Title: The Mangoverse Books (The Second Mango, Climbing the Date Palm, and A Harvest of Ripe Figs)
Author: Shira Glassman
Publisher: Prizm Books
Rating: 3 out of 5 (all 3)
How I got these books: I purchased them directly from the publisher’s website
So, two weeks ago I read a book that looked at systemic oppression through the lens of epic fantasy. Then last week, I read a book that examined the last decade of Canadian politics. So, this week, I’ll talk about yet more sober, hard-hitting writing that looks at heavy issues. Right?
Not quite. I decided to mix things up with the Mangoverse books, a queer fantasy romance series featuring Jewish characters, written by a Jewish author. Why not? If I want to diversify my reading, I might as well read some romances, a genre that I generally don’t know a lot about, while I’m at it.
Note: Spoilers below.
Shulamit is the queen of Perach. Perach hasn’t had a queen in centuries and as a result of this, her youth, and her desire for women over men, her rule is off to a somewhat rocky start. But over the three books, we see Shulamit come into her own, find love, find an unorthodox way to secure her succession, and, overall, prove to be a just and wise ruler of a state that becomes a haven for culture, the arts, and non-heteronormative relationships.
Things start in The Second Mango, where Shulamit, after being rescued from bandits by Riv, asks Riv to help her find a new woman to love. Shulamit had previously had a relationship with Aviva, a chef in the palace, but Aviva quit her job without warning and Shulamit hopes a new relationship will heal her heart. Riv has different problems, though — she’s actually a woman in disguise and she still mourns the loss of her beloved wizard, Isaac, who taught her history and swordfighting.
When the two of them stop at a temple of celibate women (Shulamit having figured that at least some of them might detest lying with men the way she does) they find that almost all the inhabitants have been turned to stone. Will Riv and Shulamit go on a daring quest to defeat the evil sorcerer behind all this? Possibly! And, during the course of their quest, will they each be reunited with their respective lost loves? Maybe! And will Riv end up as the new head of the queen’s guard, wearing a mask to preserve her identity and make people think she’s a man? Perhaps.
In Climbing the Date Palm, Shulamit and Aviva have a thriving relationship (and so do Riv and and Isaac). However, there’s a pressing problem: Shulamit needs to produce an heir, but can’t stand the idea of lying with a man to get the job done. Enter Kaveh, the runaway prince of the neighbouring City of Red Clay. Kaveh wants Riv to rescue his lover, Farzin. Farzin was an engineer who helped build a new bridge — but after Kaveh’s father, King Jahandar, refused to pay the workers their promised fee, Farzin led a revolt. Kaveh, desperate to save his lover from being executed, figures that asking for Riv’s help is his best shot since everyone assumes that Riv and Isaac are male lovers just as he and Farzin are.
Shulamit offers to help upon one condition: that Kaveh, who is bisexual, marry her and father her children. Such an arrangement is perfect from her perspective, because then she’ll have an heir and a husband who won’t demand more of herself than she can give. Kaveh agrees. And so Shulamit, Aviva, Kaveh, Riv, and Isaac team up to find a way to: 1) rescue Farzin, 2) convince King Jahandar to pay the workers properly, and 3) do so without starting a war. Oh, and if they can also find a way to get Shulamit pregnant without her, you know, actually having to sleep with her intended husband, that would be the cherry on the sundae.
A Harvest of Ripe Figs is a mystery rather than a romance. Esther of the Singing Hands is a gifted fiddler, but after performing a stunning concert, her violin is stolen — and it looks like it could be the result of someone illegally using magic. Will Shulamit and her trusty chef/lover, wizard, and gender-non-conforming captain figure things out and save the day? (Take a guess.)
One thing I noticed about the Mangoverse books is that they are wish fulfillment in the best sense. Glassman is queer and Jewish, and she’s made those two parts of her identity central to her stories. As Glassman herself puts it in a guest post on the site Death, Books, and Tea (which is unrelated to this site):
It was my earnest wish when creating this story to show lesbian and bisexual characters in the same kind of beautiful, innocent, “cute” fairy-tale setting that straight girls all got to enjoy when they were little. Seeing themselves represented in fiction are all very important in reassuring these young people that they deserve to be a part of the world, that they can have wonderful adventures, too, and that they’re not destined for tragic endings while their straight counterparts go off merrily into the sunset. We can have families, too, if we want–not that we have to–and we can be everything straight people can be, whether that’s heroes or comedians or leaders or very good hard workers or even just “beautiful”. We aren’t destined for loneliness by virtue of our difference.
Put simply, the Mangoverse books are fun, written by and for people that don’t currently see enough fun narratives validating their life experiences. There are also several sex scenes for all three main couples, which I think is an important part of Glassman’s focus on representing and normalizing fantasy/romance stories for LGBT audiences. Above all, Glassman imbues her books with a generosity of spirit and playfulness, focusing on positive relationships and happy endings.
(Also, I love the fact that by the third book, Riv is so renowned as a warrior that she essentially becomes the country’s version of Chuck Norris, fake facts and all. I lol’d when I got to that part.)
However, the books weren’t entirely smooth sailing. Although A Harvest of Ripe Figs is the most accomplished of the series, The Second Mango has several issues with pacing. My most notable criticism, though, is that Glassman privileges the presence of happy endings so much that she robs the climax of Climbing the Date Palm of all its impact. Let’s set the stage a bit.
In Climbing the Date Palm, when King Jahandar refused to pay his workers, he justified this by saying that the pride of being a loyal citizen was recompense enough. When he found out that his son, Kaveh, had an illicit relationship with Farzin, the bridge’s chief engineer, he sentenced Farzin to death. Shulamit, having done research on the king, believes that the only peaceful way that such a proud man would both release Farzin and pay the missing wages would be if a woman he truly respected and considered his moral superior convinced him to do so. She has a theory that there is such a woman out there — Jahandar’s version of “the one that got away”.
After many false starts, Shulamit finds this mysterious woman, named Aafsaneh. When Shulamit begs her to talk to the king, she refuses, saying that it broke her heart to turn him down when she was young, and that she fears that she wouldn’t have the strength to do so again despite his cruelty. Aafsaneh relents only when she learns that it’s her own son, Farzin, that faces execution. (What a coincidence!)
So, we have Jahandar, a cruel king, and Aafsaneh, a woman with such innate dignity and strength that she may be the only one alive to make him feel ashamed of himself. When the two reunite, what stirring words do we hear? What stunning revelations do we learn?
Absolutely none, that’s what.
Because when she finally visits the king, Shulamit and Aviva get shunted off to a separate room and struggle to overhear the conversation. The next scene involves Shulamit informing Riv and Isaac when they arrive that every problem has been solved — the workers have been paid, Farzin has been freed, Shulamit will get to marry Kaveh, and Aafsaneh will become Jahandar’s queen as a bonus. Everyone wins!
Everyone, that is, except the reader. I have rarely felt so cheated as a reader as when I realized that Glassman wasn’t going to write this crucial conversation between Aafsaneh and Jahandar, or show any of the aftermath. This is where Jahandar sees the folly of his ways, and all we get is a closed door? What did Aafsaneh say to convince him he was in the wrong? More importantly, what did he say to convince her to marry him, and how did such a petty man manage to win the heart of a woman with such internal strength?
There are many scenes in the books that aren’t told from Shulamit’s perspective, so the fact that she wasn’t in the room isn’t a good enough reason to not show it here. I struggle to understand how anyone — Glassman, her editors, her beta readers, whatever — would have let such a crucial exchange stay unwritten. It still makes me mad when I think about it days later.
To her credit, Glassman admits that the quality of her writing has improved as the series has progressed. I love the concept behind the Mangoverse books and want to support diverse authors, but that gaping hole in the climax of the second book still haunts me.