I received an ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review!
CW: homophobia, transphobia, outing, deadnaming, gender dysphoria, unsupportive family, graphic sex scene, and possible alcohol abuse
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AS I DISCUSS PROBLEMATIC PLOT POINTS.
First and foremost, I want to make some statements about this review upfront. A lot of you know me, but this review will be posted on Goodreads and Twitter and, obviously, this blog. I’m also going to bump it up in my story on Instagram.
I don’t know where it’s going to go and who will see it. So, I want to put right up front a few things about me and this review.
- This is my opinion alone from an ownvoices standpoint, informed by my own experiences. I do not have any interest in speaking for the whole trans community and I will not be. I can only speak of my experience and thoughts around this book. Life would be boring if all transpeople thought the same and this is one opinion of a highly nuanced situation.
- If you were offended/found this book problematic, I’m not trying to diminish your personal experience, just talk about my own.
- I also have an issue with the marketing done around this book. I don’t like that it was marketed as F/F then, surprise!, the MC’s trans. It’s horribly problematic and needs to be fixed more. I’m glad that Mackenzi has been working on changing that.
- This review is about the content of the book. I want to talk about the actual content and my perception of it.
- I love Mackenzi Lee’s past work. The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the book that helped me realize I’m aroace.
- I welcome comments and ideas that differ from my own! However, I will not allow for cruelty. If anyone starts being rude, I’ll delete your comments. I don’t want to have to monitor that, but I will if I have to.
I’m not on Twitter. We might have a shared Twitter, but Chantel is the one who runs it. I rarely pop on over there. So, when the drama came around about this book, I had already requested this, super excited for Mackenzi’s new F/F book set in Holland which I’ll be shortening to TMB so I don’t have to type the title over and over again. Then, I started seeing Mackenzi on Instagram correcting the marketing and Chantel began filling me in about the stuff on Twitter.
I wasn’t going to read this book until December or January. I like reading my ARCs about a month before they come out because then it’s fresh in my mind. But with this? I felt like it was something I needed to read right away because I didn’t think that Mackenzi Lee meant any harm.
Thanks to her stories (and other authors, such as Adrienne Young) on Instagram that authors rarely, if ever, have control over their marketing and cover designs and descriptions. And, I also know that Mackenzi is a huge supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community and has captured our historical experiences in her past books.
Mackenzi also used trans sensitivity readers. Including Meredith Russo. And, personally, I’m with Meredith Russo. So, spoiler for my own views. As a transman, I didn’t find this triggering or problematic. I felt like it captured the historical reality of being trans in the 17th century. And it was wonderful.
I’m a huge history nerd, I always take historical fiction with the historical context. Such as, there were certain historical realities and laws that criminalized sexuality and gender expression. Those were present in this book and I appreciated her capturing that honest reality. Also, queer characters didn’t have the language that we have today to explain their gender and sexuality. And I loved that, again, in this book Mackenzi honored that and wasn’t anachronistic.
The book was unapologetically trans without ever using that word.
Now, I’ll get more to that in a second because I did see someone’s comment on Goodreads — if you see this review and it was you, please tell me and I will link people there! — that said this book is more adult than YA with the current content. And, I agree there. It’s definitely more adult than YA. It reminded me of Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg (ownvoices historical transman book). TMB has very adult themes to it, even though the characters were teens.
A little bit more about using the word trans in this book. Transsexual was a word that was first used in the 1920s and transgender was first created in the 1960s. Definitely not a 17th-century word. And this book is about discovery. It’s about our transman MC discovering who he is and coming into that identity.
When I was reading it, I was struck by how represented, how seen I was, by this book. It’s so hard to find book about transmen that accurately captures what it feels like to discover your identity. There was one quote that stood out to me. Remember, ARC quotes are liable to change, especially since this book has been pulled from being published for the near future.
A manacle I had not known was around my neck until it was removed, and suddenly, I could breathe, I could breathe, I could breathe at last.
That’s a quote from the MC after he got his hair cut off. I distinctly remember the day that I cut my hair from being super long to very short. And that captures how I felt when I did it and looked in the mirror, seeing a bit more of myself each day.
Then, there was the description of gender dysphoria that made me stop because it so captured the feeling. One second, so, so masculine and knowing that you’re a man and fully inhabiting that role, only to then be slammed back into the depressive and anxiety-ridden reality of your body not matching how you pictured it in your mind. It cut me right to my heart because, God, Mackenzi got it 100% right.
There are a few main characters in this. The MC, who I am going to refer to as Pim in here. Pim’s birth name, and what he’s referred to for a good portion of the book, is Lena. I know there’s a huge discussion of deadnaming around this book, but he doesn’t choose Pim as his name (while pretending to be a man whose name is Pim) until 41% and it isn’t until the second to last chapter that he really chooses it as his own. It reminds me of George by Alex Gino. She chooses the name Melissa but is called George throughout the book and most reviews call her George as well.
I’ve already mentioned that I loved Pim. I loved his journey to self-discovery. I loved how accurate he felt. I just loved it. As I said, it’s so hard to find a story where a transman is the main focus. And it was so refreshing to read something that made me feel represented.
Then, there’s Elsje, Pim’s love interest. I did like her. She was fun and quirky and so queer. However, I felt like she could have been fleshed out a bit more as a side character. There was not much more to her besides how she loves tulips and is totally interested in Pim and helps affirm his gender.
Bas is Pim’s older brother. I… I didn’t like him. He’s drunk most of the time and is very unaccepting of Pim’s identity. I’m very tired of the trope of an unaccepting sibling. I want more accepting sibling rep. I’m going to come back to this a little later.
Then, there’s Jan. Jan has a very minor role for most of the book. I think that’s a damn shame. He’s very accepting of Pim and Pim’s gender. He encourages him to live as a man. I wanted more of him. Bas was very unaccepting, Elsje middling with acceptance, and Jan was super supportive. I liked that there was a spectrum of support, but there needed to be more of Jan.
The plot itself is pretty straightforward. Pim and Bas are orphans, taken in by a tulip seller who suddenly dies and leaves them with a lot of debt. They find out that he might have had a Semper Augustus (a very expensive and rare tulip) and go to claim it. However, the man who had it is in jail away from Holland. Pim decides to take on his identity and sell it, then they get out of there.
The first 60% of the book was very positive and moved at a good clip. It was a fast-paced fun ride. Around 66% — I identified it in my status updates — the tone changed and it became bleak. Throughout the book, it was mentioned that people could get hung for being gay. But, around 66% there’s a graphic hanging. Then there’s Pim being outed later, around 80%. There’s also been some discussion about the ending and how unhappy it is. Tbh, I found it pretty happy? Pim didn’t get the girl, but, he was living his authentic life so how is that unhappy?
Now, I mentioned I love historical accuracy. I hate books that feel anachronistic. However, in this case, I think things could be edited out. I do not think that there needed to be a graphic hanging. That could be removed completely from the story without impacting things. It’s a scene that pushes the story from YA to adult for me. I wished that it hadn’t included that. Sure, it’s historically accurate, but it doesn’t add to the story.
I also mentioned that I wish Bas would be changed. Either made more supportive, given a smaller role, or bring more of Jan into the story to further offset Bas’s lack of support. That’s one thing that I wanted to be changed desperately when I was reading it. Because each time Bas came in, I knew that he’d be saying something that was rude and/or triggering. It didn’t add to the story and it felt gratuitous.
So, what are my overall thoughts on the book?
- I felt myself represented from when I was a teen trying to figure out who I was and figuring out slowly.
- There are definitely things that could be changed and removed, but it was so good.
- I would 100% recommend this to people as an authentic trans read.
Whenever Mackenzi is ready to put it out for publication, I’ll be preordering it so I can have it on my shelves right next to the Montague Siblings.
What are your thoughts on the drama?
Are you planning on reading it?