Minotaur by JA RockMinotaur by J.A. Rock is an incredibly hard book to classify. Is it a fantasy? That depends on how much of the fantastic elements you think exist only in the protagonist’s head–and the deeper you get into the story, the harder it is to hold on to that view. Is it a contemporary drama? Maybe…at least in the everyday details of the setting. Is it a romance? There’s clearly a romantic thread and a happy ending–which may be a bit of a spoiler, since the book isn’t advertised as a romance, but I think it’s important to know when the story gets dark. And it gets very dark indeed.

At its heart, this is the story of an unwanted, neglected girl who turns herself hard to survive, then learns how to open herself again for love–both the love of friends and romantic love. The setting is a dreary, narrow-minded small town, still stuck in an era when the sympathetic counselor at the Girls’ Home who shows too much affection for the girls is whispered visciously to be a “BD,” which it took me a while to decode as “bull-dyke.” So when roommates Thera and Alle begin exploring their tentative desire for each other, there are layers of confusion, ignorance, and despair to work through. They promise to stay together when they age out of the home, not truly believing such a thing is possible and each doubting that she is worthy of that sort of love.

And then there’s the Minotaur…and the maze.

The Characters

Honestly the characters aren’t meant to be likeable. They’re teenage girls from the wrong side of life. They’re sharp-edged and suspicious and fond of breaking rules. They’re real even when the story takes a turn for unreality. They’re also brave and tenacious and daring. Being their friend would never be comfortable but it would never be boring.

The Writing Style

And now we get to the reason this book captured my heart. Rock’s writing is stunningly beautiful and evocative. I never would have opened this book based on the synopsis, but when I heard the opening chapter read on The Lesbian Talk Show I nearly took the next off ramp from the freeway to find a place to park so I could pull out my iPhone and buy it immediately. When someone asks me what I mean by “beautiful writing”, this is one of the examples I offer. The author has an extraordinary command of voice and description, and eases you into an alien world while making you believe it’s could happen next door.

The Pros

The writing style and worldbuilding captured my heart and carried me though the parts of the book that were unsettling and unpleasant.

The Cons

There are some disturbing scenes that border on horror, and there’s one section in the later part of the book that seemed to meander aimlessly for just a bit too long. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity and confusion, this may not be a book for you, because the story balances between different possible interpretations all the way through the end.

The Conclusion

If–like me–the love of language can trump all your other considerations when choosing a book, give this one a try.

Excerpt from Minotaur by J.A. Rock

Know this: I am not a warrior.

I am a disease.

If I go down in history a hero, it will be someone scraping half-truths off the floor and the undersides of desks, sculpting something ugly and defiantly off-center. It will be a careful rearrangement of facts, and it will involve so many lies of omission that the truth will end up amputated from me like a limb. I’ll stagger around, a lopsided idea of who I was, everyone too polite to discuss what I’m missing.

I don’t trust heroes; I don’t think I should. At Rock Point, many of the girls liked stories that ended happily, or at least offered a sense of closure. But I liked tales with abstruse people screwing and killing their way toward ambiguous outcomes. I liked shadows. And I liked gore.

And secretly, I liked redemption. I liked monsters who regretted and heroes who mustered a revolted sort of compassion for their enemies. Even better were the heroes who saw villains as a mirror—not one that reflected the world precisely as it was, but one that showed the hero what she might become. Like when you and someone else are staring through the same window, and you shift to make your reflection line up with hers. You become an awkward mutt—eyes in the wrong places, too many mouths, but you can almost fit yourself to her outline.

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Bits and Bobs

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About the author

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Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy and historically-inspired fiction. She is also a podcaster and writes reviews for books she highly recommends.