The third instalment in the Once Upon A Con series ticks every box I was hoping for, and more!
Book: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Quirk Books. All opinions my own.
Publication date: June 16th, 2020
Content warning: Death of a parent (prior to book, but grief is discussed).
I feel like on paper, this series really shouldn’t work for me – I don’t read much contemporary YA, especially not set in America; I don’t tend to like things that are overly meta or referential with in-jokes; I’ve had bad experiences with other books that try to encapsulate ‘fandom’, especially around a made-up property, ending up feeling either snide or overly twee – but the Once Upon A Con books really, really do work for me. In fact, they swiftly became favourites, and the newest instalment is absolutely no different – it’s perfect. These books feel honest and sweet, both in their portrayal of being fans and of being teens, and the humour, including the references, is so seamlessly woven in that it manages to side-step any awkwardness and genuinely feel like you’re talking to a friend who likes the same stuff you do. Starfield, the sci-fi show and movie that is the main fandom the stories are set around, feels utterly believable – it’s a classic, niche sci-fi TV show, with an army of dedicated fans, being brought up-to-date with a big budget movie reboot. The way that it’s niche, but has such a great impact on its fans, instantly makes me think of Farscape and Blake’s Seven, which hugely endeared it to me from the get-go, but it leaves space for you to associate it with your own fandoms, which is really masterfully done. It’s clear that Ashley Poston is an actual fan of things, as opposed to someone who just thought they’d write about fans!
Bookish and the Beast is, as the name implies, a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast, focusing on bad-boy (and actor behind the lead Starfield villain), Vance Reigns, and quiet, nerdy Rosie Thorne. When Rosie accidentally destroys a rare Starfield book, she has to work off the debt by organising Vance’s library; sparks fly between them, but more of the mutual hatred variety than the romantic. However, they each might just be exactly what the other needs… Interestingly, apart from a quick flashback, this is the first book in the series not to take place at a con, which I think was a good decision, as it gives the story more space to breathe than the tight confines of a con would.
Having seen Vance’s character be a real dick in The Princess and the Fangirl, I was apprehensive as to how he was going to be likeable as a love interest in this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. He’s not instantly redeemed, but interestingly, he’s well aware that his behaviour is awful and he’s very conflicted about it; he knows his bad-boy image is good press, but he may have gone too far. I was worried I’d struggle to connect with a character whose main problem is that he’s rich and famous and no one knows the real him; I thought this might be annoying but you know what? It’s a spot-on portrayal of a 17 year old boy, and I ended up really liking him as he worked out what was actually important to him. That’s character growth, people! Also, I just loved his addiction to dating sims.
Rosie is that ideal fairy tale heroine: smart, kind, a little insecure… She works beautifully to reflect the kind of nerdy but strong reader I expect will fall in love with this book (or maybe I just mean that I identified with her a lot?). She’s totally believable and fun to read about, and I loved her loyalty to her friends and her determination to do everything to the best of her ability. Again, she’s just spot-on as a teen voice – full of unchannelled wanting and learning her own strengths. I love her.
There are also a lot of aspects about this that made me smile: the side characters are really strong, as always, and there’s great queer rep in prominent characters, with Rosie’s hot bi dad (who gets a m/m romance of his own), and her non-binary best friend, Quinn. I love how casually and inclusively the queerness is added – at no point is it a source of tension, people just get on with with their actual problems while being queer. In terms of other things, I adored that this book included the Starfield extended universe – what 90s/2000s sci-fi series doesn’t have a wide array of tie-in novels, and what super-fan doesn’t have a collection of these battered mass-market paperbacks? (I personally have a whole shelf of Farscape and Buffy novels!) We also get references to everything from Hatoful Boyfriend to Howl’s Moving Castle, which are super fun to spot.
If you’re in the mood for something that celebrates fandom in the most glorious way, this is just perfect. It’s never patronising, just welcoming. It’s so fluffy and sugary that it can’t help but make you smile, and it will definitely join Geekerella and The Princess and the Fangirl as the ideal comfort reading. I raced through it, even though I tried to force myself to slow down. My only complaint is that it makes me wish Starfield was real so I could binge-watch and -read that too… Five out of five cats!