My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Disclaimer: I was sent an advance copy of this book for an honest review. Even more honesty: I’m also a friend of the author – but I was a fan of the series long before that. And everything readers love in the Mangoverse, they’ll find here. Between the lighthearted but emotionally rich fantasy and inclusive, loving representation, The Olive Conspiracy more than stands on its own.
The book stands on its own in another way; I don’t think you have to have read the entire series to enjoy it, even though this is #1 in the Mangoverse series. You might even be able to start here. (One interesting note though – you may want to read the series of 5 very short, very sweet stories, “Tales of Perach” first, especially if you’re new to the ‘Verse. They’re companion pieces to this book, and go along really nicely. I actually read part of this book before Tales, and part after, and while your mileage may vary, my enjoyment of “Olive” was actually a little deeper after having read “Tales,” and knowing everybody in it a little bit more. Just a thought!)
The Olive Conspiracy is very kind to new readers, though, catching them up on who everyone is and the social dynamics of Perach, its friends, and neighbors… who may or may not have friendly intentions. The characterizations are strong and consistent and even if you’re unfamiliar with a major character – like I was, having inadvertently skipped a book where he entered – you’ll get to know and, likely, love everyone very easily thanks to the lively prose and endearing interactions. You’ll also get a sense of Perach (a lush sub-tropical setting, world-built on Jewish culture, in everything from food and festivals to magic systems) and Imbrio (which seems to be Italian… Flavored – ha, you’ll get that joke soon) – and their differences – very well and quickly, thanks to the rich descriptions of the time, place and mood of the kingdoms. Joy and sorrow permeate the settings, as well as the people within them. More than any Mangoverse book so far (maybe more than any book I’ve read lately), emotion is a tangible force at play here, a constant presence that hangs low over everyone and everything, effecting movement and events like weather or the tides.
I’m emphasizing *feeling* more than the literal plot events, because they’ve been pretty well covered by other reviews (and the actual synopsis), and atmosphere is where Shira Glassman’s writing shines the most. This, and the absolutely sumptuous descriptions of food – even if you run into something you’re unfamiliar with, I pretty much guarantee you’ll be hungry at some point – gorgeous princess clothes, and a simply amazing garden sequence that borders on dreamlike… even if it quickly deteriorates into an equally intense nightmare. This stark contrast (from the teenage hormone-fueled rush of joy and excitement in a wonderland of flowers and glittering pretty things to the sudden drop into harsh realities of brutal caste systems, casual abuse, and deadly ignorance that can leave memories of the sweetest fruits rotten on the vine) might be the most memorable in the book. The shift is… nauseating. But necessary.
The much happier counterpart to the impact of this devastating injustice and its associated specters – damaging systems, secrets, old shame, new fears, adversity, grief – that hang over the story, are the brighter, warmer presences of the friends and found family who stand around Queen Shulamit as she makes her emotionally vulnerable but determined way. Their interactions, their personalities and their love – for their country and each other – just ring true. And very real. They feel like friends, and eventually family. To each other and the reader.
I keep trying to think of a better way to put it, and I keep coming back to ‘warm.’ Reading the books of the Mangoverse feels ‘warm.’ It feels like coming home, even if Perach in no way resembles anywhere you’ve ever been. It feels like a place you would like to call home. More than that, it feels like a place that might let you. In this increasingly frightening world, this is a very important thing indeed. If you have need of a place like this (and I know a lot of readers do, particularly young LGBTQA and otherwise marginalized readers) I highly recommend giving the Mangoverse series a try.