore this genre looking for an analogue to the intense competition and drama provided by dance school books, but this lighter take really hit the spot.

Canada Reads Along 2021: Jonny Appleseed

by Joshua Whitehead

ISBN 9781551527253

“My home is full of hope and ghosts.”

Since leaving the Peguis reservation, Jonny has been doing cybersex work to pay the rent in Winnipeg, rarely traveling back home especially after his grandmother’s death. But when his step-father dies, his mother calls him home for the funeral and Jonny has only a few days to get together the money he needs for the trip back to the rez. As he works to scrape together the rent plus funds for the drive up north, Jonny reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his mother and grandmother, and the fraught intersection between his indigenous heritage and his queer identity. Homecoming is a complex reckoning with the self, and the family that made him.

The relationships with the women in his family are at the heart of the story, as Jonny was raised by his mother, who had him young, and his grandmother. His father left when he was a toddler and then died tragically, and his step-father was never a positive force in his life, even if his mother loved him. In fact, for self-identified glitter princess Jonny, masculinity has always been fraught, especially where it intersects with his indigeneity. He has had to play “straight on the rez in order to be NDN” and in the city he has played “white in order to be queer.” Part of this tension is embodied by the symbol of a bear. Jonny’s family is bear clan, but within the queer community, he cannot claim this title due to an entirely separate meaning. It is only one small way in which he feels he has been forced to divide his identities against himself. Part of his journey of self-reclamation is laying claim to titles like Two Spirit and indigiqueer that try to forge the two halves of himself back into a single whole.

Running through the story is Jonny’s poignant relationship with Tias. They have been friends since childhood, and have long been lovers, but Tias is not fully reconciled with what his love for Jonny means about his own sexual identity. Tias also has a long-time girlfriend, and the three are caught in a complex relationship, where Jordan and Jonny know that they share Tias, but do not openly acknowledge it to one another. Yet Jonny finds himself unable to hate her because she reminds him in many ways of his grandmother; “they were both little women with the ferocious power of a behemoth inside them.” The relationship Joshua Whitehead has created here is simultaneously tender and tragic; in order for Jonny to have love, it is not enough for him to be reconciled with himself, he also needs for Tias to do the same.

Bodies and physicality are an important part of Jonny’s story, the site of both injuries and pleasure, the one often morphing into the other. He also literally makes his living by his body, mostly selling cam shows and the occasional live meeting with a client, because his mother taught him that if he likes something and he is good at it, he should never do it for free. As a child, Jonny’s long hair is simultaneously a symbol of his indigeneity and part of the perception of his queerness, the two pulling against one another. We he finally cuts it off for a fauxhawk, it is his grandmother, in her admiration for whiteness, who allows the change. Yet she is also the person who first sees Jonny for what he is, and gives him the term Two Spirit to describe it. Straight bodies also tell stories, if in less fraught ways. Jonny’s stepfather’s body “was like a graveyard of injuries and ailments, so alive with experiences, while mine was riddled with shame.” As Jonny puts it, “our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.” Jonny Appleseed braids together past and present, the mundane and the spiritual, the crass and the poetic into a visceral exploration of family, identity, and sexuality that will make you feel like you have walked a mile in Jonny’s shoes.

Jonny Appleseed was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. As a queer Mohawk woman herself, Jacobs spoke passionately to the importance of this narrative, highlighting the fact that it is the first book by a Two Spirit indigenous author that has been represented at the table in the twenty year history of Canada Reads. Her defence repeatedly touched on themes such as resilience, healing, and the power to transmute pain into humour in order to survive and thrive. Describing it as a full body reading experience, Jacobs leaned into the physicality of the narrative, including the sexuality, arguing that it was a book she needed herself as a teen.

Jonny Appleseed went into the finale against Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, defended by Roger Mooking, another title also published by the small, independent Arsenal Pulp Press. Both books touched on themes of family, trauma, healing, resilience, and forgiveness, making the final day of debates particularly interesting. Host Ali Hassan posed a series of questions that asked the panelists to consider which book most effectively depicted complicated relationships, the multidimensional theme of home, and fresh perspectives on love. However, most of the panelists spoke to how both books effectively achieved these ends. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee noted the relationship between Tias and Jonny, while Rosey Edeh was moved by Jonny’s relationship with his mother and grandmother.

The arguments for Jonny Appleseed throughout the week clearly made a particularly strong impression on panelist Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who spoke about how hard he found the book to read. However, he credited the influence of the debates in causing him to re-examine why he wasn’t initially able to see the healing and perseverance in the novel. He also cited Jonny Appleseed as the book that brought him a fresh and compelling perspective that he had never considered or been privy to before.

In the final vote of the week, Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making Jonny Appleseed the first book by an indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

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Canada Reads Along: Butter Honey Pig Bread

by Francesca Ekwuyasi

ISBN 9781551528236

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well.”

Content Warning: Childhood sexual abuse

Twins Taiye and Kehinde used to be one zygote. These days, they barely speak to one another after being a torn apart by a terrible thing they never speak about. Leaving their mother Kambirinachi behind in Nigeria, they venture out into the world separately, to France, England, Canada and beyond. Sometimes they are on opposite sides of the world, other times they live only hours apart without ever seeing one another. But now they are both back home in Lagos, Kehinde bringing her husband Farouq, and Taiye trailing a long series of failed relationships with women who have changed her life for better and for worse. Back in their childhood home, the two sisters and their eccentric mother must reckon with the event that drove Taiye and Kehinde apart.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of family with just a touch of the supernatural. Kambirinachi believes herself to be ogbanje or abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by repeatedly being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. On her third birth, she chose to stay in this world for a time, but she still hears the voices of her disembodied Kin call to her, tempting her towards the doorways back to the space between. For much of their lives, her daughters seem quite normal, but as an adult, Taiye sees the manifestation of Our Lady—a spirit that looks like her sister—in whom she confides and seeks advice, even when she is not speaking to the real Kehinde.

It is revealed relatively early in the story that, while their mother was still grieving their father’s death, one of the sisters was sexually assaulted by a relative. Previously so alike, this difference divides them, festering unspoken in their relationship for decades. Because they cannot talk about this biggest hurt, they cannot speak of almost anything, a long silence stretching between them. In the years since, Taiye wrote to Kehinde, but never mailed the letters, until one day her girlfriend found them and posted them to her sister. Kehinde has been reading the letters, while Taiye continues to pretend they were never sent. The letters add an additional layer of narration between them as they struggle towards a new relationship.

Taiye has spent her adult life working in kitchens and studying culinary arts around the world. Cooking can serve as both a method of bonding, of creating something together, and also as a way for the three women to avoid talking to one another, making busy with the work of the kitchen. Many of the recipes in Butter Honey Pig Bread are so closely described, including measurements, that it might be possible to recreate them straight from the cooking passages. The book’s very title is derived from the food that permeates the narrative, providing a connection to family and home.

Francesca Ekwuyasi makes varying narrative choices for the different sections, which range from Kambirinachi to Taiye to Kehinde in a non-linear fashion. At first, Kehinde is the only first person narrator, drawing the reader a little closer to her character while her mother and her sister’s stories are told in the third person. The occasional passage will address the reader directly, such as when Ekwuyasi writes that “perhaps in your life you’ve come across a force that’s matched and moved you. Maybe it changed you so profoundly that when you look back at the landscape of your life, you are struck by the indelible mark it left.” Late in the book, Kambirinachi breaks from third into the first person, demanding agency and the right to finally tell her own story. These shifts draw attention to the power of narrative and point of view, and how it shapes the reader’s perception of the story being told. The novel explores grief, humanity, loss, family, identity and more, taking the reader across the world and back again in a sweeping family saga.

Butter Honey Pig Bread was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by chef and television host Roger Mooking. Throughout the week, Mooking was a passionate and eloquent defender of his book, though he often struggled against the time limits imposed by the debate format, with unrehearsed arguments that did not fit into the time allotted for opening and closing statements. However, his energy was enough to bring Butter Honey Pig Bread to the finale, highlighting both the craft and the themes of the book in his defense. He spoke to the relationships, the mythology, the food, and the sense of community that bind this story together into a tapestry that can be viewed at a distance, or examined up close without diminishing its beauty.

The questions focused on the depiction of complicated relationships, the concept of home, and the portrayal of love in the last two books standing. In their answers to most of the questions, the panelists were able to draw out aspects of both titles that effectively touched on these themes, or helped them experience a new perspective. Scott Helman returned to the idea of finding more hope in Jonny Appleseed compared to Butter Honey Pig Bread, but in general it was difficult to tell which way the panelists were leaning. In some ways, the efforts of the host to tease the two books apart through these questions only served to illustrate that the two books shared many themes. Rosey Edeh praised the warmth and strength of the story, and how that was able to carry her through confronting the trauma that the characters have experienced in their lives. The final round of debate asked each panelist to speak to how the remaining books had changed them, and almost all of them had good things to say about both of the remaining titles. Scott Helman particularly cited the concept of the ogbanje as a new idea that stayed with him long after he closed the book, despite his other criticisms of this title.

On the final day, the votes come down to the free agents whose books have already been eliminated earlier in the week. Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making it the final book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the winning book, and a look back on the week’s debates!

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Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!