SJ Whitby’s “Cute Mutants” – a superhero scenario that’s all heart, voice & inclusivity

Read if you like:

Voice, snark, diverse cast, superpowers, badassery, shit-talk, anarchy, talking objects, fast pacing, found family, ensemble cast, A+ parenting/D- parenting, healthy representation of sexuality/ies, coming-of-age themes, X-men, Stray Kids

SJ Whitby’s writing is all about heart. Heart, heart, heart. Broken hearts, happy hearts, hopeful hearts, fearful hearts. Alongside all that heart, you’ll find a voice so discernable and palpable that it drives you to read the next page, and the next, and the next, and the—you get my point. I read the first page of Cute Mutants and instantly felt like I’d known Dylan, the main character, forever.

When I first opened my package and held the book, it felt so polished. The physical feel of it was incredible. It’s definitely one of the most thoroughly processed self-published books I’ve had the fortune of holding in my hand. The formatting is perfect, and the cover art is stunning. It literally looks like it could’ve been printed by a publisher, which tells me just how much work and effort that went into finalizing the project. I was so, so, impressed and find it so, so, admirable.

Right, so, let’s move on to the actual content of the book.

There’s transgender rep, there’s asexual rep, there’s pan rep, there’s BIPOC rep. It’s one of the most inclusive books I’ve read in a long, long time – and that’s partly because it’s self-published and thus doesn’t answer to the biases in the publishing industry. There’s been no gatekeepers here, and it makes for a glorious reading experience. It’s a safe space. You feel welcome. You feel bold.

The inclusivity doesn’t mean there’s no struggle in the book, however. The cast all struggle with your typical coming-of-age problems. Think first loves, discovery of sexuality, separating from parents, disinterest in school, peer pressure, pressure to conform, battling social anxiety in various forms. These more generic struggles are mixed in with the struggles of newly discovered superpowers, an event that happens after the whole cast kiss the same girl at the same party.

What’s mind-numbingly clever here, I think, is the way that Whitby has made the superpowers a physical manifestation of the cast’s deeply personal struggles that often show in their social interactions. Dylan, for example, can talk to objects as a result of social anxiety. Another character’s appearance physically morphs into matching her inner mood at all times because she struggles with her self-esteem. A third character has literal demons crawling around inside her chest as a manifestation of psychological trauma. It’s a clever and fresh spin on the superpower trope that adds a healthy amount of character depth to the conflict at large.

Given that it’s not a book focused on prose, but rather on voice, the pacing does get fast at times, which worried me at the beginning, but overall, it didn’t disconnect me from the characters. I think a lot of that has to do with Whitby’s chokehold grasp on voice. In other books, the fast pacing might have frustrated me, but it worked for me in this case.

This is a book about family, friends and first loves. It’s a book about acceptance and hope, although it doesn’t feel like that at first glance. It feels rather like the opposite. It’s a book about growing up and successfully making a space for yourself in a world that doesn’t give you much room to do so—at whatever cost it takes. It’s a book worth reading, basically.


Molly Aitken’s “The Island Child” – atmospherically and emotionally-haunting magical realism

Read if you like:

Family dynamics, coming-of-age themes, the troubles of motherhood, superstition versus religion, nature as a force of its own, beautiful prose, dual timelines, emotional depth, tragedy

Triggering content:

Emotional and physical abuse, parental neglect, rape, infant death, suicidal thoughts

I owned this book for about a year before I picked it up to actually read it. Amazingly, I picked it up on its 1-year birthday – and proceeded to read it in one sitting. I can count on one hand the books I’ve ever read in one sitting. Two of them are Fahrenheit 451 and Rosemary’s Baby, so it’s fair to say that the Island Child is in solid company. But it’s also fair to say that The Island Child is a longer book than those other two, which perhaps makes it even solider than them. Especially when counting in the fact that it made me cry several times, yet I read on.

So, what kept me glued to the pages?

This book tackles some heavy-hitting (and potentially triggering!) topics related to motherhood. Although I’m not a mother myself, I still connected strongly with the main character and those topics. Perhaps because it’s as much a book about motherhood as it’s a book about childhood, and how those two are connected.

We follow Oona in two timelines – the past as a child, and the present as an adult. Throughout the book, these two timelines slowly merge and puts us in the present. As such, it’s a book that’s built largely around mystery as the reader gradually comes to understand Adult-Oona’s conflicts by discovering Child-Oona’s circumstances. And they are not nice circumstances.

Child-Oona grows up on the small Irish island of Inis (fictional) in a village of 50 people where the superstition of the sea is ripe, clashing with institutional religion. The village has few amenities of any sort, despite being the 1960s. Like children in general, the adventurous Child-Oona is fascinated by the superstition that shrouds the island, meaning she clashes constantly with her overly religious and punitive mother, who refuses to let Oona go to school and believes female biology is a sin. They clash to the point that their relationship is unsalvageable, and has made Adult-Oona believe she herself is unfit to be a mother, unable to properly show love for her own child, Joyce.

Oona escapes Inis as a young adult when she’s pregnant with Joyce and settles down in Canada. This also makes this a story about immigration in a time before the digitalized world, meaning immigration truly meant leaving your old life behind. While battling the trauma of emotional abuse from her mother and rape by a stranger, Oona struggles to fit into this more modern world to the point that she is unfit to care for her daughter. Indeed, she’s unfit to care for herself. As her daughter grows up, Oona hides her past from Joyce, ashamed and fearful of it. The book is centered on Oona coming to terms with that past when Joyce run away to Inis island for the answers Oona always refused giving her. 

Given the small cast (a natural consequence of the island setting), the plot was somewhat predictable, but Aitken still threw in enough minor plot twists that she planted doubt in me several times. In the end, however, it did turn out as I had predicted.

This is a story about tragedy. There’s death, rape, neglect, isolation, and much more. It’s just not a cuddly story. It doesn’t hold your hand. Rather, it opens your eyes. And, on the last few pages, the tragedy finally turns, leaving you with hope stirring in your stomach.

It’s a cathartic book, I’ll say, and it’s worth all the heartbreak when you reach that final page. So don’t let yourself be scared off, but do be aware of the triggers it may or may not have for you.


Harrow the Ninth is not Gideon the Ninth – but that’s not a bad thing…

Considering the book is called Harrow the Ninth, I shouldn’t have to say this—but Harrow isn’t Gideon. Except… maybe a little bit, there, towards the end, but that’s too big a spoiler, so we won’t talk about that.

Let me first say that this will be my thoughts on Harrow the Ninth as much as it will be on Gideon the Ninth. Not only because the two are part of a series, so it’s only natural, but also because they’re contrasts of each other, two pieces of a whole, which makes it nearly impossible to discuss one without the other.

The biggest hurdle I’ve seen people struggle with when they go from reading Gideon the Ninth to Harrow the Ninth is the loss of Gideon’s pomp-and-circumstance voice. But even if Harrow’s voice isn’t as distinct as Gideon’s was, I was sold on Harrow the second I realized how badly I wanted to understand her. How badly I wanted her to understand herself, more so. I never felt that urge with Gideon. Gideon was easier for me to understand from the get-go, very relatable and entertaining even as she carried her own ghosts, but Harrow was a secret both to me and to herself. This makes sense when you consider that Harrow the Ninth is more of a psychological horror/thriller than the sprawling fantasy/sci-fi adventure that Gideon the Ninth was.

Harrow is so wounded-and-lonely-without-yet-knowing-it that I gobbled up the first 100 pages in no time. Faster than I gobbled up the initial pages of Gideon the Ninth. Ultimately, I cared about Harrow so hard and so fast that you may call it insta-love (and I don’t particularly like insta-love). That, for me, was enough to look beyond the loss of Gideon’s voice – because, yes, I also felt that loss. Bottom line is that I could look past the loss of Gideon’s voice because I sympathized so hard and so fast with Harrow that it nearly gave me whiplash. I realize this is also partly a consequence of having read Gideon the Ninth and knowing what Harrow lost at the end of that book, but that doesn’t diminish its worth for me in the 2nd book. Far from it.

The thing is, Muir could’ve played it safe after the success of Gideon the Ninth – but she didn’t. She took a risk. For me, that risk paid off.

What Muir did with Harrow the Ninth is that she experimented with style – on-page style as depicting the internal state of the main protagonist. Not only is the narration split between 3rd person Harrow and a 2nd person narrator whose identity is only revealed towards the end of the book (and which will punch the damn air from your lungs when it happens), but Muir also plays with timelines and settings. She does all of this in the name of stylizing Harrow’s character arc.

Muir stylizes Harrow’s extreme trauma from Gideon the Ninth – and she does it scarily effectively.

Harrow’s loss of self and loss of memories is what makes this book shine, even if it also demands a lot of thought and attention from the reader, including flipping back several chapters to see whether your inkling of something is true or not. As Harrow doubts herself, you doubt yourself. As she lies to herself, you lie to yourself. Yes, Harrow’s voice is less accessible than Gideon’s was, but once you realize exactly why that is – once you realize it’s inaccessible to you because it’s inaccessible to Harrow herself – then things start to get interesting. Again, think psychological horror/thriller.

Muir weaves a narrative that is best described as this:

This playfully experimental narrative makes Harrow the Ninth a page-turner that’s as frustrating as it’s intriguing. It’s like jumping on a rollercoaster in the dark: you just have to go with it.

As for the cast of characters, there are less than in Gideon the Ninth, which provides for more in-depth character dynamics and development. I personally loved this. Most of the cast is already known from the 1st book. I didn’t have to repeatedly look up all the character/house affiliations and necromantic abilities like I did during the 1st book, which was a nice respite, honestly. I won’t lie about that.

On the other hand, Harrow the Ninth is more politically complex than Gideon was. This is because Harrow herself is more aware of politics. I had to consult the internet several times to make sure who was who and what was what, especially in regards to the lore and the history of the world, but it was all very interesting, even if it made for slower reading.

As with Gideon the Ninth, Muir is also heavy on the description in Harrow the Ninth. I willingly admit that I occasionally had to read her dense passages of description twice, even thrice, to really paint the picture she was forming, but you kinda learn to roll with it. Once you do, it becomes easier. Both Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth are the kinds of books that’ll take you 100 pages to get into. Like densely written classics. But once you’re in, the pages flow faster and easier. It’s a rhythm. More like poetry and less like a blockbuster. Although, to be sure, there are serious blockbuster-y images and visuals in there. Think Akira in space and you’ll be on the right track.

The payoff of Harrow the Ninth is worth the effort of Harrow the Ninth, is what I’m trying to say here, so stick it out even if you struggle.

I struggled.

I stuck it out.

And I’m ultimately so glad that I did.