is one of the books in the SFWA Fantasy Storybundle
! I was excited to read it, having heard good things about Gold's work, and my good expectations were rewarded. The novel contains a mix of genres: YA, slice-of-life, queer lit, furry, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and romance, not necessarily in that order.
I found it fascinating and immersive, a deeply believable book. Three different stories are woven together:
* Marie-Belle, a bayou muskrat girl in 1916 whose family wants her to marry and who would rather be a vodou priestess like her grandmother.
* Hannah, a lesbian otter in a strict and grimly depressing Christian-cult future
* Meg, an struggling artist in 2013 who's questioning her sexuality and also her sanity.
The struggling artist, Meg, is compulsively and somewhat unwillingly drawing a comic about the first girl, and having vivid, life-like dreams about the second. Most of the book is about Meg. There's also a strong supernatural element: Meg's closest friends have had experiences with ghosts and visions/life-like dreams. Meg leans heavily towards "they are crazy and so am I" when she starts having her own possibly-supernatural experiences. The setting is pretty Earth-like, with furry touches: eg, some of the otter characters have houses that incorporate pools or have submerged "floors", characters may have keener noses or ears depending on species, etc.
There is a lot else going on in the book. For example, Meg used to be on prescription anti-depressants and quit them because she felt numb of them. She now self-medicates with alcohol and weed (both illegally obtained.) It's a nuanced portrayal, which has both aspects of "this doesn't seem healthy" and "but it does help sometimes?" That goes for both the prescribed and illegal drugs.
I thought, from the blurb, that Meg was going to be "girl who thought she was straight and now thinks she might be lesbian or bi". But her starting point is more like "asexual??? straight??? Lesbian???? Bi??????? I DON'T KNOW". She is not attracted to anyone or interested in sex, but she kind of wants to be and all of her friends keep pushing her to "get out there! Experiment! How else will you knooooow?" I had the simultaneous experience of gaping at her friends ("what is wrong with you? That is a terrible plan
") and also feeling like it was exactly the experience a lot of people go through. I didn't have this problem myself, even though I didn't meet anyone I was attracted to until college. But I know people who did.
The characters are vividly drawn and distinctive. Even the supporting cast has an array of different speech patterns and they're easy to tell apart. All three main characters feel like very different personalities, even when Meg and Hannah think they're each other's dreams. Most of the conflict in the book is driven not by evil or cruelty, but by people trying to do the right thing, or what they think they are supposed to do. Even the "Dangerous Spirits" of the series title feel like complex individuals who are acting rationally within their own belief system. (Which, y'know, does not make them less dangerous.)
One touch I particularly admired: Meg's part of the story is first-person past tense. Marie-Belle's story, which Meg experiences in a kind of creative fugue, is 3rd person present. Hannah's is 3rd person past. It's one of the few times where I've seen this kind of switch and not only thought "that's fine" but "oh, that works really well for conveying the differences in their narratives."
I enjoyed the book a good deal, especially the second half, where it picked up momentum and urgency. I have some quibbles with it, but most of why I give it an 8 and not a 9 is that the subject matter isn't perfectly to my tastes. Eg, the trope of "oppressed women whose society tries to forces them into marriage" is one I am pretty sick of. Meg is prickly, defensive, and copes with problems a lot by putting them off or ignoring them, which I simultaneously relate to and also find exasperating. (Hi yes it me but it's STILL annoying.) She grew on me as the book went on, but for the first 20 pages I was iffy about her.
I am going to wrap this up with some things behind a spoiler tag, because they are spoilers but also significant to many queer readers. ( spoilers! )