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GRRM’s This Tower of Ashes further explores truth and lies

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

In 1974, amidst heartbreaks and personal disappointments, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote This Tower of Ashes. The short story would be published two years later on Analog Annual, an anthology designed to attract new readers to the famous science fiction magazine.

After re-reading this story a couple of times, I still don’t know what to make of it. Sometimes you know where a narrative is trying to go even if doesn’t quite take you there, but in this case I’m not even sure of the intended direction. It does, however, make sense with the themes that Martin was and is still exploring in his stories, making it an interesting addition to understanding his bibliography.

So let’s try to unpack this acid spider dream.

Cut-rate dreams and secondhand rainbows

This Tower of Ashes is part of the Thousand Worlds universe, the shared setting for several of Martin’s sci-fi stories like The Hero and A Song for Lya.

The narrator and protagonist John Bowen lives isolated in the titular tower of ashes, a gloomy ruin in the mainland of Jamison’s World. Among the fantastic fauna of the mainland are the dream spiders, creatures whose poison can induce vivid hallucinations in their victims. Dream spider venom is also a popular drug, so John exchanges poison sacs with dealers for supplies. He has been living this way for a few years, but he recounts a story that happened shortly after he arrived in the tower.

John used to live in the city of Port Jamison with his partner Crystal, until she fell in love with Gerry. Unable to handle his feelings for the new couple, John self-exiled in the tower with his cat Squirrel. Crystal and Gerry find him a month later and try to convince him to return. The trio spends the night together, with John going back and forth between trying to win Crystal back and realizing it’s just a fantasy. He’s constantly clashing with Gerry, and this leads him to offer the couple a tour in the beautiful forests near his tower.

Things go especially wrong when he takes them to the spider-chasm to see dream spiders in their natural environment: Gerry accidentally slips and gets caught in the spider web, with dream spiders approaching both him and John. John flirts with the idea of not saving Gerry, but in the end choses to do so, at the expense of being bitten by a spider. Crystal and Gerry nurse him back to health, but leave shortly afterwards. Crystal had a different and possibly more accurate recollection of the events of that night, and it’s implied that John is slowly losing his grip on reality.

Down and sinking

In several aspects, This Tower of Ashes reminds me of The Second Kind of Loneliness. They’re similar stories in terms of tone, structure, themes, and characters.

Both stories have a male protagonist who lives in a self-imposed isolation in a surreal place. This isolation was largely motivated by a romantic rejection and the female figure is heavily idealized. We also know very little about the protagonist’s inner life besides this rejection, but their feelings on the matter are extensively explored.

Just as in Loneliness, the narrator of This Tower of Ashes has conflicted feelings about this rejection. He’s aware that he isn’t entitled to the love of his ex and that pursuing a relationship with her is fruitless, yet at the same time he still desires this relationship. Both stories are stronger because this conflict happens entirely in the protagonist’s head, without any external forces weighing in on the issue. Martin is a fan of writing the human heart in conflict with itself, after all.

The romantic rejections are also at the center of the protagonists’ loss of touch with reality. It’s never implied that Crystal or Karen were at fault, but the fact that they didn’t correspond some dude’s feelings was directly connected to this dude going insane. I’m not sure how I feel about that choice, especially now that it’s repeated across two different stories.

On the other hand, this is an opportunity to criticize toxic masculinity, something Martin would come to do very well in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve complained a lot about lack of diversity in his early writing, but those two stories wouldn’t work the same way without a male narrator. They deal with a very specific kind of entitlement, and while we’re invited to empathize with the protagonists, their feelings are far from endorsed. Or maybe I’m just giving Martin too much credit on this one.

Last but not least, the protagonists of both stories mistake reality and illusion, something that becomes apparent for the reader only at the end. The final twists make us reconsider everything these narrators told us so far, what we thought we knew about them, and how much we can trust their account of events. Yet This Tower of Ashes takes those questions further, exploring the fine line between lies and truth.

Bright and many-colored are the webs the dream-spiders weave

It’s no secret Martin loves unreliable narrators and likes to play with our perception of them. By the end of This Tower of Ashes, John he suggests he’s been drinking dream spider poison for a while. How much has that affected his memory of the events he just told us? What prevents him from having dreamt the whole story with Crystal and Gerry? Did Crystal and Gerry really visited him at some point? Are we even sure those two people exist, by the way?

In fact, tumblr user joannalannister takes these questions to the next level and has an intriguing theory about John not even being human. I have to confess this never occurred to me while reading the story, and I’m not entirely sure I believe Martin intended this interpretation. Yet it would explain a couple of elements that otherwise don’t make sense, like Squirrel, and there are definitely hints supporting this view. Actually, just the fact that this theory is plausible should hint at the mess Martin creates in our heads.

The relationship between fantasy and reality, truth and lies, is by far the most interesting aspect of This Tower of Ashes. It’s also a recurring conflict in Martin’s bibliography and it’s fascinating to see how his works, when considered together, complement each other in exploring these themes.

In The Second Kind of Loneliness, Martin warns us about the dangers of not engaging with real life for fear of its risks. As I argued a little while ago, With Morning Comes Mistfall reads as a love letter to fantasy. It’s Martin telling us that stories matter, even if they’re not real. Even A Song for Lya deals with these themes, placing Robb’s choice as a flawed, but human reality. There’s also ASOIAF, obviously. The conflict between truth and lies, songs and reality is present in several characters, although Sansa has to be the most obvious example.

Martin brings this conflict front and center in This Tower of Ashes. Almost opposing his thesis in With Morning Comes Mistfall, here he seems to criticize being lost in fantasies. As John drunkenly muses that the people in Port Jamison are stories, Korbec disagrees:

‘Don’t fool yourself,’ he said to me then, his face flush with wine and darkness, ‘you’re not missing nothin’. Lives are rotten stories, y’know. Real stories, now, they usually got a plot to ’em. They start and they go on a bit and when they end they’re over, unless the guy’s got a series goin’. People’s lives don’t do that nohow, they just kinda wander around and ramble and go on and on. Nothin’ ever finishes.’ ‘People die,’ I said. ‘That’s enough of a finish, I’d think.’ Korbec made a loud noise. ‘Sure, but have you ever known anybody to die at the right time? No, don’t happen that way. Some guys fall over before their lives have properly gotten started, some right in the middle of the best part. Others kinda linger on after everything is really over.’

John clearly endorses and values those words:

The weary realism that he offered me then is the only antidote there is for the dreams that spiders weave. But I am not Korbec, nor can I be, and while I recognize his truth, I cannot live it.

Given the status of truth placed in Korbec’s words, what I feel the story is telling us is this: lives are not stories, so living stories is not the same as living actual lives. This Tower of Ashes, as The Second Kind of Loneliness before it, sounds almost like a cautionary tale. Be careful with stories, it says. Yes, we all love dreams, even the spider’s victims would die without a fight because that’s how sweet fantasies are. But we pay a high price when we’re unable to let go of our fantasies and we have to be aware of that.

This is one of the moments I feel happy about reading Martin’s stories together, because because each of them brings a different piece to the puzzle. It’s a fascinating exploration of fantasy and reality that started decades ago and culminates with the multi-layered reconstruction of fantasy that is ASOIAF.

Next time: we’ll still be in the Thousand Worlds for “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man,” which has to be one of the best titles of anything ever.


 

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Gods and Worldbuilding in GRRM’s And Seven Times Never Kill Man

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

Decades before becoming the world-famous writer we all love but hate to wait for, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) was making a name for himself writing science fiction. And Seven Times Never Kill Man marks another step in this path, expanding Martin’s sci-fi universe known as “Thousand Worlds.”

Written in 1974 and published on Analog in the following year, the story was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It became one of Martin’s many Hugo losers, but just the amount of nominations he got is already impressive.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man also generated this iconic Analog cover by John Schoenherr:

Somewhere between wookies and ewoks?

So let’s have a look at another corner of Martin’s “future history” universe.

In a thousand thousand woods and a single city

And Seven Times Never Kill Man takes us to the world of Corlos (no, not the same one), home of the Jaenshi. A sentient humanoid species, the Jaenshi structure their society around their religious beliefs, with each of their small clans worshiping a different pyramid as if it contained their gods.

This society is slowly being annihilated by the Steel Angels, a belligerent human cult devoted to the pale child Bakkalon. The self-titled children of Bakkalon believe it’s their duty to expand and conquer, and Corlos is next on their plans. As the story starts, the pacifist and wild Jaenshi are paying a heavy price for having killed one of the Steel Angels, and now their children hang on the walls of the Angel city.

The cruelty of the Angels enrages Arik neKrol, a human trader who loves Jaenshi art. NeKrol convinces his fellow trader Jannis Ryther that they need to help the Jaenshi, and Jannis leaves the planet promising to return in one year with weapons. Now it’s up to neKrol to teach the Jaenshi how to use them.

Turns out most Jaenshi are uninterested in neKrol’s weapons, confident that their gods will protect them. The exception is a small group of exiles—Jaenshi whose pyramids and clans were destroyed, but they couldn’t find home among others. Led by a Jaenshi known as the bitter speaker, the exiles are determined to fight the Angels and protect the surviving clans.

When the children of Bakkalon advance against a huge Jaenshi clan, neKrol and his ragtag bunch of exiles move to protect them. Strange events take place when the Angels try to destroy this clan’s pyramid:

“NeKrol stood paralyzed. The pyramid on the rock was no longer a reddish slab. Now it sparkled in the sunlight, a canopy of transparent crystal. And below that canopy, perfect in every detail, the pale child Bakkalon stood smiling, with his Demon-Reaver in his hand.”

Most Steel Angels believe it to be a miracle, except for weaponsmaster C’ara DaHan. Before he can order the destruction of the pyramid, he’s killed by one of the exiles. This prompts an armed conflict between Jaenshi and children of Bakkalon, with several deaths on both sides, including neKrol.

Little is known of the Jaenshi after this conflict, but the bitter speaker and two other exiles meet Jannis and prepare to leave with her. The Steel Angels still live in their city, but they become obsessed with their new found god/pyramid. They burn their winter provisions and kill their own children, who now hang on the walls of the Angel city.

They will never kill a man again

As Martin develops his writing and evolves his style, his stories become longer and more complex. And Seven Times Never Kill Man has a wide range of elements worth analyzing, and a few that specifically stood out to me.

Those that know Martin from A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) are aware of how much he likes to play with the expectations of his readers. Yet his plot twists are born organically from the narrative, seeded and foreshadowed long before they happen. They still surprise you, but at the same time make you wonder how you didn’t see them coming.

This reading project shows that Martin has been playing with reader expectations since the ’70s, with variable degrees of success. Stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness or This Tower of Ashes have important plot twists that change our perception of the story. At the same time, they’re also quite abrupt, and I can’t imagine that many readers guessed those twists beforehand.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels closer to ASOIAF, in which the surprise comes from our own narrative expectations. Storytelling conventions tell us that the novelette won’t end simply with the Angels annihilating the Jaenshi and calling it a day. We expect the Jaenshi to fight back, and the narrative toys with this possibility. Then the conflict goes a different route, but one that completely makes sense with everything we’ve been told about the Jaenshi and the Angels. The Jaenshi do defeat the Angels, after all. Just not the way we would have expected them to.

To be honest, I don’t quite like unexplained supernatural elements being so crucial in the end, even knowing that this is Martin’s favorite approach to magic. But the surprise ending is rooted in what we know about that world and those cultures. It’s not a twist because it came out of the left field, it’s a twist because we were expecting a promise that the story never made.

The old gods and the new

Martin goes deeper in the worldbuilding for And Seven Times Never Kill Man than for his previous works. The novelette is clearly part of a larger universe, with several references to other Thousand Worlds planets and cultures.

Truth be told, some of those references feel expository or like clumsy name-dropping that adds very little to the story. But the meat of the narrative, the Jaenshi and Steel Angel cultures, is still remarkably well-developed. We get a good sense of who they are, what they believe in, or how their society operates. Without this foundation, the ending simply wouldn’t work.

The two cultures are clearly distinct and operate according to very different values, but at the same they share important similarities. Jaenshi and Angels have their faith as the center of social organization, with those beliefs also determining who’s excluded or included in that society. There’s a strong focus on collectivity before individuality, with an emphasis on hierarchy and the role of the religious leaders. Both leaders seem confident in their beliefs despite contrary evidence. The Jaenshi and the children of Bakkalon parallel each other along the narrative, so the transformation of the children of Bakkalon into a perverted version of the Jaenshi clans fits them well.

It’s no small feat to create and present two cultures so similar and yet so obviously distinct. Perhaps for this reason, both Jaenshi and Steel Angels are still largely treated as cultural blocks. It’s a struggle Martin will continue to have until his ASOIAF days, as seen in Dothraki and other Essosi cultures. We don’t get a sense of the internal diversity of these cultures because we don’t see the individuals that are part of them. The ones we do get to know, like the bitter speaker or C’ara DaHan, are treated as exceptions.

The text of And Seven Times Never Kill Man feels almost anti-religious sometimes, though I don’t believe this was Martin’s goal. It’s just that his gods are so alien to us. Their true nature is unknown, their intentions a mystery. We see this with the gods of ASOIAF as well: from R’hllor to the Drowned God, Martin’s pantheon is terrifying. No wonder in both stories we only have the words of the prophets, who are often wrong or missing important pieces, but never the gods themselves. We cannot reach Martin’s gods. But which gods can we reach, after all?

The Heart of Bakkalon was sunk forever

Unlike Martin’s usual close point-of-view structure, And Seven Times Never Kill Man presents us with several points-of-view. We follow Arik neKrol more often, but also Jannis Ryther or Wyatt and his Steel Angels. Out of all the main players in the story, we only miss a Jaenshi perspective.

Having the point-of-view of the Steel Angels gives us a better insight in their society and their motivations, as well as the blind spots that will ultimately cause their downfall. The absence of a Jaenshi point-of-view, in turn, makes their culture more mysterious to us. The only Jaenshi that we get to know better, the bitter speaker, is clearly no longer operating by the same rules. This makes the Jaenshi culture truly alien to the reader, allowing multiple interpretations of the final conflict between them and the Angels.

What truly happened with the pyramid of the waterfall clan? Actually, what are the mysterious pyramids the Jaenshi worship? Who built them? How and why did the Jaenshi create sculptures of alien gods? Why did they create the statues of Bakkalon? Did the talkers know what was going to happen? What’s the meaning of the golden glow in Jaenshi’s eyes, absent in the bitter speaker but present in the Steel Angels by the end? Does the Angels killing their own children have some connection with the population control of the Jaenshi? What’s the nature of the Jaenshi gods? Why do the bitter speaker and the other exiles change so much as they distance themselves from these gods? I could go on forever; this story opens more questions than a season of Lost.

I haven’t found any satisfactory answer for those questions, be it by myself or among fan circles. However, I don’t think Martin would have introduced the idea of the “vampires of the mind” or “soul-sucks” for no reason. Being this sloppy with loose ends doesn’t suit Martin’s style, even in his early days. Could this be the key to explain the fate of the Angels? Or is this reference too small and not followed through enough to earn such importance in the narrative? I go back and forth with this idea.

What about you? What’s your interpretation for the ending? What aspects of the story stood out for you? Let me know in the comments!

Next time: Martin goes horror in “Meathouse Man”!

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Object of Desire Thrills and Chills

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Full confession, I love murder mysteries and crime thrillers. I grew up on crime procedurals and British murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the like. As an adult I graduated from the tamer Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote that my mom preferred to the more gruesome Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, and CSI. However, my love for crime stories still remains, just see my enjoyment of Dark. While I enjoy the occasional romance, thrillers and mysteries are more my pace for summertime reading. Over the weekend, I sat down with Dal Maclean’s brand new release from Blind Eye Books: Object of Desire. It’s a story filled with mystery, angst, and thrills, though also with its share of drawbacks.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

Tom Gray is one of the world’s top models—an effortless object of desire. Self-contained, elusive and always in control, he’s accustomed to living life entirely on his own terms. But when Tom comes under suspicion in the gory death of his employer, his world spirals into chaos.

Someone’s framing him. Someone’s stalking him. And as old secrets come to light, Tom finds his adversary always one step ahead.

Will Foster is the only man Tom trusts to help. But Tom brutally burned all bridges between them two years before, and Will paid a bitter price. If he wants to survive, Tom must prove his innocence to Will—and to the world.

The Good Stuff

As a thriller, it’s quite good. I’m not surprised by much, but there were several moments where I was caught by surprise with a reveal. I can’t say more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, it caught me off guard more than once, and that’s truly high praise from me.

But does the ending resolution satisfy? That’s the big question with a mystery novel: is the revelation of the villain and how they accomplished their heinous crimes satisfying? For Object of Desire, the answer is yes, with caveats (that I’ll get to later). The revelation itself truly satisfies. The book twists and turns its way to the solution in a truly gratifying series of unmaskings. Just when you think you know, you don’t. A whole closet full of shoes drops over the course of it, and I loved reading it unfold. Whatever else I may say about Object of Desire and Maclean as an author, she writes one hell of a thrilling mystery story.

For a good thriller, you have to feel for the protagonist. You need to like them, worry for them, and always feel like the threat of danger is both real and unwelcome. Thankfully, Tom is likable. He’s appropriately flawed, by which I mean his flaws are appropriate to his job and the way those flaws work themselves out in his relationships never get in the way of relating to him. He’s a teensy bit of a stereotypical no-strings-attached model type, but his backstory provides enough context that it never feels flat or lazy. The push-pull of his dynamic with his ex, Will, and the two other men in his life—Nick and Pex—is believable. Plus, it’s great angst fodder, and I am a huge fan of angst.

In fact, I adore it. The slow burn romance/angst between Will and Tom in Object of Desire provides just enough release from the mystery while also furthering it. She really makes you want it, and it hurts so good. Maclean integrated the romantic subplots well into the overarching thriller plotline. When I’m reading the mystery, I want more romance, and when I’m the romance sections, I want more mystery. So, long story short, she did her job well intertwining them to where they mutually enhance each other.

All of the primary characters felt well fleshed out and round. All the men may be suspiciously gym-built, handsome, well-manicured, and sport full, lush, pouty lips, but who cares? That’s part of the men-loving-men (mlm) fantasy of it all. Every male protagonist—and some of the antagonists—are sexy and dtf, and that’s part of the aesthetic. It may not be my personal aesthetic, but this isn’t really for me, a queer woman. I can say, though, that for gay male readers, I can see how this would be super fucking hot to read.

I also really enjoy the casual gayness of the book. Almost all the primary characters are explicitly queer and quite a few of the secondary ones as well. Tom having a married woman-loving-woman (wlw) couple who live next door and help take care of his cat John utterly delighted me. Queer ladies and gents supporting each other ftw! Oh, and bisexual male love interest? Yes, please. I don’t know how normal it is for bi male character to exist in gay thrillers, but seeing one made me over the moon. Bi male rep is so rare, so good job Maclean.

Potential Drawbacks

Here come the chills; like the hot water tank running out of hot water right at the end of the shower, it diminishes, but doesn’t destroy my overall enjoyment of the book. I’ll start with the caveats to the resolution I mentioned at the outset. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the use of a certain Hitchcock film as an inspiration, but that may be because I’ve seen it used multiple times in other crime shows. As I said, I’ve been pretty deeply immersed in crime procedurals and mystery novels for decades. This may be one of those your mileage may vary moments.

My biggest struggle with the resolution of the story followed a thread that I’d picked up on early on in the novel with regard to women and mental illness. Again, it’s kind of spoiler-y, but I’ll just say that when your cast of female characters is fairly small and three of them are mentally ill/unstable, obsessive, jealous, controlling women ruining queer men’s lives, I’m uncomfortable.

When it comes to the erotic sections, I’m not sure how to comment. As a queer woman, and one with highly specific taste in smut, I’m not the best person to judge. This isn’t smut that’s for me, after all. I actually hesitated in putting this under potential drawbacks because my quibble isn’t so much with the events as with the writing of them. I will say that the scenes felt well placed and paced and the emotional weightiness was on point.

However, some of the descriptions didn’t work for me. I’m not sure anybody’s skin can be described as “dusky rose gold,” for example—especially if the rest of their skin is olive toned. Some of the anatomical movements and mental reactions bordered on unpleasantly painful sounding. (Is having one’s balls turned inside out during an orgasm really a feeling that someone can have? And if so, is it desirable? To me that just sounds awful.) This might just be a me thing, because I prefer less…vivid descriptions of body parts and movement, even in my f/f erotica, so your mileage may vary.

I also wished that the author had cut her exposition and scene description in half. As more of a visual person, I find long, overly-complicated descriptions of clothing, rooms, and scenery distracting. Others might not find it so, so take that with a grain of salt. Still, the prose leaned toward purple at times, especially with the use of color words and adjectives/adverbs. Such of flowery descriptions purely for their own sake confused the tone and didn’t fit with Tom’s vocabulary. Thankfully, it wasn’t pervasive.

However, Maclean truly excels at dialogue. My favorite moments were where characters would just talk to each other, as she has a way with characterizing them through word choice. So, I wish we’d gotten more of use of dialogue and less use of over-long descriptions.

Final Score: 7/10

Object of Desire offers truly delightful thrills and an endlessly twisty mystery that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Despite suffering at times from purple prose and overly extended descriptions, the book balances romance and mystery well. And, while there may be unfortunate implications in the handling of certain female characters and mental illness, I found the rest of the characters to be delightfully flawed and complex. Overall, a good read and one that I feel comfortable recommending to my friends interested in this genre.

About the Author

Dal Maclean comes from Scotland. Her background is in journalism, and she has an undying passion for history, the more gossipy and scandalous the better. Dal has lived in Asia and worked all over the world, but home is now the UK. She dislikes the Tragic Gay trope, but loves imperfect characters and genuine emotional conflict in romantic fiction. As an author and a reader, she believes it’s worth a bit of work to reach a happy ending. Agatha Christie, English gardens, and ill-advised cocktails are three fatal weaknesses, though not usually at the same time.

Her first book, Bitter Legacy, was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award Finalist for best Gay Mystery and was chosen by the American Libraries Association for their 2018 Over The Rainbow Recommended Books List. You can find Dal Maclean on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her website.

Object of Desire is now available for purchase on Amazon (US) and Smashwords.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images courtesy of Blind Eye Books

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Get Ready for a Summer Rom-Com, Queer Girl Style

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Summer is right around the corner, and you know what that means: summer reading! Books by the pool, books to take on vacation and relax with on the airplane or bus. Summer is a time for lighthearted, brain-candy stories like action flicks, superhero movies, and rom-coms. Other than Valentine’s Day and Christmas, summer is basically prime rom-com season. And for women loving women (wlw), that means…we got nothing. Rom-coms and stories of young summer love are by and large straight and heteronormative, unfortunately. But there’s hope! Because I just finished The Summer of Jordi Perez and I can say definitively that if you’re looking for a queer story of summer love, plus sized fashion, friendship, and a fat, queer girl falling in love with a cool, artsy girl, this is it.

A Brief (Spoiler-Free) Run-Down

Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Ibby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick to other people’s lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby’s been happy to focus on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a great internship at her favorite boutique, she’s thrilled to take the first step toward her dream career. Then she falls for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Hard. And now she’s competing against the girl she’s kissing to win the coveted paid job at the end of the internship.

But really, nothing this summer is going as planned. She also unwittingly becomes friends with Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro-type who wants her help finding the best burger in Los Angeles, and she’s struggling to prove to her mother—the city’s celebrity health nut—that she’s perfectly content with who she is.

Just as Abby starts to feel like she’s no longer the sidekick in her own life, Jordi’s photography surprisingly puts her in the spotlight. Instead of feeling like she’s landed a starring role, Abby feels betrayed. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image others have of her?

The Good Stuff

The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding has everything a good summer rom-com needs: a compelling female protagonist who wants love but isn’t sure she believes it will come true for herself, a cool, seemingly out-of-reach love interest, a best friend with a new boyfriend who is kind of unsure of this new cool girl, a new friend looking for relationship advice from the girl who can’t seem to find love. And burgers. (The best rom-coms have food be a major theme, in my opinion.)

Plus, readers of fanfic and lesbian fiction will welcome the subtle use of tropes we’re familiar with from those genres: tol/smol, blonde (well, pink-haired, but Abby’s a natural blonde)/brunette, opposite styles, one bed job they’re trying to share. In many ways, it feels like the perfect hybrid of romantic comedy and fanfic—and I mean that as a compliment.

When I started reading, I could immediately think of friends I would recommend this book to. It’s very much within the aesthetic of so much of the fiction my friends read, but it’s mainstream and it’s a summer rom-com—just the kind of story that we wlw rarely get to see. One of the best parts of the book is how cinematic it felt. Maybe it’s just because I’m so visual and tend to ‘watch’ books while I read them, but I could picture this book playing out on screen as a summer teen blockbuster rom-com no problem. It has all the right beats and pacing for a film but works super well as a book, too.

Spalding does an excellent job capturing the tone and voice of teen romance. Yet, even as an adult I found Abby relatable. Partly because I felt like the sidekick who’d never get my own romance growing up. Partly because Abby is so open about how she feels and thinks. She’s honest about her feelings. She’s at once confident in her sense of self and style but with that niggling insecurity that so perfectly captures teenage self-ambivalence (or at least did for me).

I especially love how well Spalding did showing us how important fashion is to Abby. And not just in her internship and blog. Every time Abby changes into a new outfit, we get a rundown of what it is in detail, plus we see her minute observations of other people’s fashion choices. That’s the kind of writing that characterizes a protagonist well. We know how much fashion means to Abby because we see it impact her thought processes.

“No, I wasn’t in love with clothes, but maybe I was in love with how clothes made me feel. I was designing how other people saw me.”

I also appreciated Abby’s interiority. There were moments where her day-dreaminess and tendency to lose track of conversations felt very familiar to me. As someone with ADHD, these kinds of things happen all the time, yet I rarely get to read that process in print. Now, Abby isn’t diagnosed or anything, but this is one of those moments were, whether Spalding meant it or not, Abby reads as ADHD and I found it charming. I so rarely get to see that representation of my neurodiversity in general, much less with a fat, queer girl in a romance.

Abby’s internal monologue about her feelings for girls is also one of the most #relatable things ever. Seriously. Spalding has that dry, self-aware gay panic voice down, and it’s utterly delightful to read. In response to realizing she thinks fellow intern Jordi is hot, Abby responds with:

“The human condition is bullshit.”

Later on, she says,

“I’ve never seen her bare legs before, and it’s honestly a lot to process.”

I couldn’t stop laughing because of how called out I felt by it.

The other characters have a lot of heart, too. Jax is surprisingly decent, and his dynamic with Abby reminds me of one of my good friends, a lesbian, describing her relationship with her best male friend. I also liked how Spalding wrote the dynamic between Malia and Abby, especially how it grew and changed over the course of the book.

Abby’s relationship with her mom hit home to me. My mom isn’t a health nut, but the same unhealthy dynamic exists between us as it does between Abby and Norah. The fundamental belief that you parents don’t support you and want to change you is one that a lot of queer teens have to deal with. Spalding found a way to talk about that without making it entirely about homophobia, which I think worked really well in telling this story. Abby’s relationship with Jordi and her relationship with her mom got to be two different things that affected each other, but never did homophobia become the looming shadow that overtook the joy of Abby’s first love.

More than anything, Abby’s relationship to herself, Jordi, her friends, and her mom felt very true-to-life. This seems to come from a place of intimate experience. Whether Spalding herself went through these struggles or not, that it can seem so intimate and real speaks highly of her as an author. It never veers into uncomfortably voyeuristic, but it never loses that sense of being honest. The formulaic nature of romantic comedy can at times undercut the heart that should be the driving force of the story. Spalding never lets that happen, and I’m impressed.

Like most teen rom-coms, The Summer of Jordi Perez is about romance, but it’s also about change. About what happens when the people closest to go to college or start dating. About the perception of loss and loneliness that comes when your best friend has more time for their boyfriend than you and your older sister, who was once your main confidante and balance in a chaotic family, moves away. It’s about family dynamics and friendships changing and how to work through that while you’re seeing your life change in other ways. There’s a lot going on, and Spalding balances out all of the threads of change in Abby’s life quite well considering how much there is.

Potential Drawbacks

The fact that Abby Ives doesn’t have any other queer friends, and in LA of all places, seems strange. When I was in high school and still under the impression that I was straight (HA!), even I knew that the queer kids all hung out together because I hung out with them (Yeah, yeah, it makes sense now, but then? I had no idea that meant anything.) There were the theater gays and then there was the group of mostly lesbians and a couple bi girls and guys who hung out separately. I guess with my other friend groups I was the token gay, even if unaware, but still. I knew where the queer kids hung out and that they came in packs.

That Abby knows absolutely zero other queer people at her school and has to wonder if both Jordi and her former crush are gay and try to figure it out by trolling their social media didn’t quite fit with what high school had been like for me. Maybe things are different now? Either way, it would have been nice to have Abby have one queer friend she could relate to.

I also wish we could have gotten more interactions between Abby and her boss/mentor Maggie. I really liked that dynamic and think there’s a missed opportunity there. It would have made the book longer, for sure, but I wouldn’t have minded. The payoff in giving Abby an older female figure, and one that she perceives as a mentor in her field, while she’s struggling with the internal conflict over who is going to get the job could have been amped up, especially if Jordi likewise got off-screen mentoring sessions with Maggie. Plus, I like the idea of Abby getting to have more of a mother figure given how toxic her relationship with her own mother is. However, your mileage may vary on this point. It’s more a personal desire than an objection to the book itself.

I also would have liked a bit more time with the conclusion. But that’s kind of how rom-coms go right? Everything leads up to the big crisis, then it dwells there for a while, then it’s all neatly wrapped up in a couple pages/minutes. The ending is happy, you feel good about where the story is headed, and can imagine the happiest of endings further down the line. And even with how brief it is, Spalding managed to bring in a healthy discussion of consent, forgiveness, and moving forward after feeling betrayed, so I can’t complain too much. Maybe I just like my afterglows a bit longer 😉

Final Score: 8/10

There’s a lot to love about The Summer of Jordi Perez. The unabashed centering of a queer, pink-haired, fat girl in a rom-com brings me a lot of joy. Wlw are under-represented in this genre as it is, much less wlw who aren’t immediately ‘marketable’ to a straight audience (read: conventionally attractive). This is a book for queer girls, make no mistake. And I love that about it. Overall, it’s a light, enjoyable read. Perfect for summer time! So grab a burger—preferably In-N-Out animal style, the objectively best burger (the book agrees with me!)—your shades, and a cute, fruit-print skirt or shirt, and get ready to fall in love.

About the Author

Amy Spalding has a BA in advertising and marketing communications from Webster University and an MA in media studies from The New School. Amy studied long-form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of several other young adult novels including Kissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys, Love and Music (and Missing Ted Callahan), Ink is Thicker than Water, The New Guy (And Other Senior Year Distractions), and The Reece Malcolm List. She grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the Better weather of Los Angeles.

Summer of Jordi Perez is available for purchase in hardcover or as an eBook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

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