Sinews of the Heart by Cody L. Stanford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually like anthro books so I was an easier sell for this one. I think it makes an easy and well-timed analogy to humans and their motivations and also because it’s just fun. I love Kyell Gold’s books and was thinking this might be a similar type of novel. I was also looking forward to a young adult anthro book with a genderqueer protagonist, which is more rare. The writing was amazing with interesting characters and a relatable story set amid a post-apocalyptic setting. At times the lessons within the story were a bit obvious and I felt pummeled over the head but the likeability of the narrator helped. At the core, it’s a story about acceptance and identity in whatever forms it comes.
Nikki is the offspring of two genetically mutated Siberian tigers. Humans developed more and more technological advances to the point they could change humans into animals, but their technology turned on them. The viruses changed and became airborne, affecting millions and turning them into animals, literally. In the age-old tale of killing what is scary or threatening, a war broke out between the anthros and the humans with the anthros as the aggressors and ultimate winners. Now humans live in small groups, hiding from the dangerous anthros. Nikki and her parents come across a family that needs their help, forcing Nikki to come to terms with who and what she really is.
Nikki is the narrator and main protagonist. She’s biologically male but identifies female, mostly. Her story is a classic coming of age and accepting what she is and what she’s not. I think the key to really enjoying this book is either identifying with Nikki or liking her as the main character. I found her endearing, charming, intelligent, and frustrating. I liked her path to acceptance and understanding who she was and how she didn’t need to identify solely with either male or female. She’s part both and that works for her. The courage and strength it takes to accept that made me really like Nikki. However, her usual teenage antics made me want to strangle her (figuratively).
Nikki makes a lot of mistakes. A lot of mistakes. She’s a typical teenager in her lightening fast emotional shifts, tendency to act before thinking, and pretty much ignoring any advice her parents give her. She kept ending up in very predictable trouble, like the lone female you know is going to get kidnapped in slasher movies, but I kept reminding myself she was young and immature. Teenagers do stupid things, think they’re in love at the drop of a hat, and have raging hormones. So in that way, Nikki is an excellent and spot-on character. Likewise I could have done without the love triangle but it feels very YA and teenage to have one. I’m not surprised at how quick each of the three characters fell in love and shifted that focus of their love, but it may give some readers whiplash.
Despite all that, Nikki’s story is one about acceptance and understanding. The post-apocalyptic setting helps draw an easy and constant analogy while also giving the story a framework besides simply emotional maturation. I liked the world created, as it’s one I can see happening. People and attitudes don’t change that easily and even the end of the world isn’t going to change some bigotry. It makes Nikki’s self-acceptance even more precious and important. The ending could have been cheesy but I liked that Nikki found strength to save herself while also dealing with the consequences of those actions. It’s easy to follow the catalyst for Nikki’s maturity and newfound acceptance.
The writing is really incredible. The young narrator strikes a cord of youthful glee and exuberance juxtaposed the very real danger and discrimination of the world. The pages are filled with imagery, even sounds and smells come through with clarity. I was immersed in the world Stanford created from the first page and curious to see where it would go. While I didn’t love every character in the book, not even Nikki herself, I liked the concepts and way the story used the characters to portray an ideal. Sometimes these felt overdone and I wanted to gently tell the story that I got the point already, but it was never overwhelming or annoying.
Overall this was a very good YA genderqueer story that offered a protagonist not often seen. The story was a familiar one but the details here made it unique and worthwhile. It’s one I can recommend to fans who are looking for something different amid the YA quilt bag genre. It’s easily one of the better books I’ve read in that genre by far.