Spoilers: Some spoilers for the The Second Mango
Image Description: A book cover with a date palm on a green background. A green dragon flies in the background. Across the bottom, the words “climbing the Date Palm” in black. Below that, the name “Shira Glassman”. Image from Prizm Books.
Climbing the Date Palm introduces the characters Kaveh and Farzin, two men from a neighboring country who are bisexual and gay, respectively. Both are good characters strong enough to hold up their part of the story, although Prince Kaveh took a while to grow on me. I never quite fell in love with them the way I did Shulamit and Rivka, but I liked them, and my feelings for them did grow as the story went on. It is nice to see gay and bisexual men in a fantasy setting, and I very much appreciate the fact that neither of them fit the stereotype of non-cis, non-heterosexual men (that is, skinny and white). Neither of them is white, and Farzin is definitely not skinny.
In addition to the new characters, we also get to see a lot more of some of the characters from The Second Mango. Aviva and Isaac both play a pretty large part in this book. Aviva, unlike Shulamit, is bisexual, and it was wonderful to see a bisexual woman who isn’t vilified or treated as thoughher sexuality changes depending on the gender of her partner. There is a wonderful scene between her and Kaveh, perhaps my favorite in the book, where the two of them discuss their sexuality and the assumptions that people make about them (Aviva also talks about her experiences as a large-breasted woman, something I found immensely relatable.) I also like that Aviva gets to be awesome and save the day, just like Shulamit and Rivka, but does so in very different ways. Rivka is a warrior and Shulamit is a scholar, and both were raised by nobility. Aviva, in contrast to both of them, comes from poverty. She isn’t highly educated, and she doesn’t really talk as thoughshe is. But like both of them she has something that she is very good at, and works very hard at, and she has figured out how to use that skill to help people.
Aviva’s relationship with Shulamit, too, is incredibly important to me. As much as Shulamit’s character means to me in terms of representation, it means just as much to see her surrounded by people who love her, who care for her, and who do not feel burdened by her. Shulamit and Aviva help each other, they love each other, they benefit each other. When disabled characters are allowed relationships it is often treated as an act of generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of their significant other (or even a sign of some deep-seated”issue” that the significant other has), but that doesn’t happen here. The relationship is genuine and caring on both sides, and neither side is lowering or sacrificing themselves.
Shulamit is also not the only disabled character in this book, and sheand Aviva are not the only example of a relationship between a disabled person and a non-disabled person. Isaac, too, is disabled, in a more visible way then Shulamit. One of his hands is injured, which affects his ability to do things like sword fight. It is easy to forget this a lot of the time, because he is still perfectly capable, and is able to use magic in a lot of situations where he would use a sword. At the same time, however, his disability is definitely present throughout the book, and any character looking at him can see his injury. In my last review I mentioned that Isaac and Rivka’s relationship was one of the few I’ve read recently where the sex didn’t make me immensely uncomfortable, and this continues to be true, although I have yet to figure out if that is because it is not terribly graphic, or because of the relationship between the two. In any case, the two clearly trust each other and respect each other’s boundaries (even when the other forgets their own boundaries).
As far as Isaac’s magical abilities, there is one specific skill he has that I really, really enjoy–and which might have been really, really bad were this book written by a non-Jewish author: Isaac is a shape shifter. Specifically, he is a shape shifter who turns into dragons, and various other reptilian creatures. Between the fact that the book has so many Jewish characters, and the fact that Isaac is a good guy, and the fact that the writer is Jewish, this manages to not only be not offensive, but also be incredibly awesome–and I actually really like the idea of reptiles being warm and comfortable, the way Isaac is for Rivka and Shulamit.
But non-Jewish writers, please don’t make your Jewish characters lizards. Just…don’t go there.
As far as the plot of the book, there are two main threads, one concerning Farzin and Kaveh and one concerning the need for Shulamit to produce an heir. The two threads tie together well, and the book deals well with the issue of producing an heir without Shula doing something she isn’t comfortable with, as well as with her feelings of obligation and fear of selfishness. It actually meant a lot to me as an asexual person: I struggle with the idea that I am supposed to have sex, that I am obliged to have sex because the idea of having sex does not make me physically ill– and realizing that I felt this obligation made my discomfort with the idea of having sex even greater. In a relationship with someone who wants sex, I end up feeling as though,unless having sex would be utterly traumatizing, I should eventually do it in order to make the other person happy. Shulamit’s sense of obligation to her kingdom, and her extreme discomfort with even the idea of having sex with a man, were things I could very much relate to.
Overall, this book felt less light-hearted to me then The Second Mango, with more politics and an increased focus on both heterosexism and homophobia. The magic, however, retains its almost fairy tale quality, and it still has a happy ending, which was one of my favorite things about the first book. The world itself seemed more complete–it is not exactly that The Second Mango felt incomplete, but in this book all of the characters (excluding Rivka and Shulamit, who were already pretty fully realized) seemed more fleshed out, more three dimensional. Even the villain of the story, to use a rather melodramatic term, has depth. We see more of the world with the book featuring a new country that has different traditions and beliefs. Characters we saw briefly in the first book we see more of, and wonderful new characters are introduced (this book is full of wonderful female characters with a huge amount of agency). Even Rivka’s mother gets fleshed out and is more sympathetic. The story is less focused on just Shula and Rivka, and the point of view branches out more, which it is able to support because those two characters were well explored in the first book. It’s worth noting, too, that while Shulamit isn’t exactly more developed, she’s clearly grown as a person since we saw her last, and it’s clear that she’s still growing.
Climbing the Date Palm makes a good follow-up to The Second Mango. Sequels are hard, and in my opinion this one succeeds admirably. My hopes are high for the next book, A Harvest of Ripe Figs, due out January 21st of this year (link goes to Shira Glassman’s WordPress).