Silk Fire, by Zabé Ellor

a_mo_zing's review

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adventurous tense slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


tobias_kashman's review

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adventurous dark fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


livinthebubble's review against another edition

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 I usually can get through at least until the 25% mark of a book before I call it quits. But this book just was so boring and I don't want to waste my time reading something that in the first 50 pages has not interested me in the least.


So exhausting to read, I fell asleep reading twice. There are extensive, detailed descriptions, hard-to-read names, long chapters...I had to read some sentences/paragraphs several times to understand, and at one point I just skipped the descriptions.


I've never seen names that were this hard to read. All the names are really difficult names and I just skipped over them at one point because I couldn't be bothered. There's a guide to the pronunciation at the beginning but that did not help (how am I supposed to remember how to pronounce them all when I'm trying to get into the world?).

For example, Akizeké Shikishashir Dzaxashigé is so hard to even look at. Is that a name? Because most of the names have Dzaxashigé at the end. I just feel like character names should be easy to at least differentiate.


I felt like there were too many elements in this. Dinosaurs, dragons, technology, and magic make no sense together, in my opinion. I need some sort of logic. Also, the world wasn't very described and I have no clue what it's supposed to be like.

Main Character

Koré could've been a cool character, further into the book, but I just found him annoying.

Overall, I think this was just not for me. A book needs to interest me in the first 50 pages and this just didn't.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

dykish's review

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dark emotional funny inspiring mysterious slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


mjspice's review

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alyxinthestars's review against another edition

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  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


elakudark's review

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So. Silk Fire. Going in I had to be like, put aside the dunk tweets. Put aside the abysmal Storygraph rating. Put aside Zabé Ellor’s twee Internet personality and weird behaviour towards reviewers of his work. Indeed, even put aside the slew of extremely polysyllabic fantasy names, so hostile to the human brain and tongue that Ellor had to compile a 150+ item list of phonetic pronunciations for his audiobook narrator. And then joked about how it made the narrator cry.


Come on in! Wade through the miasma of rancid vibes surrounding this book and join me in the review. Let’s talk about the book. Let’s talk about gender. This book certainly wanted to talk about gender. After all, the author has gone to great lengths to market Silk Fire as a work of transgender fantasy, unique in a sea of gender essentialist fantasy novels written by cis authors. And the result? Well. 

The characters of Silk Fire, the people of the science fantasy planet-city called Jadzia, live in a patriarchy. Yes, a patriarchy. The book and Ellor himself will insist it’s a matriarchy, but there’s no good reason to believe them. The ideas about gender that exist in this book and define the imagined society within it were not created by women, not by real women nor by women in the book’s own universe. The book is not conversant with any existing theories of gender produced by women or trans people, any work done by feminist scholars or artists to analyze real matriarchies or imagine what one might look like.

Instead Ellor has taken the patriarchal gender relations that exist in our world, terms of gendered engagement that were dictated by men for the benefit of men and entrenched over centuries of men holding power, and swapped the roles of men and women within them. A little switcheroo. Women are put in the social positions of men and men in those of women. The rest remains – the gender binary, bioessentialism, heteronormativity, monogamy, marriage, virginity, legitimate and illegitimate children, the nuclear family, inheritance by primogeniture, the division of public and private spheres, the devaluation of domestic and sexual labour, the veneration of individual strength. These are the relations that constitute patriarchy and reproduce it, the bricks and mortar used to build and reinforce it generation after generation. The ingredients are all here but the book insists the meal is not the same. 

The “matriarchy” in Silk Fire is ten thousand years old, we’re told.

If women really held the power to shape gender relations to our own benefit, persistently, historically through to today, as men have created patriarchy, it would not turn out anything like the “matriarchy” in this book. And that’s not to say that women are intrinsically more enlightened about gender or something, just that we understand and enact it differently than men do, and that difference would transform everything about society if it informed millennia of history and tradition. If women’s leadership were “the way it has always been done”! If women wrote the laws and the history books! If international diplomatic relations occurred mostly between women! For ten thousand years!!

The fact that the enforcers of Jadzia’s society are women does not a matriarchy make. Real life women do substantial work to reinforce and reproduce our current gender relations but that doesn’t make them matriarchs, it makes them accomplices in patriarchy. That’s what the women in this book are. The women in this book fight so hard to maintain their proximity to men’s power, men’s ideas, men’s magical “essence”, that it somehow puts them in charge. Ellor doesn’t use the rich toolset of speculative fiction to imagine a fantasy matriarchy. Instead he presents a patriarchy where the fantasy is that women are in control, indeed have been in control the whole time, and so can be justifiably blamed for the systems that hurt everyone. 

The gender roles in protagonist Koré’s immediate family are very traditional, set up to facilitate his daddy issues with all the same implications that term carries in real life. Koré was raised by his single working mother. Koré’s father, his mother’s employer, got her pregnant out of wedlock and then abandoned her to pursue political power. He doesn’t claim Koré as his legitimate son and this informs basically every aspect of Koré’s life and his mother’s. Yes, Koré’s mother is authoritarian and emotionally distant. She acts like her son exists to be married off, works a physical job, and is in many other ways masculine-coded. Patriarch-coded. But forget the trappings for a second. What does it mean that a father can be ignorant to the fact of his child’s birth and existence until that child is ten years old? What does it mean that a man can abandon a woman to raise their child alone while he pursues a career in power? What does it mean that the father doing so determines the mother and child’s class status, restricts their options for employment and advancement, relegates them to the margins of society? 

Why, if he will supposedly be the first male ruler of this matriarchal society, ever, is Koré’s father the assumed heir to the throne, his rise to power so inevitable that his son must enact an entire revenge plot to have any hope of stopping it? 

The gender relations at work on Jadzia would not actually reproduce women’s power. That’s why the world has been exactly the same for ten thousand years. Jadzia can only ever exist exactly as it is because if it were truly set in motion it would quickly dismantle itself. It doesn’t even manage to perpetuate itself within the single generation of parents and children we see on-page! Yet somehow an entire district of Jadzia was banished off the face of the planet for ten thousand years, hundreds of generations, and in Chapter One its people re-emerge from this exile speaking a language and enacting a culture that are easily recognizable to the rest of the world. Think about that. Think about a group of humans evolving completely apart from the global systems of resource and knowledge exchange and extraction the rest of us participate in. Completely self-contained and self-reliant. Their entire existence shaped by living in a world totally unimaginable to the rest of us. For ten thousand years. If Atlantis suddenly rose from the depths tomorrow, would anyone from our modern society be able to approach its people and intuitively understand their culture enough to win them over with sexual favours? No! That’s ridiculous! They would basically be aliens! But that’s what Koré does in this book. That’s what Koré does in this book and it’s framed as savvy politicking. 

“Not even a god could change Victory Street,” Koré laments early on. Well, there’s the proof. The fall of the gods enacted profound and catastrophic upheaval on an entire part of the world, a fundamental shift in the material conditions of existence that millions of people had to live with for thousands of years, and it changed the shape of social relations not at all.

That is essentialism. The idea that there are categories and systems inherent to the world, inherent to human existence, that can persist unchanged regardless of the people who live inside them and the choices those people make. Trans people on Jadzia have ready access to advanced gender-affirming surgeries seemingly without the heavy legal, economic, and medical restrictions placed on these procedures in reality. Even with this incredibly liberating tool of creation in the hands of trans people, Jadzia has no significant culture of transness, gender fluidity, or even gender experimentation. Sex work is supposedly a legal part of the professional economy, its practitioners protected by labour rights, but still the open expression of sexuality and desire is taboo, and sex workers are insulted, abused, and murdered with impunity on the job. Gender as a system of property persists. “Man” and “woman” persist, not as imperfect rules people have made but somewhere inside the self, in people’s literal, magical essence. Gender on Jadzia is more wholly essentialist than gender in reality could ever hope to be. On Jadzia, the material enactment of profound, beautiful, revolutionary ideas that generations of real life women and trans people have fought and died for — women’s leadership, access to medical transition, sex workers’ labour rights — has failed to change gender at all. Jadzia doesn’t change. The Powers That Be made it up down to the tiniest detail ten thousand years ago and so it remains. It’s the kind of place that has been at peace for ten thousand years and still has a district dedicated to War. There’s no reason for the nonsensical events of Silk Fire to reshape power relations on Jadzia when nothing else in Jadzia’s history has managed to do so, except that this is the moment, and Koré the protagonist, that the author of the universe has decided to invest with the essence of change. Nobody has lived in this world Ellor built, spoken its language or handed down its histories or participated in its creation, until Koreshiza Brightstar Dzaxashigé.

As a work of transgender fantasy this book fails utterly because it doesn’t believe in transition, the process of true change. It doesn’t transform gender or transcend it. It would have to understand gender first, understand what it means for gender to be “socially constructed”, understand the meaning and implications of bioessentialism, actually engage with the way women and trans people actually do gender. Silk Fire isn’t interested in any of that, ultimately. It’s interested in dramatizing the hurt that queer men experience under patriarchy, and somewhere along the way it lets men – the idea of men, and men themselves – completely off the hook. If only men were queerer, softer, more emotionally expressive, then they wouldn’t be responsible for the systems that benefit them, says Silk Fire. If only men were powerless in the face of patriarchy. Then it would be okay, righteous even, for men to turn their power on women instead.

Gloves off, man? Can I get ugly for a sec? This book fucking hates women. It also assumes women fucking hate each other. Because women are “in power”, misogynist slurs like bitch, slut, and whore are thrown around with gleeful abandon, in social contexts where these words would not be acceptable even under our own patriarchy. The phrase “dried-up shriveled hole” is used to insult a woman. A woman whips another woman bloody to defend a man’s reputation. And Koré? Koré really fucking hates women. Koré’s aunt is a trans woman who he insinuates has transitioned as a social-climbing maneuver that somehow grants her power over men, even though it got her kicked out of her family home by her brother, Koré’s father. One of Koré’s employees, a female sex worker, is murdered on the job and Koré, who is in charge of the brothel, unilaterally decides to absolve himself of any responsibility maybe a chapter later, shrugs his shoulders and lets the cops take over. Okay, I’m pretty sure this next scene is what the author provided a laughably understated “dubious consent” warning for so be forewarned! It gets uglier! Gather round and feast your eyes on some truly vile garbage! I’m going to show you how the sausage is made! 

SpoilerIn a thoroughly under-negotiated threesome scene, Koré plays kink roulette with two women. In this encounter he is the one who sets out the rules of the game they’re going to play. He chooses the words they’ll use to play it while cracking his whip if the women speak back. Under his own terms he proceeds to fuck one of the women, Ria, someone he has recruited into sex work, with the express purpose of humiliating her and using that humiliation against the other woman in the room. “Trust me,” he says, then ties her down and tells her she’s worthless and useless until he reduces her to “all tears and no pleasure”. “Break for me. End this. Please,” he thinks really hard at the woman immobilized and sobbing before him, at the mercy of not just his actions but the rules he has set up to justify them. He can’t stand the sight of what he’s doing to her, so it would be easier for both of them if she just gave in to what he wants. But it doesn’t end until he says it does. Until he breaks it off, suddenly hysterical about how sorry he is, how he didn’t mean it really, how it was all just a game and anyways none of this was ever really his idea in the first place, it was that other woman over there, the mean one, she made him do it. And if it wasn’t her then it was The Powers That Be, the random spin of a roulette wheel, so who can really say who’s to blame? In the aftermath of her rape by the powerful son of a powerful man, Ria comforts him because he just feels so bad and guilty that he was forced to do something so awful. Ria apologizes. She never knew Koré’s father hurt him so deeply. She wants to be sure he still feels comfortable around her. “I’d used her for my own gain,” admits Koré’s narration. I didn’t want you to stop me!he tells Ria in an outburst. That is the truth that remains alive after “all possible lies” have “died on his tongue.” He didn’t want her to stop him from taking whatever he wanted from her or another woman, no matter what he had to do, no matter whether he had to use them, deceive them, fuck them, or break them to get it. And what Koré wants is to make himself feel more powerful against his father. He wants the power to challenge a patriarch. To “destroy a man” as the back of this book says. Women are just pieces on the game board where Koré sits across from his father. Don’t you understand? He has no choice. It’s him or the other guy. Those are the rules. For him this whole thing is a theoretical exercise where he eventually chooses the right side and the sole fact of him doing so absolves him. In the meantime, Ria’s feelings about this unbelievable violation, perpetrated upon her body and her autonomy by someone she loves, are glossed over at best. She loves Koré too much to hold it against him, and he deserves that kind of love, the kind his mother could never give him. Unconditional forgiveness for embodying and enacting patriarchal violence. “That small thing?“ Ria says. “I’ve forgotten all about it.” When Koré has sex with Faziz, his male love interest, he asks what position Faziz might like, if he might be a top, if he might want to fuck instead of getting fucked, unlike women who obviously want to get fucked, get fucked hard and fucked over, every time. Just prior to this Koré uses information he sexually humiliated out of Ria in the formal court of law, putting her at risk of being sentenced to death. Koré can only protect Ria’s life by revealing his own hand, surrendering to his own monstrous power, chickening out of his own game, his own rules, his own laws at the last possible moment because he can’t stand to look in the mirror. He’s sorry. He didn’t mean it. He's not like his father. He’s on Ria’s side. “I’ve done monstrous things, but I love you,” he says to Ria. “I should unbind her. I should help her to stand. But if I let go, I didn’t think she’d ever touch me again,” he thinks. “One scene of dubcon,” says the author who wrote him, about the annihilation of women’s autonomy that is at the worm-eaten heart of this book. I love you, but I hate you more. Please forgive me. There’s a hole in this book, a depthless black hole where women’s opinions and ideas and humanity should be, “a hole where our hopes for the future should live,” and Koré’s going to fill it with his dick. It “needed filling.” You want me to believe this vindictive patriarchal rape fantasy takes place in a matriarchy? Fuck that.

Koré spends this whole book railing against a man’s tyrannical reassertion of patriarchy while believing that somehow women are at fault. He can’t touch the abusive father who ruined his life and he blames women. He blames his mother and his aunt and his girlfriend and makes them prove to him that they’re not out to get him before he will open up to them at all, while using any intimate knowledge of their lives he can get his hands on to betray them over and over. Koré doesn’t believe women are real victims of this world, real people as much as he is and so he treats them however he wants. Every woman in this book is either a target or a receptacle for his hurt feelings. He instinctually mistrusts the motives and ideas of every single one of them. He looks at any power women have managed to gain for themselves under his society’s violent systems of oppression and thinks that should be mine. Koré hates women, every single woman he meets, and insists it is because they are forcing him to do it. That he is the one not consenting to this arrangement. That he is more oppressed. 

The world Ellor has built says yes, that’s true. All of that myopic bullshit is justified thinking. This world was built to heal Koré’s wounds. In the fade to black moment of this book Koré’s triumphant thought is about how other people will hold him up under the traumatic weight of his crown. In fact, Koré should be a little less hard on himself, poor guy, because his fear of himself – his paralyzing guilt over being a man, his father’s son, an enactor of patriarchy, a  “monster” as he repeats over and over in his own narration – is keeping him from embracing this essential power: his right to have other people love him, exactly the way he is. Silk Fire hates women, especially trans and queer women, so fucking much it wants you to believe that the sum of our collective efforts would be to oppress this one queer man that hard. He has ultimate power and women are keeping him from using it to set us free. We’re locking God in a movie theatre and forcing him to watch shitty mansploitation movies. Well if you ever turn the lights on in there you’ll catch God with his dick in one hand and the remote control in the other.

Pardon me.

This book doesn’t belong to any trans or feminist tradition I’m familiar with. It’s not the thinking of men who are allies against patriarchy. It’s not thinking that cares about or respects women at all. It’s standard issue misogyny and transmisogyny, a sniveling, retroactive apology for its own hatred and fear of women. It’s the kind of betrayal that could only come from knowing women and trans people’s pain intimately and deciding you don’t really care about it at all beyond how you can sell it back to us to get ahead. The logical conclusion to the desire to own women’s pain while also being a man. These poisonous ideas about men and women slink into the world saying hey, would you like to buy my fantasy novel about a bisexual courtesan in a matriarchy? Friendly reminder, you can pre-order it, buy into it before you’ve even seen it! Silk Fire is fantasy not as a speculation upon reality but as a denial of it. And it’s easily, EASILY the worst book I have ever personally read. It's not a novel but a mean little game that goes on until the author says stop. Is it any wonder he's passive-aggressive towards reviewers of his work? His great work? His world-changing ideas? I’m not even sure he could sit to watch a movie of this book if it cast Koré as a white man and Ria as a woman of colour as he intended and used the dialogue as he wrote it. Any attempt to engage with this book outside of the absolute terms its author has set for it makes it all fall apart. The simple act of viewing Silk Fire outside its creator’s head collapses it completely. That is the actual tiny difference it takes to change Jadzia.

On a very fundamental level this book does not understand how ideas and reality shape each other. How words mean things. How one thing leads into another. How society like language like a novel like a living and breathing human body is an imperfect material manifestation of changing thought processes, made and remade over time by decisions and actions. It is what everyone chooses to make of it. Not a ten thousand year old piece of hostile architecture that nobody has lived in but you.

livlaughloathe's review

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DNF 10%

Typically I give books 100 pages before I DNF but this was my exception. 

I bought this book because the blurb sounded really cool and the cover was super pretty!

IN RETROSPECT, this book’s blurb does not do justice the absolute clusterfuck that this book becomes within the first 50 pages. 

I should’ve read some reviews before I spent $28 on it 🫡

literamie's review

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*eARC provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review*

Usually I give my reviews a little more detail than this but I can’t bring myself to in this case!! There are many already that sum it up far better than I could.

- messy, convoluted writing
- poor world building
- could not connect with characters
- orientalism & misogyny

shunsicker's review

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DNF. I barely made it past the second chapter because this is so poorly written. The dialog is clunky and all over the place, I'm not sure the plot is plausible and the world building is just too much and doesn't seem properly thought through.