Ahh, my first review! This is exciting! You may want to take a peek at this new page on how I write reviews. And be warned: There’s a bundle of spoilers here.
I planned to love this book.
It was on my TBR list for over a year before I bought it. Since it’s so highly reviewed on Goodreads, I assumed it was a trade publication. I kept looking for it in libraries.
When I asked Twitter for indie fantasy recommendations, Shira Glassman herself responded. She listed a few of her favorites and noted (jokingly) that the Mangoverse is indie fantasy.
I squeaked. An author I’d heard of Tweeted at me! I had to review her book first.
The Second Mango has a dragon, a lesbian protagonist of color, a lady warrior, and a fantasy culture based in Judaism. I knew I was going to love it.
And I did, except … Well, we’ll get to that.
But first, what I loved about it.
The Second Mango is a deeply personal #ownverses fantasy.
Glassman is a bi Jewish woman who, as she told me on Twitter, based her protagonist, Shulamit, on herself at 20. Both women lost their beloved fathers, struggle with food intolerance, and “like boobs.” (Those are Glassman’s words, not mine.)
The ties between author and character make Shulamit all the more remarkable as a protagonist. Shula is intelligent but immature and “girl-crazy.” Yet Glassman doesn’t play her flaws for laughs the way other authors might.
Take this interaction between Shulamit and her warrior companion, Rivka:
“Besides, I like you.” An eager expression, half-sheepish, half-seductive, slipped across her face for a moment.
“As I told you, little Queenling, Malkeleh, nothing happens to me when we’re close. I don’t feel that way about women, and I’m not the one you seek.” … “Are none of your ladies-in-waiting interested in other women?” Rivka asked, wondering if they’d had to fight off the queen’s advances too.
It isn’t funny. It’s cringey. But it still made me smile because I’ve known girls like that. I’ve been a girl like that. It takes a lot of guts to put your adolescent flaws and insecurities on paper.
There’s a similar honesty tangible in Shulamit’s friendship with Rivka. As you can see in the quote above, Rivka occasionally gets frustrated with the young queen. Shulamit is sheltered; Rivka has seen too much of the world.
But they’re both aware they aren’t conventional women. Shulamit is a lesbian; Rivka disguises herself as a man to fight. There’s a sort of “us against the world” mentality that binds them from the beginning. I remember feeling the same way about my high school best friend.
The title, The Second Mango, is a reference to their friendship. It’s a good choice. Of all the relationships in the book, the women’s friendship feels the most important. It sustains them. It makes them braver. It makes them into better versions of themselves.
Which is why I was so disappointed by Glassman’s decision to focus on romance in the later half of the novel. There is more chemistry between Shulamit and Rivka as friends than between either woman and her partner.
But the story’s Happily Ever After demands romance.
Elementary plot elements are both a bug and a feature.
At times, it was difficult to tell whether The Second Mango was a middle-grade book or a new adult novel.
During the climax, the heroes face a series of obstacles reminiscent of the enchantments that guard The Philosopher’s Stone. They arrive to find the villain is already dead. All they need to do is rescue the fair maiden from a magical rock slide.
Yet there’s too much talk of bosoms, “flowers,” and petting for even my heathen ass to feel comfortable recommending The Second Mango to a fifth grader.
Upon reflection, I’ve decided that’s not necessarily a flaw. There’s no law that says young adult/new adult fantasy novels need to be grimdark. Coloring books currently top The New York Times bestseller list. Maybe The Second Mango is the novel we need in these uncertain times.
But the cotton-candy sweetness isn’t all encompassing. There are still real-world issues, like sexism, child abuse, and homophobia. And to keep the book light and cheerful, Glassman sacrifices the opportunity to confront these issues head-on.
Rivka is neglected and abused by her family because she is “too masculine” to be a proper lady. Yet her family is never forced to face what they’ve done. Nor does Rivka herself seem able to acknowledge the trauma she survived. Instead, she rides off on a mare that turns into a dragon, never to return
Near the end of the novel, a vendor in the marketplace scolds Shulamit for kissing her lover in front of his stall:
“You two. You’re disgusting. If everyone was like you, the human race would go extinct.”
A poisonous sea began to boil in Shulamit’s stomach, and she felt tears of anger spring forth from her eyes. But then she heard familiar voices behind her … and she knew she was not alone. Still afraid but ignoring it, she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and said haughtily, “Nobody’s like me, and you can bet nobody’s ever been like her–we’re pretty amazing!”
It’s meant to be a sign of Shulamit’s growth. She’s no longer ashamed of who she is. With her friends behind her, she can stand up for herself.
Yet the queen’s answer is incomplete. The vendor isn’t upset because of who Shulamit and her lover are as individuals. It’s who they are together that upsets him. Shulamit need not have said, “Tough shit. I’m the queen. If you don’t like my consort, you can whine to the executioner.”
But she might have said, “We love each other. We are not ashamed.”
The Second Mango is a celebration of diversity to which some types of difference are not invited.
She is the only lesbian she knows. (Her lover is bi.) She suffers from internalized homophobia throughout the text. Near the end, she and her lover agree:
For an ordinary [read: straight] man to commit willingly to spending the rest of his life being mistaken for one of them [read: not straight] was to win their admiration.
Despite her growth, Shulamit still considers herself abnormal, sub-ordinary.
But at least there is onscreen lesbian representation.
There are no characters openly identified as trans to counterbalance lines like this:
“… There are women who dress as men because they prefer to live as men …”
“They could be men wearing dresses just to sneak into the competition …”
And Shulamit discovering that Rivka is a woman who dresses as a man because she has breasts.
To be fair to Glassman, I don’t think she intended any of those examples to be transphobic. The last example is more trans erasure than open hostility. The first two almost certainly refer to cis people cross dressing rather than to trans people.
But good intentions don’t make something harmless. I can’t tell if “women who dress as men because they prefer to live that way” is meant to be a reference to trans men or not. I hope not.
Anyone who’s paying attention to the “bathroom debates” knows that conservatives are currently terrified “men wearing dresses” are going to sneak into women’s bathrooms if we allow trans women to pee in peace. The language is problematic in and of itself. It doesn’t matter whether it’s referring to cis men or trans women.
I kept waiting for a trans character to show up.
Recounting a memory, Rivka says:
“Of course, a few of them [sex workers] found it necessary to insist that I understand their rule against the guard making free with their services … I simply opened my shirt, and said that I had a pair of my own and wasn’t interested, so they didn’t have to worry.”
“I’m sorry, Queenling,” Rivka added. “I wasn’t really thinking about women like you two …”
Forcing a trans character to educate cis characters isn’t ideal, but it would have been better than letting transphobia and trans erasure stand unchallenged.
No openly trans character arrived.
I will give the Mangoverse a second chance.
Ultimately, it is wonderful to have a disabled, lesbian protagonist of color. I liked the lighthearted adventure. If it weren’t for the shortcomings I mentioned above, The Second Mango might have become one of my favorite books.
I am disappointed, but I’m not giving up on Glassman. From what I’ve seen of her, she’s a lovely person. She’s committed to diverse books.
I’ll return to the Mangoverse soon. Hopefully, the other novels will keep the fun and lose the jarring queerphobia.
Same Book, Different Views
Brendon gave The Second Mango four out of five stars at Reading and Gaming for Justice.
Sean gave it 4.5 out of five stars at World of Diverse Books.
A.M. gave it 10 out of 10 fountain pens on their site.