Spoilers: No spoilers beyond what can be found in the first chapter or so and on the back cover.Prizm Books.
First, a quick rundown on the book itself: The Second Mango is a pretty quick read, and once you get to the middle it becomes pretty fast-paced as well. Though it has its moments of drama, tragedy, and suspense, it’s a relatively lighthearted read with a happy ending–something that can be hard to find in a story with either Jewish or lesbian main characters. Point of view shifts smoothly between the two main characters throughout the book, excluding a section in the middle which tells Rivka’s story, and is done entirely from her point of view. The technical quality of the writing is certainly capable, but like with a lot of fantasy and science fiction, it’s not the focus of the book. The storytelling, on the other hand, and the characters, are wonderful, and I quickly fell in love with them.
With those characters, I would have tolerated some fairly sloppy writing–though happily I didn’t have to.
Of the two main characters, Queen Shulamit was the one I expected to love the most. Aside from the whole Jewish lesbians and also a dragon thing, her character was what made me want to read the book. Shulamit has some very severe food sensitivities which cause digestive problems, something I have a lot of experience with. And people don’t believe her about those problems–something I also have a lot of experience with. Experiences like those can be incredibly isolating, so having a character who shared my experiences…it’s proof that I’m not alone, that what happened to me does happen to other people, that I wasn’t just being oversensitive. And it’s there, in black and white. That kind of representation is something I am incredibly grateful for, and I so wish that I could have had this book when I was eleven, back when all of this was first happening to me. I have this urge to run up to people and shove The Second Mango at them, tell them “read this, please, read this, if you can understand Shula you can understand me.”
I honestly didn’t expect to like Rivka as much as I did–I don’t know why. I really loved her, though. And I connected with her a lot more than expected, too: Rivka’s romantic experiences and mine are very similar, and both of us wanted to do things that we were told women simply didn’t do. I also found that, although Rivka’s sole romantic relationship did have a sexual component, reading about it didn’t make me uncomfortable in the way that a lot of sexual relationships have done recently (especially where one character does not often experience sexual attraction). Perhaps this was because consent and desire were so obvious from both parties, and because both parties were so clearly willing to respect the other’s boundaries.
The way that Jewish culture is used in this book is really great, with the North, where Rivka is from, representing Ashkenazi culture, and the Shula’s people to the South representing mainly Mizrahi Jews (or that was the impression I got–my knowledge of Mizrahi culture is pretty limited, I’m afraid). Glassman does a good job of using the diversity of Jewish culture to keep the world she is writing in diverse and realistic. And it was nice, for once, to have that connection of shared culture with the characters I was reading about–a connection they also have with each other, despite their differences.
I also liked that neither Rivka nor Shulamit fit the stereotypical American image of a Jew–Ashkenazi, white passing or relatively light skinned, dark curly hair. Rivka is blond, and Shulamit has brown skin, both features that directly contradict that stereotype.
I won’t go too much into the plot or other characters, but I found nearly every significant character in the book interesting, or charming, or lovable in some way. The characters I disliked were all antagonists, characters I was clearly supposed to dislike–something which suited the story very well. At times, it read almost like a folktale or fairytale. I will also note that one of the characters is bisexual, and she does not fall into any of the common stereotypes about bisexual women, such as the idea that bisexual women will eventually, inevitably, leave any female partners and marry men. Although that particular stereotype is mentioned, the book doesn’t promote it.
My one warning with this book would be that there are a number of times when Shulamit especially discusses bodies, and she and others have quite a binarist and cis-normative way of talking about things. While it seems realistic in the world they live in, if that is something that bothers you it would be good to be prepared.
Over all, a charming read, and a book that means more to me then I could have imagined going in. If you enjoy fantasy I definitely recommend it.
In a couple weeks I’ll be reviewing the sequel, Climbing the Date Palm, and talking about some of the characters who I avoided talking about here, but who feature more heavily in the second book. A Harvest of Ripe Figs is due out January 21st, 2015 (link goes to Shira Glassman’s WordPress).