Full disclosure: I didn’t receive any gifts in exchange for writing this review. However, the author is a dear friend of mine, and she and I were sharing and proofreading each other’s writing back when we were college kids, so I can’t promise a purely objective review. I will do my best to be honest, though, and I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t like the book!
“The Second Mango,” by Shira Glassman, is a fantasy story about (as the author says) “a gay woman, a straight woman, and a dragon.” The gay woman, Shulamit, is the young queen of Perach. The straight woman, Rivka, is a warrior from another nation. The dragon is a shape-shifter that can be either dragon or horse, and provides transportation as the two women travel together, seeking a potential sweetheart for the lonely Shulamit.
The account of their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to the passions in each of their pasts: Rivka’s star-crossed love for her late mentor Isaac, whose vow of chastity prevented anything from happening even before she lost him… and Shulamit’s long-ago romance with the palace cook Aviva, who nursed her through sickness, won her heart, and then left. Despite their differences, Shula and Riv find they have an uncommon amount in common.
The story, however, steers clear of the expected tropes. This is not a tale of a lesbian convincing a straight woman to explore gay love; the plot goes in another direction, which I think turns out to be far more satisfying. Things work out in a way that I never saw coming, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.
There were some aspects of the surprise ending that seemed perhaps too convenient, but then, this is a world of magic and mysticism, where it’s easy to imagine a kindly personification of Fate smiling on the heroines. They certainly deserve it; I liked them both from the beginning.
I also loved the characters of Isaac and Aviva in the flashbacks. Rivka and Isaac have a very entertaining rapport, and Aviva’s voice is adorable, constantly finding weird and random ways to describe things. (I guess this is one more thing Shira Glassman and I have in common. I too have a weakness for bizarre speech patterns, although Draz’s speech in my book “Kea’s Flight” is a different brand of weirdness.)
The approach to social issues is also very fresh and original. Shulamit is wealthy and sheltered, Rivka is a skilled warrior who supports herself. Shulamit is a lesbian in a country where such things are barely talked about; Rivka belongs to the expected sexual orientation. Rivka grew up shamed for being born out of wedlock, and never got to know her father; Shulamit grew up with a loving father but then lost him in a tragic accident. Their struggles are different, but the story never implies that one struggles more than the other, or that one’s concerns are more valid.
It also breaks many rules about what character traits are “supposed” to go together. The lesbian loves pretty dresses and jewelry; the straight woman carries a sword and dresses in men’s armor. The seasoned warrior is a virgin; the sweet and sheltered princess has experience with physical intimacy. Both are far more complex than the archetypes of fairy tales.
Shulamit’s complexity contains a few more interesting factors. She is a bit of a geek and bookworm, with great talent for figuring out puzzles. And, unlike any other heroine I’ve seen in an adventure novel, she suffers from debilitating allergies: some foods are indigestible to her and make her violently ill.
Having a somewhat sensitive digestive system myself, I was initially concerned that the book would contain some distasteful scenes. Such issues hit close to home for me, and I can get very uncomfortable reading about them. But I needn’t have worried. By the time the story happens, Shulamit has gotten very good at managing her condition. Though her need to avoid certain foods becomes very relevant to the plot in some places, the worst events are all in the past, and are mentioned quite discreetly.
And I have to admit it’s wonderful to see a heroine with a disability, even one that’s considered “mild,” such as food sensitivities. As a girl who grew up diagnosed with various mild disorders, I had a shortage of relatable role models in popular culture.
No Disney princess even wears glasses, not even the book-loving Belle. Little girls with less-than-perfect vision learn early that they have to get contacts or eye surgery if they want to dress up convincingly as their fairy tale heroines. Girls with allergies must similarly feel that there’s no one in the world who has faced the same troubles and succeeded in life.
Shulamit breaks with tradition here, and unlike heroines “cursed” with a disability, like Disney’s mute Little Mermaid, Shulamit doesn’t need to break her curse to have a happy ending.
The title, “The Second Mango,” reminds me of the struggling author in Agatha Christie’s “Mystery of the Spanish Shawl,” who was writing a story titled “The Second Cucumber” just because he thought the words sounded interesting. I imagine Shira Glassman having similar inspiration. The title is certainly intriguing, and while it does tie in to a market-shopping scene that forms a significant point in the development of the heroines’ friendship, it feels as if the story was built more around the title than vice versa. But then, the book is partly about playful words and food metaphors, so it doesn’t seem so out of place.
Yes, this is the author’s first novel, and in some ways the writing shows this. But it also shows a creative and clever mind, and a skill for delicately beautiful descriptions of food, flowers and nature, which often have a charming old-fashioned feel that hearkens back to the prose of Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery. And, as someone who has been allowed a sneak preview of the sequel, I can say with certainty that this new author is getting better and better.
“The Second Mango” is available from Prizm Books.