intothedarknessfinal

Ridge Falls is an unusual town. A mining community created in the late 1800’s, after the construction of a hydroelectric dam, the town was moved. Old timers said the dam was a bad idea. Bad things would happen.

They were right. Now, evil seems to haunt the reservoir. It manifests itself to different people in different ways. Come with us. Sit down. Visit. Have a glass of sweet tea at the local diner. We have some stories to tell you.

So, this book. First, I have to be honest. This book doesn’t have any lesbian (or any other permutation of ladies-into-ladies) content. There’s about a paragraph of a monster in a woman’s body killing another woman and I really don’t think that counts.

Warning: the book opens– on the first page – with the sexual abuse of a child, and sexual and physical abuse occur in quite a few of the stories.

Into the Dark is otherwise a series of very short stories, theoretically connected by the setting, about terrible things happening to people. Most of the people are terrible, too. There’s no framing device inside the book itself – the stories don’t occur at the same time or feature the same people (with one reoccurring character).

I like horror, particularly the psychological terror-in-the-dark flavor. But the over-the-top grotesquerie in this book pulled me out of the story every time. There were no characters to connect to, so the violence and gore didn’t have any emotional impact. The biggest problem was that I kept finding myself asking “What was the point of that?” There are so many disparate elements within the stories that I just wound up bored and vaguely lost.

There is one story in this that I enjoyed – “The Wilsons” – about a woman dealing with germaphobia and the loss of her husband. That story had atmosphere and a character I liked. It also doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the book, so take that as you will.

The author is apparently writing a novel set in this universe, and perhaps that will work better. This book felt like an experiment, the sort of thing that winds up in your notes for a story but never published. And again, I’m disappointed that the author submitted it to the Lesbrary, because it really doesn’t count.

NoStraightLines   dogsofwar   SpitandPassion

Autostraddle posted Lez Liberty Lit #61: Snowing Pages.

Elisa posted 2014 Rainbow Award Winners.

GLBT Reviews posted

acupofwaterundermybed   zami   lieswetellourselves

Lambda Literary posted

Malinda Lo posted 2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers and A Holiday Gift Guide to My Books.

Robin Talley was interviewed at R U Coming Out.

“Outhouse library: a new home in Dublin for LGBT literature” was posted at Irish Times.

seasonsmeetings   mara   justgirls

Love Enough by Dionne Brand was reviewed at Lindy Reads and Reviews.

Season’s Meetings by Amy Dunne was reviewed at Far Nerdy and Lesbian Reading Room.

Just Girls by Rachel Gold was reviewed at I’m With Geek.

Somewhere To Run by Anna Goldman was reviewed at The Rainbow Hub.

Under a Falling Star by Jae was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

An American Queer: The Amazon Trail by Lee Lynch was posted at GLBT Reviews.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was reviewed at Lindy Reads and Reviews.

Year of the Monsoon by Caren Werlinger was reviewed at C-Spot Reviews.

Mara by Brian Wood was reviewed at crunchings & munchings.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitterWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

afterworlds

It clocks in at literally just under 600 pages. It’s two books in one. It’s a heck of a new young adult experiment for Scott Westerfeld, whose previous YA series have done well. And they’ve all been very different–steampunk (Leviathan), dystopian (Uglies), and apocalyptic (Peeps), to name a few. (Also, he is married to Justine Larbalestier, which is neither here nor there, but her Magic or Madness trilogy is excellent.) “Afterworlds” is a doorstop of a book that takes on first love, the publishing world, the co-opting of cultures for the creation of art, the nature of ghosts, dreams, obligations, New York City, and a host of other things. It is, in a word rather than in a list, ambitious. And it mostly works. Which is great, because it’s a Commitment; I only picked it up because I was processing it for my library and noticed that one of the subject headings was Lesbians–Fiction.

Darcy’s barely a high school graduate, but back in the fall she gritted her teeth and committed herself to NaNoWriMo (seenanowrimo.org). She triumphed. The novel she completed is called “Afterworlds,” and not only has she sold it, she’s managed to get a two-book contract for an obscene amount of money. And she’s moved to New York to be a writer, to do the revisions of “Afterworlds,” and to come up with the elusive second novel she’s now contractually obligated to deliver.

Darcy’s protagonist is Lizzie, and no, Darcy doesn’t pick up on the Darcy-and-Lizzie thing until well after she’s completed the novel, and once it’s pointed out, it doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s just acknowledged for the Janeites. Darcy’s tale and Lizzie’s tale (that is, Darcy’s novel) are told in alternating chapters, so quite seriously, this is two full books. There’s the story of a young girl moving to New York City to test out the possibilities of what might be a charmed life, and the story of a young girl dealing with the challenges of her own new life in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.

One of the great things about Darcy is that she has a little sister who’s smart and plucky. Another great thing about Darcy is that she’s clueless and doesn’t know it. She’s from a Hindu family, but has written a book about a white girl who survives a terrorist attack by slipping into the spirit world, becoming a spirit guide, and falling in love with a Hindu death god. There’s some good stuff going on in the book, but the leads are a bit vanilla. Darcy wanted her protagonist to be relatable, though, and she based the death god on a Bollywood actor she thought was hot. That’s her model for love. Until she moves to New York. Until she meets Imogen.

And then New York gives her an experience she hadn’t anticipated. Darcy and Imogen are both writers, both Word Girls who appreciate language and its nuances. Their relationship isn’t entirely transparent, though. Darcy has maybe skipped class once or twice. But Imogen has a past. Emotionally, Imogen is more complex than the people Darcy’s used to. From the beginning there’s a sense of something being off-kilter, and that sense only grows until things come to a head–I was disappointed with Westerfeld’s resolution here. There’s lots of attention given to how Darcy deals with the ending of Lizzie’s story, but that ending was fine. It’s the ending of Darcy’s story that disappoints. It feels as if Westerfeld lacked the conviction to carry through the momentum he built throughout an entire novel, because the original ending perhaps didn’t test well. Maybe it’s a meta-statement on publishing?

The genre story is riproaring and page-turning. The frame story offers a little wish-fulfillment peek into YA heaven, and a mostly lovely and restrained look at the amazingness of awakening feelings, and first love, and finally understanding what everyone else has been obsessing about for years. There’s no graphic sexual content, but lots of F-bombs, which is necessary to know if you’re a YA librarian. Nobody cares about murder (there’s some of that) or terrorism (yup), but is there sex (not described)? Bad language (all over the place)?

Where this book will find its readership is up for debate. Usually, the teenage girls (or “new adults”) to whom it seems to be marketed are lots more self-aware than Darcy. Her naivete may turn them off. Adults may find this to be wish fulfillment all around. Not only does Darcy fall into her publishing contract and a lovely apartment and her first relationship, she’s in an extremely accepting community. There’s only one uncomfortable moment, when she admits that she doesn’t want to go home and tell her parents she’s dating Imogen. Imogen has to point out that not everyone has it so easy, and “Not all of us make it, you know.” This is no one’s publishing story; maybe it’s no one’s coming-out story, either.

What’s the verdict? I loved the parts about the publishing world and the beginning (and pieces of the middle) of Lizzie’s story. But there’s a lot going on here. This wouldn’t be something to recommend to someone just looking for a good lesbian romance.

tellmeagain

Sara Farizan’s second novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, is a genuinely sweet story of high school queerness. It can definitely be categorized as a “quick read” – but perhaps that is just because once I started reading, I never wanted to put it down.

The story revolves around Leila, an Iranian American teenager attending a small private high school in Massachusetts. Leila has been with the same group of classmates for as long as she can remember, so when a new girl named Saskia arrives with some international flair and a whole lot of personality, Leila can’t help but be attracted to her.

Leila discovered her attraction to women at summer camp, but she is definitely not ready to share this fact with anyone at home. When Saskia seems to be interested in her as more than just a friend, Leila is thrilled, but extremely nervous about what could happen if her classmates and her traditional Persian family discovered her secret. What follows is an absorbing story of Leila’s pursuit of love and acceptance, where she learns more about herself and her peers than she could have ever predicted.

I loved the plot and pacing of this book – it was accessible, quick, and much funnier than I expected it to be. Farizan also creates a fantastic cast of characters, developing the voices of various high schoolers to bring Leila’s story to life. Many of these characters are modeled on teenage archetypes – from the vampire techie who works backstage at the school play to the brilliant but hopelessly innocent faculty brat – but Farizan is skilled at manipulating their quirks in order to counter the stereotypes.

Leila (and the reader, by extension) really get to know the personalities behind the facades of those students who are on the fringes of the high school social scene. This sets up some great parallels between Leila’s hidden gayness and the other characters’ concealed true selves; Farizan’s story ultimately sends the message that we all have our secrets, that people are not always as they seem, and that sometimes you are rewarded when you decide to trust another person with your story.

In this way, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is as much about friendship as it is about crushes. In questioning what it means to truly be friends with someone, Farizan reveals how friends and allies often exist in unexpected places. One of my favorite examples is Leila’s adorable relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Taylor.

It was also really refreshing to see that Leila’s best friend is a guy. Although this was a complicated relationship at times, it was really nice to read a story that depicts a deep, sibling-like bond between a female and a male character that [spoiler alert] doesn’t end in romance. Even in the realm of queer YA novels, I’ve found that these bonds between male and female characters are sorely underrepresented.

Recently, I saw Farizan speak on the Tough Topics in YA Literature panel at the Boston Book Festival, where she explained that Leila was definitely more like she was as a teenager than the leading ladies of her debut novel, If You Could Be Mine. This became clear as I read Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Leila’s genuine voice and sarcastic humor read very naturally, and seem to reflect Farizan’s personality. I could not be more thankful that Farizan has decided to contribute her unique voice to young lesbian literature, and can’t wait to see what she writes next.

51vLOiEuWDL

After I got married earlier this year, a surprising number of people started asking if my wife and I were going to have kids, and when, and how we were going to go about it. The answer is yes, we’d like to in a couple of years, and I’d probably like to be pregnant. Perhaps prompted by these questions and my lifelong tendency to over-prepare, I picked up a copy of Rachel Pepper’s classic. With caveats, I recommend it to anyone interested in getting pregnant without having sex with a man.

I’m glad I read this book a few years before I was hoping to conceive, because I had no idea how expensive getting lesbian-pregnant can be or how long it takes, even if you don’t have fertility challenges. We’d probably go to a sperm bank, and I learned from this book that sperm is really pricey. I also learned that without fresh sperm it’s more difficult to get pregnant, but using fresh sperm (from, say, your best guy friend, via jar and a plastic tube) can put you in a murky legal position that allows your donor to claim parental rights and fight about custody. There is no perfect solution, and this helpful section of the book lays out the pros and cons of different gay lady conception options so you can find the best choice for you. It also covers in detail how to figure out when you’re ovulating, a necessity if you want to get pregnant with sperm donation.

Unfortunately I think if you read this book while trying to get pregnant, you’ll panic because it sounds like everything takes so long and costs so much. If you are interested in possibly becoming pregnant one day, or hoping to have a pregnant partner in the future, read this book sooner rather than later. It won’t nag you to have babies before you’re ready. It will provide useful information about the process so you’ll know about getting sperm and how to most effectively use it, what pre-pregnancy tests and nutrients you need, and how to determine your peek fertility days.

Where the book falters is in its prescriptions for your pregnancy, birth experience, and your parenting. Pepper’s opinions are presented as facts. Her passion for home births, attachment parenting, and breastfeeding, and against circumcision, make no allowances for people with different values or circumstances, and could needlessly make you feel guilty. I think this unintentionally is another reason to read this book before you’re in the thick of trying to conceive: when you’re trying to get pregnant, or you’re a new parent, people will give you a lot of unsolicited advice. Some of it will be terrible, very little of it will be necessary, and it will almost always be more about the person giving the advice than it is about you. If you can start tuning out the “right way to be pregnant/give birth/be a mother” noise you’re subjected to from Pepper, you’ll be ready for that same noise from strangers, friends, or relatives. But it would probably be tougher to question Pepper’s claims if you’re reading it while you’re waiting on a pregnancy test and you’re feeling anxious and vulnerable.

This book is also almost a decade old, and some of the information is out of date. For example, since I live in California and my wife and I are legally married, we wouldn’t have to go through second parent adoption if one of us has a baby. That wasn’t the case when the second edition of this book was published in 2005, and the legal preparations suggested in this book may be unnecessary depending on where you live. Likewise, Pepper’s information about charting your fertility was written before the age of apps, and now there are several apps that make it easy to keep track of your cycle, possibly much easier than the methods Pepper suggests. It did make me wonder if reproductive technology options have evolved too, and I’d want to do more research before I try to get pregnant.

[trigger warning: transphobic slur]

Another strange thing about this book is Pepper’s references to “tranny pops,” which sounds like a really offensive snack food. She’s trying include transgender fathers, but using a slur that’s often aimed at trans women just made me wince. It’s particularly strange because the book doesn’t mention trans women in lesbian relationships even once. Since I know a few trans women who date women, and a cis woman and a trans woman who have biological kids together, I thought it warranted a couple of pages. Even without bottom surgery, trans women can have fertility issues from hormones, so if they want to have a child with a cis female partner, they might need to do some planning. Or at least they could be acknowledged, since transgender men get a few shout-outs in this lesbian book.

I also thought the book was a tad more focused on single women than it was at lesbian couples. The book is rooted in Pepper’s personal experience, and she’s always been a single parent. The writing is mostly aimed at the person who’ll be pregnant, without as much exploration of the non-pregnant mom-to-be’s experience as my wife and I would have liked. I might eat my words on this, but Pepper spends a bit of ink preparing you, future pregnant women, for your possibly unsupportive, non-pregnant girlfriend who won’t take your pregnancy as seriously as you do. Clearly, people have this experience, but there are also plenty of dedicated non-biological lesbian moms who are there every step of the way. I wanted a little more support and advice for expecting mothers who aren’t pregnant and whose experiences are often minimized or erased. I also would have liked some suggestions about deciding as a couple how you want to parent and sorting out the conflicts that will inevitably arise between a pair of new moms.

If you want nothing to do with pregnancy, definitely skip it. But it is well worth a read if you’re interested in the subject matter, ideally a few years before you’re ready to conceive. Don’t make it your only pregnancy or parenting guidebook, and skip or side-eye Pepper’s advice after the section on conception. For the business of getting pregnant the lesbian way, though, it’s great resource.

payingguests   taleoftwomommies   justgirls

Sarah Waters was interviewed at The Globe and Mail.

“New Children’s Book Series Highlights Queer Families of Color” was posted at Color Lines.

“I Don’t Care if Media About Queer PoC Won’t Sell – We Need to Create it Anyway” was posted at Feminspire.

“Children’s Books with Queer Families of Color & Kids of Color” was posted at Amplify (two years ago, but I just discovered it).

Claire’s Song by Sunny Alexander was reviewed at Terry’s Lesfic Reviews.

A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington, D.C. by Genny Beemyn was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

YAW by Dani Couture was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Just Girls by Rachel Gold was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Barring Complications by Blythe Rippon was reviewed at Terry’s Lesfic Reviews.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitterWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

happinesslikewater

It’s perhaps best to begin with the fact that happiness you won’t find much in Chinelo Okparanta’s short story collection Happiness, Like Water.  After all, as one character points out, happiness is like water if “we’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping through our fingers.”  What you will find, however, are some tenderly written stories about Nigerian women, sometimes in the US or in Nigeria, grappling with the demands made of them in a racist, sexist, and homophobic world.

If that sounds depressing, well, maybe it is; it’s important work that Okparanta is doing, investigating the myriad of ways in which her characters are bound by a limited set of choices in a world that often doesn’t value them; however, she does have this to say in an interview with Saraba magazine: “in some ways I write about what is positive. I write about brave and ambitious men and women. I write about intelligent people. I write about kindness, about love. I write about people who, like me, are trying their best to make sense of their lives within the societies in which they find themselves.”  In this way, I didn’t find Happiness a sad book, despite the often bleak subject matter.

Okparanta writes simply but beautifully, something which also helps break the sometimes gloomy circumstances in which her characters find themselves.  It is also not a collection without hope.  For example:

And I think perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun

is high in the sky.  The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold.  Grace

is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its

own form of happiness.

This is an unrepentantly feminist book, dealing with issues such as shadism, beauty standards, domestic violence, gender roles, class, and queer [and straight] sexuality.  Happiness doesn’t feel like an ‘issue’ book, though, I think because the voices of the women play such a big part in the stories.  My two favourites, “Grace” and “Story, Story!” in particular, featured palpable, unique voices.  “Grace” is narrated by a middle-aged divorced woman who’s a (English?) professor teaching a course on the Old Testament.  It’s not clear exactly what her beliefs are, but it seems like she’s some kind of Christian, or maybe has a Christian background.  The story centers around her relationship with a Nigerian student, definitely a Christian and grappling with her sexuality and what the Bible (supposedly) says about queerness.  I thought Okparanta nailed the world-weariness of this older woman’s voice, as well as the youthful one of the younger woman.

“Story, Story!” is, I think, the strongest in the collection, and probably features the voice that is the most different from the rest of the narrators.  I don’t want to spoil this climatic, powerful story by giving away important details, but it is a chilling narrative about the lengths of insanity to which women can by driven by the white heteropatriarchy.  If there were one part from this book I would want everyone to read, it’s the brilliantly titled “Story, Story!”

Despite the innovation of those two I just discussed, several of the other stories featured women whose voices began to run together a bit for me by the end of the collection.  There were a lot of middle-class women who were teachers, which isn’t in itself a problem, if the voices are differentiated; however, I didn’t find that to be the case.  This is a fault I’ve found many a time in first books by new writers: drawing from their own experiences, sometimes they fail to fully turn that inspiration into wide-ranging fiction.  There wasn’t a problem with the voice itself, just that it was shared by characters in different stories in different places and situations, which makes them seem less like, well, real humans.  Okparanta is at her best when trying on distinct voices, such as in “Story, Story!” and “Grace” as well as “Shelter” (whose narrator is a child).

Interestingly, if you look at Happiness as a whole, it seems to be suggesting that heterosexual relationships are doomed, but ones between women have hope.  It’s not that the queer relationships are painted idyllically, but there is a distinct sense of optimism in the stories that feature romantic relationships between women that is lacking in the ones featuring men and women. Relationships with men and /or heterosexual marriage seem to be too steeped in patriarchal power dynamics to offer women any real options.  While I see the appeal of this argument, it also puzzles me; my first thought is, okay but what are heterosexual women supposed to do?  Also, it feels defeatist, like confirming men will and can never be feminist allies and never have respectful relationships with women.  Is that actually how we want to look at the world?

It’s the system, paired with and run by individual men, that creates and upholds the values Okparanta is writing against and many of her stories actually make a point of focusing on the fact that it is the women’s mothers who are the agents of the patriarchal trap of marriage, as well as enforcing racist and sexist beliefs about women’s roles.  In other words, women enforce patriarchy too, and we won’t get rid of it even if we secluded ourselves away and never had any contact with men ever again.  So, Okparanta’s argument there seems to contrast the one that relationships with men are ultimately hopeless.

Anyway, there’s lot of food for thought in this book, as you can see!  If you want to see more from Okparanta, like I did when I finished the book, check out this more recent story published in The New Yorker as well as this interview with Okparanta about the story.

hername

There is a good chance that any woman who has experienced the sense that hers is not the life she was destined to live will find something of a kindred spirit in Madison Andrews, the protagonist of Alicia Joseph’s novella, Her Name. Especially for those of us who have heard the not-so-distant ticking of the biological clock, quiet moments may have a way of calling forth feelings of yearning, disappointment or bewilderment as we contemplate the multifarious forces that brought us to this place in time. Yet, are our lives really destined to turn out the way they do or do we have a greater influence over our circumstances than we realize?

Teetering toward forty, Madison doesn’t lack for a social life, has enjoyed her share of romantic entanglements and maintains gainful employment; but, it just isn’t the life she envisioned for herself. Longing for a loving marriage and family, Madison is admittedly lonely and rather desperate for a meaningful relationship. She can only wonder why the fulfillment of her most heartfelt desire has eluded her. Where is the beautiful, blue-eyed woman of her dreams?

In her dreams, of course.

Night after night, Madison closes her eyes, entering into a dream world that feels far more vivid, far more right than her waking life. In fact, the events that take place in her dreams point directly to those that have taken place during her waking hours, the only difference being that the love of her life is there with her through it all. Indeed, the woman she encounters as she sleeps treasures her in a manner that she has never before known; yet, in spite of reciprocating such deep caring, Madison awakens each morning with a knot of disappointment in her stomach as she finds herself alone in bed. Merely tolerating her days, she awaits the moment that she can slip back between the covers and into her lover’s arms.

Madison’s enthusiasm for her dream world is not shared by others, however. When she tells her best friend, Shelly, about the life she shares with the blue-eyed woman, she finds none of the validation or understanding she seeks; rather, she is mercilessly teased until, ultimately, her sanity is called into question. In an attempt to appease, Madison tells those who express concern that she is seeing a therapist, which is not true for she is certain that the life she knows with the woman is quite real and refuses to risk someone stripping her of her happiness.

It was the genuinely heartfelt style of Ms. Joseph’s writing that kept me reading from the first page straight through to the last; and, I remain utterly in awe of how fully the author captured as transcendent a connection as that between Madison and the woman who meets her on the other side of wakefulness. The interactions between the two women were so natural and believable that I didn’t for a moment question the existence of the blue-eyed woman or the love they share. Without a doubt, Her Name felt to be more of a dear friend’s diary than a work of fiction.

That being said, I found the climax to be handled in a manner that was a bit awkward. I was so completely surrendered to Madison’s experience that it was jarring to witness an unfamiliar dynamic between her and her lover. The tone also shifted in such a way that I felt myself thrust out of the story, which frustrated and pained me given how wide open my heart had grown; yet, I had invested so much of myself into the experience that I made a conscious decision to let this go. It wasn’t worth sacrificing what had resonated so clearly with me up to that point.

Her Name is far more than a love story, though I’ll admit that it is one of the most touching romances I’ve encountered as it offers a sense of hope and a framework for making sense of Madison’s experience as well as our own. Given how essential the concept of interdependent co-arising becomes to an exploration of this book, it’s quite clear that Ms. Joseph has challenged us to broaden our perception of destiny and to acknowledge our part in it.

If truth be told, there will likely never again be a night that I don’t turn down the covers, anticipating the presence of my true love — though I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath. One thing is for certain, however. I will make a concerted effort to approach each moment as fully present as I’m able so as to prevent my very destiny from slipping away.

heydollface   dragkingdreams   lumberjanes9

The Advocate posted Transgender Pioneer and Stone Butch Blues Author Leslie Feinberg Has Died (an obituary by Leslie’s partner, Minnie Bruce Platt).

Autostraddle posted

Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig was reviewed at Gay YA.

The Whip by Karen Kondazian was reviewed at That’s All I Read.

movingforwardslikeacrab   payingguests   forgivemeifivetoldyouthisbefore

Moving Forwards Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 by Shelly Oria was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Deserted Echo by Linda Kay Silva was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was reviewed at things mean a lot.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitterWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

tributaries

I am conflicted about Tributaries. It’s one of those books where some aspects I absolutely loved, and some I didn’t like at all. First of all, I have to point out that gorgeous cover. I just want to stare at it for a while. Okay, onto to the book itself. We’re first introduced to Nyx, a young woman who is also a cat shapeshifter. In the prologue, we get a glimpse of her attempted suicide as background to her life in the beginning of the novel. She is struggling, stealing small amounts of food in order to survive. When she’s discovered by villagers and chased, Nyx finds herself unexpectedly rescued by a passing warrior woman, Elmiryn. Now in her debt, Elmiryn asks Nyx to accompany her on her quest to slay a demon (that may or may not exist).

As you can probably tell by that description, Tributaries starts off pretty grim. Nyx is in a very dark place in her life, having lost almost everything and everyone from her past. She is introspective and is suspicious of other people. It’s with the introduction of Elmiryn that I started to get into the novel. Elmiryn brings some much needed humor and lightness to the narrative, though we quickly discover that she is dealing with her own issues. She also brings some purpose to Nyx’s life, with the proposition of this quest. With the travelling duo, a warrior woman and a smaller companion, I immediately latched onto the Xena vibe. The characters themselves don’t resemble Xena or Gabrielle very much, but just that comparison was an immediate plus for me.

I feel like the strength of the novel is in the interaction between Elmiryn and Nyx. They have completely different personalities, and it’s fascinating to watch their friendship (and eventual romance) slowly build. What I appreciated the most was that despite the apparent power difference, by the end of the book they both seem like equals. They have very different strengths, and they use those to take care of each other. Nyx may be smaller and less trained in combat, but she helps Elmiryn to stay rooted in reality, and is there to be a voice of reason.

The romance was also adorable. Elmiryn is an incorrigible flirt, and Nyx greets this with blushes and avoidance, but for the most part Elle’s flirting is light and harmless, not an attempt to persuade Nyx so much as a form of communication she would probably use with any friend. And one of my favourite parts of the book was watching Nyx find herself more attracted to Elle–and, as a reader, realizing that Nyx’s avoidance had more to do with deference and a misguided adherence to politeness than it did with her own feelings. This slow build creates a compelling, believable romantic subplot.

Where the book lost me was when it came to the plot and setting. The worldbuilding felt pretty sketchily defined for the most part. While Ailurean (cat shapeshifter) society got quite a bit of detail, the world outside of that didn’t seem to be fully realized. It also seemed to be unevenly plotted. There were moments in the book where I was ignoring things I should be doing in order to read just one more chapter, and then other stretches where I was reluctant to pick the book up again. Similarly, the tone seems to jump around throughout the book. When it’s at its best, it balances dark topics with Elmiryn’s humour, but when we lose that lightness from Elle, Tributaries seems to lose its footing.

The problem for me is that for a Fantasy book–and I’ll admit that I’ve read very few Fantasy books, so I’m not very familiar with the genre–most of the conflict happens inside people’s heads. Nyx’s main conflict is that her bestial side is not just an aspect of her personality, but what seems to be a fully-formed individual, one who is violent and fighting for control of their shared body. There are even scenes that take place inside Nyx’s mental landscape, in a battle for who will be contained and who will dominate. Elmiryn’s main conflict is also a mental one. When she first tries to explain her curse to Nyx, my note in my copy was “Ah, so she has the curse of existentialism!” And it’s true that this curse is fairly philosophical. Elle has difficulties in determining what is reality, in keeping contact with her own memories, even in identifying her body as an extension of herself. It really seems like a constant state of existential crisis. Both characters, in addition to their complex psychological states, also have mysterious tragic back stories that are alluded to. One or the other would be fine, but both felt like there was too much to fit into one novel. Even the antagonist, the demon, is mostly mental. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] He communicates through music, and even the physical space the climax of the story takes place in seems more like a mental space. [end spoilers]

As a whole, the plot didn’t quite come together for me. I do understand that it’s the first book in the series, and likely the worldbuilding will be fleshed out more in the next books, and hopefully there will be more space to address topics introduced in depth. In this book, though, it felt like there were too many concepts being juggled without having a solid plot to root it. (The climax of the book felt muddled to me.) One aspect, Tobias’s book that Nyx excerpts throughout, I didn’t really understand the point of, and ending with the epilogue being a chapter from this book was unsatisfying.

At the same time, there are so many things I really enjoyed about the book. Both main characters are fascinating and three dimensional, and I loved seeing them interact. Though I felt like having both overburdened the book, I am intrigued by both Elmiryn and Nyx’s mental struggles and want to see how they play out. Plus, Tributaries does set up an interesting quest narrative for the next book, which I enjoy. So as much as I felt like some parts of this book were difficult to get through, the good parts were good enough that I would like to continue with the series, because I have high hopes that it will improve from here.

Also, as a side note, I first head about this book from the author’s blog post about a review, and I have to say, I don’t see how anyone could read this relationship as straight. Elmiryn is a huge flirt. In the first couple chapters, she says, “Hey, wait a minute. You think I’m unsettling? As in, ‘Gee, I hope she makes a go for my pants’ Or as in, ‘I think this crazy wench is going to shiv my hide’?” How do you read that as straight?? Amazing.

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