Recently, I have come to realise that I am getting more and more comfortable with dropping books that I am getting no enjoyment out of whatsoever. It could be for a myriad of reasons—feeling slumps or ruts, problematic content, being bored, etc.—and in order to avoid feeling miserable about myself, I simply opt out of finishing the book. Since I began to do this on a more regular basis, the reading ruts tend to stay away, and I find more pleasure from the physical act of reading. Additionally, when I come across a book that blows me away, the delight that stems from the experience feels more wholesome and intimate. It’s a fucking blast.
As I was looking over my list of books that I’ve read in February, which I always include DNF’d titles in the wrap-ups, I thought it would be interesting to chat about the books that I have dropped. I’m hoping to accomplish three things by doing this. Firstly, to chat about the reasons that led me to ultimately put it aside. Secondly, to sort of gauge my behaviour with DNF’ing and see if there are patterns associated with me choosing to do this (consistently books I don’t like, etc.). Lastly, to make the notion of DNF’ing unenjoyable books less taboo and more accepted. I know that this is something that has some controversy associated with it, and I do not believe that there is any reason for that controversy to exist. So, by openly chatting about the fact that I do DNF and why I DNF, I’m hoping the hate surrounding it will start to dwindle away.
For my pilot instalment, I have chosen at least one book that I know shall be a shocker to many. Honestly, I was shocked when I pulled my bookmark out of the pages, closed it and set it aside. I never expected to DNF it, but in the end, it was what was best for me. Check out the two books I have parted ways with thus far in February.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
Yep, this is the shocker I mentioned above. DNF’d at 67%.
Aru Shah and the End of Time is an #OwnVoices Indian, middle grade, urban fantasy novel about a young girl named Aru Shah that, through some unwise decision making, finds herself wrapped up on a magically epic quest to save the world, and her mother, from doom and gloom after she awakens a Hindu god of chaos and destruction, so to speak.
Okay, before I jump into why I stopped reading this, I’d like to talk about the very good and very vital parts of the novel. It has superb representation of an Indian diasporic experience, particularly through the eyes of a young girl struggling with finding her place. The conflicts of having two separate cultures and trying to fit in when everything around you keeps pointing out how obviously you never will fit in, is extraordinary. I sincerely wish that I had encountered this book when I was a middle-grade brat. It could have done wonders for my confidence and self-respect as a brown-skinned girl (before I came to terms with my non-binary identity).
Also, the different ways that Hindu mythology and an iconic Hindu epic is written into a very contemporary type of narrative is excellent. Everything is seamlessly connected and works marvellously. I was worried that there would be a sense of disjointedness between something that is so inherently traditional and the modern era, yet it worked. I think it only worked because Ms Chokshi has impeccable writing ability, especially where setting and atmosphere are concerned.
Now, with all of that being said, I hated how rushed everything was and how two-dimensional all of the characters were, including the main character, Aru Shah. Aru kept having instances of where she would literally think of the reasons why some of her choices and behaviour were bad, but they didn’t flow with the story. These parts came off as the author was trying really hard to lead the reader to a specific conclusion rather then letting Aru grow independently and via her experiences. I don’t like being told what to feel when I’m reading. I want to feel it as the characters feel it. When you take under-supported characters and throw them into a world where only morsels of information are provided before the reader is quickly ushered onto the next portion, it is a cry for catastrophe. I never had a chance to fully process or get attached to the adventure because everything was so damn rushed. It frustrated me.
Another minor thing I didn’t care for was how extremely similar it is to Percy Jackson. I loved the Percy Jackson novels, but I don’t want an Indian version of Percy Jackson. I want an authentically new and unique type of story. The similarities were a bit too much for me and I found myself constantly comparing the two unintentionally.
Overall, I believe the book will be a major hit for many readers (it clearly already is, which does make me happy regardless of my DNF’ing it), but not with some others. I feel strongly that the Indian and Hindu representation is really, really important and that makes it something that I will recommend to readers that I know will get more enjoyment from this than I did.
Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie
This one kind of broke my heart in all sorts of ways because I fucking adored the author’s debut duology, The Abyss Surrounds Us. But as a Queer person, I will never recommend this to anyone. DNF at 39%.
Hullmetal Girls is a science-fiction, young adult story about a girl who sacrifices her free-will and body to become what is essentially a cyborg to help her poor family and ailing siblings. Once she enters militarised cyborg community, she ends up getting swept away in a heated political climate that will test her loyalties in the most difficult of ways.
I wish I had some pros to offer here; some good qualities that I can say make it worth trying out, but I can’t. Not in good faith. This book was fucking terrible. I know what you’re thinking. “You read less than half, how do you know that, Nyan?” Well, if the forty-percent I read made me want to through it into a trash-fire, I fucking know.
Before I get into the problematic crap, the more generic reasons this book was so bad were the two-dimensional characters (at best), the severe lack of world-building and information on technology, and the overall political climate that is trying way too hard to be complex, but without actually explaining anything concretely. For the technological parts, it does try to make it to where the reader can pick up on things via the story, but in order for that to work, you need a legitimate storyline to support that. There was nearly none.
The book is very, very rushed with no meat or sustenance in-between the events to give any realm of depth to what is going on. We have badass cyborg, militant warriors in space that everyone fears, which indicates corruption and oppression. But that’s all. We have some rebels who are trying to fight the system, but their beliefs are expressed in a handful of pages and then we watch as they go off and do some violent shit. It is the most generic and unoriginal science-fiction book I’ve read in a very long time. Nevertheless, these things aren’t what warranted my dropping it. The problematic representation of LGBTQIA+ characters and Islamic peoples is.
There are characters in this book that are solely Queer for name only. I kid you not. A character comes out as being pansexual, but aside from that statement, nothing else supports them being pansexual. An asexual character is outted as being ace by undergoing a very traumatising experience that is completely unacceptable and goes utterly unchallenged. Are you fucking kidding me? The same thing happens to a trans character. There is also unchallenged homophobia in the book; some it from societal beliefs and some of it expressed in dialogue. Queer people aren’t token diverse traits you can toss into a book like vegetables in a soup. We aren’t there to add flavour, especially when we’re being disrespected and wrongfully represented. I’m not okay with that.
Then you have a race of people who are clearly inspired by Islam and cultural aspects from West Asia, or the Middle East, and—surprise, fucking surprise—these people are portrayed as being extremists and terrorists who will blatantly harm innocent people for their cause without a single fuck to give. As someone who comes from an Islamic background and still identifies as a Muslim (Muslim-Buddhist, to be exact), I was so beyond offended by reading this. This is a trope that needs to fucking disappear because it is SO UNACCEPTABLE and works to perpetuate harmful stigmas and stereotypes already surrounding Islamic and Arab people, especially in today’s climate. Seriously, whoever thought this was okay, needs to re-evaluate that decision, because it’s not.
So, yeah. I dropped it. No regrets.
I will say that I did love the author’s original work, which I’ve mentioned above somewhere, so this book has left me feeling very uncomfortable and conflicted. I don’t want to write her off as an author because I know she is very capable of writing books with proper and respectful representation. Yet, this… was so much more than a mere disappointment that I’m afraid to read whatever comes next. I suppose only time will tell how I will react in the future.
Out of both books I talked about today, I do recommend Aru Shah and the End of Time to anyone who is interested in reading a middle-grade urban fantasy story about Hinduism and the Indian diasporic experience, or at least one version of it (since every experience is different). It’s a fantastic introduction to those things and takes the complexities of it and makes it very accessible. Just don’t go into it hoping for a masterpiece. As for Hullmetal Girls, I’d avoid it, especially if you are asexual or trans, as those scenes are quite alarming, to say the least.
Please let me know your thoughts if you have read either of these books or have an interest in them. I’d love to hear from you. Take care.