Shatter the Sky, YA LGBT+ Fantasy by Rebecca Kim Wells
Series: Shatter the Sky
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
(I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)
Like lots of people, I heard this was about someone saving her girlfriend with dragons and I leaped for it. It isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it. Which is why I come down straight in the middle overall.
The world building is fantastic. There are different countries and cultures, whether that comes up in regards to fashion or customs. They aren’t all shallow archetypes based on European history, either. From the beginning, the details of the world are clearly well thought out and the delivery is natural and never too much at once.
Unfortunately, the plot and characters are rather weak. None of the characters are particularly memorable, including the protagonist. I forgot most of the names soon after finishing the book and had to look them up to write about them. Maren, the protagonist, has a decent arc though, going from timid and lacking confidence to being assured of her own worth and power and taking direct action. But this doesn’t alleviate the wobbly, happenstance nature of the plot.
While the pacing is slow and sometimes quite sleepy, I can’t bring myself to criticise it. I was never bored, and there were even times when the conflict would change Maren’s situation dramatically and I would be sorry not to see the status quo develop naturally rather than being interrupted. Which is (sadly) one of the reasons the plot feels so wobbly. Maren’s initial plan is a daydream-like impulse.
I am a dragon girl without a dragon. But what if I got one? What could I do then?
There’s not a clear way for her to achieve her goals. She even seems aware of this, more than once. The plot is a mix of incomplete plans and luck. To be bluntly honest, sometimes when the dragon stuff was driving the plot, I literally put the book down and reread parts of Joust. The plot promise of stealing a dragon and raising it in secret was far better in that book. Pit Dragon too.
However, the ending is fireworks and joy. It’s bombastic and even has some nice aha moments. I loved it. It’s honestly everything I signed on for. Dragons, girlfriend-saving. If you get to a part of the book you feel is sagging, stick in there for the ending. I promise it’s worth it.
I’m not entirely sure how to drop the sad news bomb about the bi rep, which I feel like I do often. From the beginning, I didn’t like Maren and Kaia’s relationship. It wasn’t that it was overly idyllic—that felt like part of setting up the tragedy of their separation—it was that they didn’t seem like two whole people in a relationship. It gets worse after they’re separated and we have only Maren’s perspective. Maren has some self esteem issues, and they appear to revolve around seeing herself as lesser than Kaia. To Maren, Kaia is this perfect being: prettier than her, braver than her, better than her. I hated every time Maren lamented a failure by telling herself that Kaia wouldn’t have failed. Certainly didn’t help that Maren follows attractions to two other people in the course of the story—not to the point of physical cheating, but certainly to emotional cheating.
The worst of it being that, in a story where the girlfriend is kidnapped and therefore not with the protagonist or even present for most of the story, there is basically a replacement love interest who is male. This is the guy Maren interacts with (more than Kaia in book real estate), and he has arguably more plot relevance.
I’ve thought about this a great deal. It just raises so many questions, and reminds me of exactly how deliberate a book is. Mren’s relationship with this guy takes up significant time and follows much of the tropes/expectations for a YA romantic subplot. Why couldn’t they just be friends? Why did Maren even have to be bi if the author didn’t know how to relate that orientation without showing her pursuing attraction to people other than her “heartmate?” Did someone think Maren had to “prove” her bi-ness or something? Why give her a label at all? Just tell us she’s in love with Kaia and that’s all that should matter.
But while I’m being bluntly honest all over the place, I did appreciate the attempt. I wouldn’t condemn it as a “nice try,” it’s better than that. Maren feels legitimate. Being unfaithful could be a character flaw—the problem is just that it’s a frequent, harmful stereotype for bi characters.
Do my complicated feelings show enough? heh. I want to reiterate that I had a good time reading, and my thinking this much about what bothered me is because it matters. I am grateful for the increasing number of LGBT+ representation in books, and this book is part of that. (I wrote all of this with one hand and trying not to aggravate a sprained wrist, so hopefully it’s all still clear.)