The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

A colorful cover full of jade green, deep purple, and gold features the profile of a young Mexican woman gazing at the starys. The panels are decorated with Mayan symbols, including a double headed snake, a caiman, and a skull.
Cover image of Gods of Jade and Shadow

by Kristen B.

Casiopeia Tun, the main character in Gods of Jade and Shadow, may be my favorite heroine so far this year! This Mexican young woman is grounded in real life and is as stubborn as the day as long. Casiopeia believes in fairness, mostly because life hasn’t shown much of it to her. She and her mother subsist as the poor relations within her mother’s family, who are the big fish in the small pond of their Yucatan peninsula town. Casiopeia lives at the mercy of her crotchety grandfather and her privileged cousin Martin, who combine to make her life mostly miserable with chores and petty insults. She suffers with no particular grace. I do love a girl who can glare!

When the rest of the family leaves for an afternoon of fun and relaxation, Casiopeia is left behind for perceived dereliction of duties. In a fit of curiosity and rebellion, she opens an old chest that resides at the foot of her grandfather’s bed. And so the adventure begins!

She has inadvertently awakened a Lord of Death, Hun-Kame. He invites her on a mission to recover his lost power and to defeat his twin brother. She accepts with much trepidation, figuring it to be her one chance to escape dusty Uukumil. The two embark on a quest that takes them across the country, from the Yucatan to Baja. The entire story is grounded in Mayan mythology filtered through 1920s Mexico. Grand hotels, Prohibition-fueled tourism, and early automobiles provide a lively backdrop. Casiopeia and Hun-Kame equally cross great personal distances, from lord and servant to friends who share dreams of the future.

Meanwhile, the insufferable Martin has been co-opted by the god’s twin brother, Vucub-Kame, who has long-laid plans to return to the days of worshiping the old gods with blood sacrifices. Martin tries on multiple occasions to lure Casiopeia away from Hun-Kame. I cheered for her and her stubborn sense of justice the entire way. Her interactions with Martin eventually influence how she understands the dynamics between the divine brothers. In the end, she must make a terrible choice … but I don’t want to give too much away.

This is a lovely, lush book. I am not overly familiar with Mayan myth, but the author so perfectly describes the Black Road through Xibalba (land of the dead) that I could picture it. When Casiopeia and Hun-Kame ride the trains, the evocative sense of motion and rhythm is conveyed beautifully. I enjoyed the book as much for its language and imagery as the fast-paced story itself.

Moreno-Garcia is best known, at the moment, for the best-selling Mexican Gothic. She joyfully mines her grandmother’s stories and her native Mexican mythology for her books. Gods of Jade and Shadow is available as a physical book, and as an eBook and an eAudiobook on Overdrive/Libby.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

The Night Circus

The Night Circus: Morgenstern, Erin: On a black background, two illustrated steampunk-era silhouettes in gray are depicted on either side of a black and white circus tent with stars dotting the background
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

By Kimberly J

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s debut bestselling novel, follows the story of “Le Cirque des Rêves,” a mysterious circus that opens at nightfall and closes at dawn and within its gates anything seems possible. French for “Circus of Dreams” – the circus mixes the dream world with reality as it hosts a unique and potentially deadly magical competition within its black and white striped canvas walls. The magicians challenge each other by making each new tent more fantastical than the last. 

This 19th century historical fantasy is a well-crafted story of rivals with fully developed characters that draw you into a surreal world of vision and artistry. The author employs first person, second person, and third person perspectives while writing, inviting the reader directly into the narrative.  The book is written with lush descriptions that leave you hungry for more…literally and figuratively, as some of the most tantalizing banquets are described in mouth-watering detail.  The smells, sights, tastes, and sounds are lavish beyond imagination.

I experienced this novel via the audiobook, which is read by Jim Dale. His other audiobook credits include J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  He is a skillful narrator who excels at making distinctive voices for each character.  His portrayal envelops the listener in this circus of dreams. The Night Circus is available in print, audiobook, ebook, or eaudio.  Explore this world of magic, illusion, manipulation, love, and loss by visiting hclibrary.org 

“You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Kimberly is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Elkridge Branch.  She enjoys reading, photography, crafting, and baking.