I always keep my eye out for diverse books and I love anthologies, so when A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology popped up on NetGalley I clicked request and started crossing digits! I remember the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter but I had no idea that it had developed into a fully funded organisation that was publishing books! And if A Universe of Wishes is anything to go by, they are some brilliant books too.
This book was provided for free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for the opportunity to review this book!
As this is an anthology about diversity there are ongoing themes throughout the anthology regarding prejudice, hate and loss. I’ve listed more specific trigger warnings that I feel are relevant for each story at the top of my individual review.
In 2014 I remember seeing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter and thinking, yes! We do need more diverse books! I think I took part in the discussion? There’s a question mark there because April 2014 was a busy time for me; I was coming to the end of year three of my English Literature degree, finishing assignments and thinking about exams. I also wasn’t as active as I am now on Twitter. Either way, what I do remember is that feeling of acceptance, understanding and community as other people cried out in agreement. I didn’t feel so alone at that moment. I love that what started as a conversation between two authors grew into a movement and then eventually a whole organisation that is hosting events worldwide and publishing books. Social media gets a lot of grief for the negativity that comes with it, but this really does show the power and positivity it can bring about too.
That’s why anthologies like this one are so important, and why the mission of We Need Diverse Books is so important. I became aware of my sexuality in college when I was 17, and honestly, if I hadn’t had LGBTQA+ friends to help me find my way I’m not sure where I would have been. There just wasn’t any bisexuality representation back then, and there still isn’t much today. That’s 18 years later! Something should have changed in that time, and through the work of organisations like We Need Diverse Books and individuals such as the authors participating in this anthology it is beginning to, but considering it’s been almost twenty years that’s ridiculously slow progress. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center the amount of children’s books that “have a main character who identifies as LGBTQIAP+” is only 3.1% 1.
I didn’t formally identify as disabled until I was in my twenties, however, I was always a sickly child and as my hypermobility started to show I was beginning to injure myself frequently. There was never anyone like me in books either. There still isn’t. The same study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2019 found that only “3.4% of books have a main character with a disability”. I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been if there had been more disability representation in books (and all pop culture) of disability characters. Would I have known I was disabled?
I know I’m talking a lot about myself, and I’m doing that on purpose because representation is a personal thing. This anthology is designed to go out into the world and say to the next generation ‘you’re not alone, we see you’. Going into this anthology that is what I’m hoping to see and feel.
As with all anthologies I’m going to talk about each story individually, however, this time I want to start with the Foreword by Dhonielle Clayton. As this anthology is about diversity I’ll be listing the diverse elements
Clayton’s words resonated strongly with me as a bisexual disabled woman who was bullied a lot as a teenager. This anthology is aimed at young adults and as such Clayton talks in the foreword about her own childhood, and it took me back to my own experiences as a child.
Foreword by Dhonielle Clayton
I found my safe space in stories, away from all the other teens in my school, away from the mirrors, away from the comments.
Dhonielle Clayton, Introduction.
I have vivid memories of primary school and sitting on the stairs of a fire escape by one of the classroom huts staring at the ground during break time as the other kids played around me. As a child, and later as a teen, friends always came and went for me. I still don’t know what I did to upset my two best friends, Jodie and Sarita. One day we were doing everything together and suddenly it was all whispers and leaving the room, or running to the other side of the playground whenever I approached.
We weren’t allowed to take books onto the playground, so my head was filled with stories instead. But inside the classroom when we were “forced” to take ten minutes of reading time at the start of classes, I hide in books. I think I was the only one who was disappointed when the teacher called time. My sigh wasn’t of relief it was of frustration; I wanted to keep reading. As I grew older books became my solace, my reading growing more voracious and like Clayton, I shied away from mirrors and the comments in favour of books and eventually the Internet where stories turned into roleplaying.
I fell into fantasy and science fiction books to quench my thirst for other worlds and read as much as I could get my hands on during weekend trips with Dad to the bookstore and the public library.
Dhonielle Clayton, Introduction.
I smiled as Clayton mentioned going on trips with her father because I did the exact same with my dad. In the UK libraries had junior library cards that let teens get out books on their own, however, that didn’t allow for books from the adult section. I was a massive Star Wars fan at 14 and the Star Wars books were in the adult section – you can see the problem.
But after a while, I started to notice that kids who looked like me didn’t get to save the world, didn’t get grand adventures through fantastical landscapes, didn’t get to go to magic camp.
Dhonielle Clayton, Introduction.
This is the part where my experience and Clayton’s splits. As a white teenager, all the characters looked like me. I was completely ignorant of the lack of diversity in the books I was reading, for myself and for others. Subconsciously I knew that there were no sickly kids saving the world or any characters wearing support bandages strapped around their weak ankles every day to stop them dislocating. It didn’t occur to me that someone like me could be the hero and that is a huge can of worms is a rant for another day. The point is that a lot of us were excluded from those stories and the truly horrifying part is at times we didn’t even realise it.
A Universe of Wishes by Tara Sim
What if wishes were a currency that you could collect and use to wish for anything at any time? That’s the idea behind this magical story by Tara Sim about a young boy who has been harvesting wishes from the dead. They no longer need the magic that lays unused in their bodies after death, but he does. He’s been collecting it for something very important, a big wish. Along the way, he is discovered by a young boy who has a completely different outlook on life. Offering him three wishes for his silence, the two work together to harness wishes and grow closer.
‘A Universe of Wishes’ is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of grief, the loss of family and the healing love of two young boys.
The Silk Blade by Natalie C. Parker
This story is a thing of beauty from start to finish. There are some stories you read that just take your breath away with their brilliance and there are several in this anthology. ‘The Silk Blade’ is aptly named; the words glide over you as soft as silk yet strike as swift as any blade. When I first read the story I thought I picked up on an Asian folklore vibe, but on second reading, I realised that was my own perspective overlaying ideas. The world that Parker has created in this story is indescribable. Saying it’s magical doesn’t quite cut it.
Her expressive language whisks you away to the Court of Roots, a place where men and women fight in a tournament to become the consort of the ruler’s son (beautifully named The Boom of Everdale) and the Bloom wears flowing skirts and paints his lips the colour of leaves. It isn’t just abled bodied people either; the ruler’s consort won the previous tournament while fighting with and without the use of a moulded limb after losing her lower leg in an accident as a youth. It’s a world that is as beautifully accepting as it is aesthetically stunning.
There’s more to the story of course, including an F/F romance, but I’ll let you read that for yourself 😉
The Scarlet Woman: a Gemma Doyle Story by Libba Bray
As a fan of Victorian detective stories, especially when there is supernatural thrown in, I really enjoyed this one and I’ll be checking out the Gemma Doyle series. However, I’m a little uncertain as to what made it eligible for this anthology. Compared to the other stories in this anthology this one only just touches upon a few diverse elements; it’s noted by the protagonist that one of the other main characters, a fellow woman, is flirting with another female character at an inopportune moment and a minor character is a POC, although her nationality is not mentioned.
I decided to check GoodReads to see what the Gemma Doyle series was shelved under and found that the third book is listed as LGBTQA+. Personally, I think this story could have been a bit more on topic considering the anthology it’s in, instead, it reads more like a set-up for a new Gemma Doyle novel as it ends on a cliffhanger.
Cristal Y Ceniza by Anna-marie Mclemore
This Latinx reimagining of the Cinderella fairytale was wonderful! ‘Cristal Y Ceniza’ is a story of fear and of hope and family; the family we are born to, the family we make for ourselves and the LGBTQA+ family we all belong to. I particularly liked the emphasis on the last one because while I’ve always thought of it as a community until reading this story I never thought of it as a family.
In the world Mclemore has created in ‘Cristal Y Ceniza’ the kingdom our protagonist belongs to is under threat from La corrección, an order for all same-sex couples living ” ‘in sin’ be taken from their houses and matched, respectively, with suitable wives and husbands”. It’s a horrifying thought, and considering the events that have happened with ICE in the US in recent years, it’s not unrealistic to think that it’s just something that could happen in a story. A chance to save her family from La corrección presents itself in the form of a pair of crystal slippers that will magic transport her to the adjacent kingdom where during a royal ball she would slip into the palace unnoticed and plead with the King and Queen to help save her people, her mothers, from La corrección.
When she goes to the ball she finds that her plan is a lot more complicated than she thought and that their kingdom is completely different to her own.
‘Cristal Y Ceniza’ features transgender and LGBTQA+ characters.
Liberia by Kwame Mbalia
In this sci-fi story, the colonists from Earth aren’t adults, they’re teenagers because only their bodies can handle the strain of space travel (and even then their bodies struggle too). The crew of the ship Liberia left their families behind to push the Colonies into the future, each one of them an expert in a scientific field. They would grow up to be the next generation of scientists and doctors, and it was imperative that their mission succeeded. The protagonist Kweku appears to be an agricultural specialist in charge of ensuring that cultivars survive the trip to their destination so that they’ll be able to grow food when they arrive.
‘Liberia’ is a story that deals with the sense of losing one’s culture, something that is especially felt by Kweku as he journies deeper into space away from family and the Colony. The Colony has already left Earth, and now he’s taking another step even further away from that heritage. Mbalia brings African culture into the story through the food that Kweku is safeguarding; the story starts with him wishing that his nana had taught him how to properly harvest fufu, a popular African food before he left. And throughout the story, he listens to recordings from her about gardening that is as much about life as they are about plants. There’s a lot of symbolism beneath the surface of this story which can seem a little at odds with the sci-fi setting, however, I really liked it. It reminded me that no matter how far humanity goes there is always that connection to each other, to the Earth.
‘Liberia’ features a black protagonist, all black crew and an M/M relationship.
A Royal Affair by V. E. Schwab
Trigger warning for physical abuse.
I was looking forward to this one, and while it was written with Schwab’s usual beauty it felt quite rushed. It is Alucard’s account of his relationship with Rhy from the Shades of Magic trilogy. It felt like too much was squished into such a small space, and it felt more like a recap of what we already knew than an inside look at how Alucard felt. There were some lovely moments, as well as some heartbreaking ones (those who know the story will know which bits I mean), but overall I was disappointed with this one.
‘A Royal Affair’ features an M/M relationship and a black minor character.
The Takeback Tango by Rebecca Roanhorse
This was such a fun story that tackles colonialism and what happens to the cultural items Empires plunder. One girl with her own ship sneaks into a museum to pull off a heist to take back what was stolen from her people… and finds someone else doing the exact same thing! The banter between the two characters is fantastic, and while it’s a humorous story it doesn’t take anything away from the serious issues being discussed.
‘The Takeback Tango’ features POC main characters.
Dream and Dare by Nic Stone
After I finished this one I realised that the characters names ‘Dream’ and ‘Dare’, when put together, said ‘Dare to Dream’ and that sums up this story for me. This is a story about two completely different girls who for completely different reasons do not fit in the perfect boxes that people want them to fit in. Dare is a princess who dresses like a man, does what she wants and refuses to marry a man, and while Dream dresses like a pretty little girl in fluffy dresses she loves to go adventuring in the woods and comes back muddy.
When Dare goes missing people aren’t surprised, some even going as far as to say she deserves it. But her disappearance draws in men who want to be heroes, who want to find the princess and make her into something she’s not. Instead, they find a monster in the woods. Dream things she knows how to find Dare, and one day she goes into the woods to find her… but will the monster find her first?
‘Dream and Dare’ is a story about non-conformity with an F/F relationship.
Wish by Jenni Balch
As I got further into the anthology I found myself getting more and more concerned about the lack of disabled representation. Then at 52%, I got to ‘Wish’ by Jenni Balch and simultaneously cheered and cried as I read a story about a chronically ill character. I myself have seven chronic health conditions and this story made me think of things that I hadn’t even thought about, so I really hope it opens non-disabled people’s eyes to what it’s like to be disabled. In particular, Balch really brings to the forefront what it’s like to be born with a condition, to have it control your entire life from the day you were born. It’s always there in the background, limiting your choices.
I’m making this story sound really depressing, and I’m not going to lie; having a disability isn’t fun but this is an anthology about wishes and dreams, and while magic doesn’t exist in real-life disabled people are strong and adaptable. We do achieve our wishes and dreams and I hope people take that away from this story too.
‘Wish’ features a disabled character with a chronic illness she was born with.
The Weight by Dhonielle Clayton
In this odd speculative fiction story people can find out how much a person loves them by undergoing a procedure that shows them how much their love for them is written on their heart – and we’re not talking figuratively. In a very Egyptian-esque procedure, the couple’s hearts are removed from their chests, weighed and checked for imprints of love. How deep an imprint is or whether it’s beginning to scar says something about that love. It’s a bit of a psychological thriller that messes with your mind.
‘The Weight’ features black main characters.
Unmoor by Mark Oshiro
Trigger warning for mental health.
Heartbreak is a terrible pain to experience, and the first one is the worst of all. I can still remember the boy who broke mine, how he did it (over MSN messenger, yep, he was that much of a coward) and I can still feel the echoes of that pain today. In ‘Unmoor’ a teenage boy lives in a world where magic is commonplace and so is the ritual to use magic to ease the trauma. While I was reading this the voice of experience was whispering in my ear saying “well, heartbreak isn’t that bad in the scheme of things” and then I remembered what it had felt like at that age, especially the first time. The feelings of rejection mixed with confusion and warping with all the other hellish feelings I already felt like part of adolescence, and Oshiro perfectly embodies all of those feelings in this story. It was a difficult story to read, and it will hurt your heart, but it’s also one of those stories that you need to read if that makes sense?
‘Unmoor’ features an M/M relationship.
The Coldest Spot in the Universe by Samira Ahmed
Trigger warning for death and loss.
This is one of the saddest and most poignant stories in this anthology and while it was heartbreaking, it was also so beautiful as well. I really loved the idea that thousands of years from now we won’t be forgotten, that someone may even be reading our blogs and wondering what we were like. This story is told with two joint narratives; a girl on Earth as the planet dies and a girl from an alien planet visiting Earth on an archaeological trip thousands of years in the future.
‘The Coldest Spot in the Universe’ features an Indian Muslim main character and family.
The Beginning of Monsters by Tessa Gratton
I found this story a little hard to follow as it involves posthuman transhumanism, the idea of creating a human form that transcends the mortality of the human form and it goes into quite a bit of technical detail. In the world, Gratton has created in ‘The Beginning of Monsters’ humans have gotten to the point of transhumanism. They are changing their bodies to be more than human, not just to push beyond mortality, but for aesthetics and to be advantageous for trade. The protagonist, Elir, was changed in the womb so that her body would be the perfect instrument for design. She has been given the task of designing a new body for Lady Insarra, one of the eleven kings of their city because she has become “tired of being a woman”.
In this universe, gender appears to be very fluid, with Elir reflecting that most people who required a new body did so because of their gender identity, not boredom. One of the main characters uses the pronouns an/ans and it is revealed that their society has four genders but there is a movement that believes that more should be introduced. This was not my first time reading literature using additional pronouns, however, my brain stumbled over the use of pronouns starting with vowels. Previously I’ve seen zhe/zher used and I decided to educate myself after reading this story and found this useful article about gender-neutral pronouns. This isn’t a criticism about using additional pronouns or creating them, it’s just a technical thought for writers; please don’t use pronouns starting with vowels. If I found it hard to read I have to wonder how difficult this would be for someone with dyslexia.
There are definitely some very interesting comments on gender, society and art going on in this story, and it reminds me a lot of the Cyberia and Psychobabble course I took at university (I almost wonder if Gratton took a similar course, it’s that similar in thought). It just personally wasn’t for me in terms of style.
‘The Beginning of Monsters’ features an LGBTQA+ relationship with a non-binary character.
Longer Than the Threads of Time by Zoraida Córdova
This Latinx Rapunzel retelling is such a good story and I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away. It’s set in Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas series, and while I’m sure it probably ties into the series somehow, as someone who hasn’t read the series I didn’t feel I missed anything by being unfamiliar with it. I actually had no idea it was set in a pre-existing universe until after I’d read it! I was really happy to find out it was because I loved the world-building in ‘Longer Than the Threads of Time’ so book one of the Brooklyn Brujas series promptly got added to my TBR (I had another book by Córdova already on there, just not that one).
‘Longer Than the Threads of Time’ features Latinx main characters and world-building set in a Latinx community.
Habibi by Tochi Onyebuchi
Trigger Warning for physical abuse, talk of suicide and a hunger strike.
The final story in the book and ‘Habibi’ was the only real choice for the final story of this anthology. All the stories of this anthology use fantasy and science fiction as a medium to tell the stories of real people, and ‘Habibi’ is the rawest undiluted reality of them all. Onyebuchi’s story is told in letter format, letters that are being magically transferred between two prisoners in solitary confinement. One is a black teenager in the US and the other is a Palestinian Muslim teenager. Their stories are completely different; the American boy is a prisoner (his story is much more complicated than that and Onyebuchi’s storytelling is extremely powerful in this regard) while the Palestinian boy was a peaceful protester.
While they are both in solitary confinement their situations are nowhere near the same and ‘Habibi’ gives a shocking account of the harsh realities of what is happening in the Middle East. ‘Habibi’ is one of those stories that will change your perspective of the world.
‘Habibi’ features a black male MC, a Palestinian Muslim MC and the Palestinian Muslim community.
This is an incredible anthology with all the stories being of top-notch quality. While there is one story, as noted in my review, that I feel didn’t really deserve to be here due to its lack of diverse content, the story itself was still enjoyable. Likewise, there was a wide range of genres, characters and well, pretty much everything. I feel that A Universe of Wishes has an excellent balance of diverse content too. I’ve seen other “diverse” anthologies that have included no disabled characters or have not included such a variety of cultures. I really appreciate that We Need Diverse Books made an effort to try to fit as much diversity as they could into one anthology. I hope that the young adults reading this get as much (and more) from it as I did as an adult.
Books by We Need Diverse Books
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Over to you
This review ended up taking me far longer than I had planned due to migraines and jaw/tooth pain, but I finally got there. Thank you for taking the time to read this review and if I have made any mistakes, or offended anyone please do drop me a comment to correct me and accept my apologies in advance. My pain levels have been through the roof so I probably have screwed up somewhere unintentionally.
I can’t recommend this anthology enough. It isn’t just a fabulous read it is an important one for diverse representation written by authors who understand just how important representation is, especially for young adults.
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