Witches Under Modern Systems of Oppression: How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

the cover of How to Succeed in Witchcraft

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

At the top of the T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School’s leaderboard is Shay Johnson. One of the most impressive and successful witches among her peers, this almost guarantees her the coveted Brockton Scholarship which would allow her to register to the university of her dreams—an education that her parents otherwise cannot afford. Her main obstacle is her years-long rival: Ana Alvarez. When both girls get recruited by their drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay wearily accepts the starring role to ensure her scholarship win, all while her professor’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate and her rivalry with Ana slowly turns into something more.

If you’re looking to tap into some great YA fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough. Brophy managed to write a perfect balance of entertaining and witty banter, a narrative voice that is fun and easy to follow, as well as some deep, rich, and complex conversations about abuse, manipulation, racism, classism, and homophobia.

Shay is such an incredibly funny main character, and young readers who feel pressured to overachieve in academics will be able to instantly relate to her. Throughout my own reading experience, I felt as though I was an older sister watching her sibling go through all the same mistakes I made at her age. It was truly endearing, and I loved following her through all the highs and lows of her academic journey and her love story. Brophy wrote an extremely realistic main character and gave her the space she needs to recognize, understand, and learn from her mistakes. They always included a ton of nuance in their characters’ conversations, the conflicts weren’t immediately resolved and brushed over anticlimactically, and they built a very relatable cast with some fascinating dynamics.

The element of the story that I believe was the most successful was the way in which Brophy melded their magic system so seamlessly into our modern-day world. Fantasy authors have a tendency to do a lot of fantastical world-building that is set in some real-world human setting, while simultaneously ignoring the tragedies and realities of our history. This book feels very contemporary, in that the magic bleeds into our societies exactly as they have been built, including the systems of oppression that exist in our modern world. Brophy uses witching and magic not to “escape” humanity as we know it, but specifically to address issues of racism, of class disparity, of homophobia, of abuse of power. Shay’s storyline is, at its core, deeply influenced by the fact that she is a Black lesbian who comes from a lower-class family, and her struggles as an obsessive overachiever are rooted in the expectations that have been laid out for her future by the society in which she grew up. It gave the book some wonderful depth, without necessarily becoming overly complex or inaccessible to its intended young adult audience.

The entire plotline surrounding the play itself was phenomenal, because Brophy managed to weave so many societal critiques together. Their teacher presenting it as an “inclusive” and “diverse” musical, only for him to deeply misunderstand and misrepresent his students’ racial backgrounds and ethnicities during the casting process, was a very accurate portrayal of people co-opting specific terms and ideologies to make themselves seem good and progressive, without actually having to care about the issues at hand. The story as a whole empathizes with teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves and who realize the system is working against them, but also gives them some specific tools for calling out bigotry and abuse, especially when it comes from people in positions of power.

And, of course, I adored the sapphic romance in this. I was rooting for Shay and Ana the entire time, and it was so entertaining to watch our main character be so foolishly oblivious, in a way that is extremely realistic for a young, teenage lesbian. The rivalry between them makes it very easy for readers to become invested in their relationship and I loved how Brophy developed their love story in a way that felt very messy—i.e.: realistic for their age—as well as absolutely adorable. I also appreciate that Brophy didn’t shy away from using the term “lesbian” multiple times throughout the story, as it still feels very rare for authors in mainstream publishing to allow their young main characters to specifically label themselves as such.

If you’re looking for an easy read that is at times fun and light, but that nonetheless packs a punch when it comes to exploring its themes and the ultimate message, this is the perfect read.

Representation: Black, biracial, lesbian main character; Cuban, bisexual love interest; Filipina side character

Content warnings: grooming and manipulation by a teacher, racism, homophobia

Messy Roots: a Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

the cover of Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age, first in Wuhan, China, then an early move to Texas, and finally through her choices of college in Pennsylvania and a job in the Bay area. As a Chinese American immigrant, Gao depicts her struggle to reconcile her childhood in Wuhan with the expectations of her friends and classmates in America via a direct and honest look at her own internalized biases and struggles, illustrated by a flowing and charming art style. I found Messy Roots to be a heartwarming and fast-paced read, and I’m really glad a friend recommended it to me.

Gao is brutally honest in her depiction of herself. She starts out by describing her efforts to fit in with her classmates in Texas, including by taking an American-ized name and minimizing hobbies and traits that mark her out as too obviously an immigrant. She finds her Chinese lessons burdensome and resents having to attend Chinese events at her family’s church. When she moves to college, she both connects more with the Chinese student community and realizes that she is attracted to women. Free from being directly under the eye of her family and people who knew her growing up, Gao, like many college students, starts to figure out for herself who she wants to be as a person. I felt like Gao’s personal journey really resonated from the page, because it was messy and not linear. I personally really empathized with how Gao’s attraction to women was evident through her early years with the benefit of hindsight, but not fully realized until college and near adulthood. Laura also struggles with who and how to come out to people, and especially to her family, but even when they are struggling to communicate, Gao depicts a complex and affectionately nuanced showing of family. I think memoirs like this are important, because real life does not reflect a neat narrative like in fiction. Reading this really focuses in on how you keep growing and learning as a person, and things that you think you had moved on from can later become important to you, and I really think this perspective is important for the teen audience this is intended for, although older readers can certainly appreciate that aspect as well.

In the final part of the book, Gao tells about moving to San Francisco after college, and rooming with a group of her immigrant friends. Buoyed by the strong Chinese community in the area and the city’s diverse and modern atmosphere, Gao starts to feel like she is putting down her own roots. But when the pandemic hits in 2020, Wuhan goes from an obscure location to a household name in America. As waves of racism and hatred impact her life and her family, Gao once again struggles to make sense of her identity and her life. It’s a terribly poignant and personal look at a time most of us would rather not look to closely at. It’s sort of refreshing to see a narrative that actively includes the pandemic as a time period that had real impact on people, and not just through the possibility of getting sick. Gao’s narrative highlights the some of the real ripple effects that this global event had, and I think that is also important to show in literature. 

Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s effort to document her journey through her identity.  Unlike a conventional, fictional coming of age story, Gao shows that life is messy and most people’s development is not linear. Her unflinching introspection and willingness to shine a light on the complex and less pretty parts of personal development make for an inspiring and insightful read. I am definitely glad to have read her perspective, and think this would be an excellent book for both adults and teens looking for a new viewpoint about growing up, coming out, and finding yourself. 

Bestselling Book Gets a Second Wind: Juliet Takes a Breath: The Graphic Novel

Juliet Takes a Breath Graphic Novel cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Back in 2016, when I first heard that there was a new young adult novel by a queer Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who was also potentially my cousin (just kidding—all the Puerto Rican Riveras from the Bronx aren’t related, y’all), I remember feeling so excited. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (she/her) is the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old baby dyke from the Bronx navigating the coming out process, radical feminism, and what it means to be a queer person of color.

In December 2020, nearly five years after the novel’s debut, Rivera released the graphic novel adaptation of Juliet Takes a Breath with gorgeous illustrations by Celia Moscote. I read the novel the summer it came out and was blown away.  I picked up the graphic novel seven years later and was just as impressed.

Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming of age story that opens on the eve of Juliet’s departure to Portland, Oregon for a summerlong internship with white feminist author Harlowe Brisbane. At family dinner, Juliet reveals that she is gay and has a girlfriend. Although Juliet’s brother, abuela, and titi are supportive, Juliet’s mother is rattled by her revelation and the two have little time to process their feelings before Juliet must leave. When Juliet arrives in Portland, she meets free-spirited Harlowe, who she clearly idolizes. However, as the summer progresses, Juliet develops her own queer identity, finds community amongst queer people of color, and comes to learn that Harlowe is not necessarily worthy of the pedestal upon which Juliet has put her.

Juliet Takes a Breath features a refreshingly diverse cast of characters, which includes individuals who are bisexual, trans, and biracial. Puerto Rican culture is also prominently featured in the graphic novel, infused into its language, history, and imagery. Juliet’s Puerto Rican-ness is the foundation of her identity. She is anchored by her close-knit family, which provides her unconditional love and support even amid conflict.  Moscote perfectly captures the personalities and emotions of Juliet’s loved ones. Her renderings of Juliet, a beautiful,  curvaceous young woman with caramel skin and dark curls, in various states of emotion—joy, anger, pleasure, and sadness—are stunning.

Seven years later, I still love this story. As a queer Puerto Rican woman with Bronx roots, it made me feel seen. Beyond that, I loved how Rivera educated her audience on the importance of intersectionality and community and boldly tackled complex and emotionally charged issues like the white savior complex in feminism. The graphic novel format made these topics even more accessible. I highly recommend checking it out! 

Rivera is also the author of the original comic series b.b. Free, as well as Marvel Comics’ AMERICA series, which follows the adventures of America Chavez.  If you’d like to learn more about Rivera, you can check out her Instagram, @quirkyrican, where she posts about her writing and the joys of being a “masc mom”.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, racism, and white saviorism.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

An Underrated Fantasy Western: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

the cover of The Good Luck Girls

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I am actually going to talk about two books in this review, because while I thought the first book was fantastic, it was not until I finished the sequel that I fully realized exactly how good I thought these books were.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis follows a pair of sisters, Aster and Clementine, as well as a few of their friends as they escape what is known as a welcome house after Clementine accidentally kills a wealthy patron.  While the first book is a journey story and the second dives much deeper into the nitty-gritty of revolution, both books are very much fantasy Westerns set in a bleak world inspired by the United States, with heavy themes of justice, inequality, and survival in spite of it all.

Oh boy, did I not expect to love this series as much as I did. I almost didn’t read it at all because even though it is YA, I still feared it would be too bleak for me, the themes of sexual trauma too heavy and too real for me to be able to handle. Fortunately, I decided to give it a shot anyway, because this is a perfect example of why I keep reading YA. I loved all of the characters and their relationships, but more than that, I loved how seriously the book took each of them and their struggles, while also holding them accountable for the ways they hurt people because of it. I loved that it let them be flawed and make mistakes and still deserve love—still deserve better than what the world gives them. And I loved that it let them be angry.

I also appreciated that even though it was YA, it never felt like it was talking down to its readers. These books have a very clear perspective (as they should, and as pretty much every book does), but the author uses the story, rather than the narration, to get that perspective across, which, to me, felt more effective.  I don’t want to say too much, but what I will say is of all the YA I’ve read, I think this series engages the most maturely with revolution and oppression, with the hard choices it requires and the ways oppression pits people against each other when they should be on the same side. While it is certainly for and about teenagers, it doesn’t simplify or sugarcoat. It is harsh and it is hard and it is dark, but it is also a fight worth making.  For all of that, though, there is an optimism that remains, sometimes dimmer but always there.

I really wish more people would read these books because they are so damn good. They are exactly the kind of books I deserved to have in high school and am grateful current teenagers have now. I can’t wait to see what Charlotte Nicole Davis does next.

F/F Jamaican-Inspired YA Fantasy with Dragons: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Any other Eragon girlies out there? Check out So Let Them Burn, a Jamaican-inspired F/F young adult fantasy that delivered from beginning to end! This moving and action-packed debut has made me a Kamilah Cole fangirl and I can’t wait for the second book in the duology!

This book switches between the POVs of two sisters Faron and Elara Vincent. Faron can channel the power of the gods, which made her the secret weapon of her country’s revolution against the dragon-riding Langley Empire. Faron is fiery, mischievous, and unwilling to play the part of wise and composed chosen-one. Elara is calm, diplomatic, and has felt like she’s been both living in her sister’s shadow while also being charged with “managing” Faron’s hot-headed emotions. At what was supposed to be an international peace summit, Elara ends up bonding with a Langley Empire dragon and the dragon’s other rider, Signey. Elara must then go to the dragon riding academy on enemy ground, both as a spy for her country and to try to figure out if there’s a way to reverse the bond so she can return home to sister. Among battles of gods and dragons, bubbling rage (against colonizers, the gods, the situation), and impossible choices, Elara and Signey find themselves falling for each other. Two badass dragon riders discovering enemy secrets, plotting revenge, and falling in love?! Yes please.

There are so many things that I love about this book. First off, I am a sucker for dragons. I appreciated the world building and how the dragons and bonded riders can all communicate with each other telepathically. They become their own unique family, in tune with each other’s emotions and thoughts. 

I also liked the focus on friend relationships. Especially in a moment when the romantasy genre is taking off, I appreciated how in this book, the friendships were treated as equally important relationships. The sapphic romance plot line was wonderful, but one of my favorite relationships in the book was the deeply honest and vulnerable friendship between Elara and her best friend, Reed. Reed has his own role to play in the book, as the son of the Langley Empire’s leader whose betrayal of his family in the war was key to shifting the tide and winning the revolution. Both Elara and Reed often feel misunderstood by the rest of their country—Elara as merely Faron’s sister and Reed as an outsider—but they see and support each other even when others don’t. Their relationship is refreshingly never romantic while being so important to both of them. 

Lastly, I loved how Cole normalizes queerness. There is great queer representation in this book, including lesbian, bisexual, and demisexual rep, but their queer identities were not the defining elements of the characters. I love how queerness was beautifully everywhere in this book while also not being the focus. Elara isn’t written as a GAY DRAGON RIDER, but rather just an incredible dragon rider—oh, and she happens to fall in love with a woman. 

I highly recommend you check this one out!  

Content Warnings: explicit language, depictions of PTSD (nightmares, unwanted memories/flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior), explicit descriptions of war, blood, and corpses, grief (expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways), racism (challenged), minor character deaths, a near-fatal beating, and stolen body/mind autonomy.

An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

When Your Hyperfixation is Sapphic Books: A Shortlist of Sapphic Autistic Narratives

I recently read a report from the University of Cambridge about how autistic people are more likely to be queer than allistic people, with specifically autistic female-identifying people being three times as likely to identify as some form of queer. If you are interested in reading more about this, you can read the abstract. This got me thinking about how there has been a recent uptick in autistic narratives, especially in young adult and middle grade books. Once I got thinking about that, I went down a little rabbit hole of autistic queer literature, and found some fantastic titles that I’d love to share with y’all! Without any further ado, here are five of my favorite autistic sapphic titles.

the cover of The Ojja-Wojja

The Ojja-Wojja by Magdalene Visaggio and Jenn St-Onge

Val and Lanie are two middle-graders trying to retain their individuality in small-town Bollingbrooke, despite the metaphorical targets on their backs due to being queer (Lanie) or autistic (Val). When the two complete an ancient ritual and summon the Ojja-Wojja, Val, Lanie and their group of friends have to defend the town against the demonic presence before it destroys their town.

The Ojja-Wojja is great for people who heard “Alien Party” by Sid Dorey and went “wow…they’re right! Being queer or autistic is like being an alien!” 

the cover of Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl by Sara Waxelbaum and Briana R. Shrum

Margo is an overachiever, autistic, and newly out as gay, while Abbi is known for being visibly queer and failing US History. The two team up to cover their blind spots; Margo receives Queer 101 lessons in exchange for Abbi receiving history lessons.

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl is a fun, tongue-in-cheek read that I couldn’t put down. If you want a book about a Jewish, autistic protagonist and plenty of queer rep, you’ll want to pick up this one.

the cover of Cleat Cute

Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner 

When Phoebe joined the US Women’s National Team, she had no idea that she was taking Grace’s spot after the veteran got injured. The two clash due to their personalities, until a daring kiss brings them together. The two work together both on and off the field as the World Cup approaches. Grace wrestles with a potential autism diagnosis and Phoebe is diagnosed with ADHD, making this the AuDHD romance of your dreams.

I would recommend Cleat Cute for people who are fans of Ted Lasso and A League of Their Own.  

the cover of The Luis Ortega Survival Club

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes

In this YA revenge story, a queer and autistic girl is struggling to put into words what happened and decide if she has the right to be mad with the cute, popular person she had sex with at a party—where she didn’t say no but she definitely didn’t say yes. But when she finds other students determined to expose this predator, she decides to take him down.

This is the autistic revenge story that fans of Do Revenge will want in their TBR stacks.

the cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon

This dystopian sci-fi novel features Aster, an autistic person who works on the HMS Matilda as a descendant of the original passengers journeying to a Promised Land. However, the ship’s leaders have imposed a brutal enslavement on the passengers of color, including Aster, and she learns there may be a way to end it if she is willing to start a civil war.

Aster’s autism is integral to the story and not for trauma-related reasons—her perspective on the HMS  (and the reader by extension) is thoroughly informed by her being autistic.

As always, you can get any of these books through your local library, indie bookstore, or through the Bookshop links above! Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

250 of My Favorite Sapphic Books

I’ve updated the Lesbrary Recommendations List! This is the page where I keep a consolidated list of every sapphic book I’ve read and enjoyed, organized by genre. I’ve been reading sapphic books for quite a while now, so the list has grown to roughly 250 books! Most of them are also linked to my review, so you can see my full thoughts on the book. Check it out to get a ton of sapphic book recs!

a collage of sapphic book covers and the text "Sapphic Books Recommendations (Bi & Lesbian Faves)"

Medieval Queer Chaos: Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

the cover of Gwen and Art Are Not In Love

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Gwendoline and Arthur have been betrothed to one another since birth. Too bad they absolutely hate each other. When forced to spend a summer in Camelot together, Gwen and Arthur discover tantalizing secrets about one another: Gwen witnesses Arthur kissing a boy, while Arthur learns that Gwen has a crush on the kingdom’s lone lady knight, Lady Bridget Leclair. Stuck at a stalemate, they make a reluctant pact to cover for one another. While Gwen and Bridget finally connect, Arthur finds himself enamored by Gwen’s brother. Can they navigate their messy feelings to find their own places in history?

Oh my goddess, the queer chaos in this is everything. Lex Croucher has spun Arthurian legends of old into a queer medieval YA rom-com that could easily alter history as we know it. Gwen is a bi baby, newly navigating her feelings for a badass lady knight, while Arthur is a gay, sassy messy shooting heart-eyes at Gwen’s brother (the one-day king). The dialogue is EVERYTHING: sassy, quick-witted, and all too entertaining. There’s somewhat sexy sword-fighting (come on, sword-fighting is always sexy, but when your queer crush is schooling you, it’s all the better), fake dating (does it count as fake dating when you’ve been betrothed since childhood?), and heart-warming found family vibes. The queer panic and nervous humor were all too relatable, even though the story is set in medieval times. That’s a true feat; you can connect with the queer chaos, even if you’re shooting heart-eyes in the 21st century.

That being said, let’s talk about Gwen and her lady knight. I mean, get ready to absolutely SWOON alongside Gwen. Lady Bridget Lechlair is all fierce confidence—a necessity, when everyone has an unpopular opinion of you simply because you’re a woman, regardless of your badass abilities—but she’s also an enigma with a gooey interior. I loved seeing Gwen find her confidence through Bridget, discovering her voice and standing up for them both when necessary. Though Gwen is a royal, she’s questioned her inner power and authority, as everyone around her has made it clear her only worth is in her marriage to Arthur as a political move. Spending time with Bridget gives Gwen the chance to realize she’s worth so much more. Though the story’s quick wit and banter stand out, I think this character development is the story’s real strength. Sometimes, you need someone who believes in your potential before you can see it yourself.

The only real hang-up for me was the pacing. The ending felt especially rushed, which was a disappointment after the queer chaos dragged a bit. I wonder if the writer paused for a moment, then returned to finish the latter half of the story. I also found the relationship between Arthur and Gabriel (Gwen’s brother) a little underwhelming when it had so much potential at the start. Regardless, I appreciated all the queer hijinks and humor.

Recommended for fans of Heartstopper, Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy, Red, White, & Royal Blue, and the TV show Merlin. Get ready for a swoon-worthy, medieval mess of pining and romance!

The Vibes
⚔️ All the Queer Ships (w/ Serious Queer Panic)
⚔️ Fake Dating
⚔️ YA Debut
⚔️ Found Family
⚔️ Medieval/Historical Fiction/Rom-Com
⚔️ Enemies to Allies

What classic story would you love to read a queer retelling of?

A Rich Fantasy Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

the cover of Empress of Salt and Fortune

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I don’t know why I put off The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo for so long despite all of the good reviews. Maybe it was the short length, novellas sometimes being an awkward pace. Or maybe it was the fact that all too often I mistake “high fantasy” for “too much exposition” with all of those battles and complex magic systems that just aren’t my cup of tea. Either way, it was my loss. This slim book is packed to the brim with court intrigue and politics of war, sure, but it does so by quietly unpacking the stories of characters traditionally kept to the sidelines. Nghi Vo’s work is always filled with such depth and lyrical writing, but this series in particular has quickly become one of my all-time favorites because of the way in which it insists on telling a different sort of fantasy story.

The book follows Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey who is traveling with their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant to record history, in this case the story of the recently deceased empress In-yo. Through a constellation of lost objects and the words of the empress’s former servant, Vo shows the outlines of a life in what it leaves behind. The story unfolds delicately through this collection of remnants. The book feels like a refutation of traditional history-making, Chih’s character almost fading into the background as they focus on listening and learning how to read the subtext. So much is left to interpretation, to tone, to understanding secret codes and double meanings. This is reflected, too, in the way the book refuses to overly-explain its setting, leaving the reader to tease apart the worldbuilding like a puzzle.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve been recommending to everyone. With its short length you’ll only be giving up an hour or two, so I encourage you to give it a shot even if you aren’t typically a fan of high fantasy. With the fourth book just recently out (Mammoths at the Gate) and a fifth on its way in May (The Brides of High Hall), it’s nice timing to catch up on the books now. Each novella is meant to serve as a standalone entry point so you can’t go wrong with any of them—or really any of Vo’s works—but it’s worth starting with this one.

Trigger warnings: death, misogyny, war, suicide, murder