Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.

Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Rachel reviews The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Intense, expansive, and original, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter (2020), book one of the Drowning Empire, was a joy to read. Its lesbian representation offers a fresh refocusing of queer desire. It’s perfect for fans of Gideon the Ninth (2019).

Stewart’s novel follows multiple perspectives as she sets up the Bone Shard world. The empire is ruled by an emperor who clings tightly to his reign. As a master of bone shard magic, which controls animal-like constructs that spy, make war, or play politician, the emperor has an iron-like grip on his people, all of whom are required to contribute a shard of bone in order to power the constructs. This is a contribution that will eventually drain their life force prematurely.

But conspiracy and sabotage lurk in the shadows. In spite of his power, there are those that would see the emperor and his regime fall—including his daughter, Lin. Through different characters scattered across the landscape of this world, Stewart begins to set up the key earth-shaking influences that will reshape the world that the characters know.

This book was incredibly fun and thoroughly detailed. I appreciated the slow and careful world building that Stewart was careful to include. Furthermore, I was grateful that Stewart’s empire included an environment where queerness was not only accepted, but hardly thought of. The relationship between Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and Ranami, a member of the resistance, is original in many ways. For this novel and its characters, lesbianism is not a plot point, but rather an incidental aspect. The tension between them arises from their differing beliefs, rather than any fears or tensions related to their sexualities. This kind of representation is refreshing and necessary, and it fit as a whole with the book.

These characters and their tropes worked well together—the warrior lesbian who is only soft with her girlfriend is positively delightful and something I look for in lesbian novels. While this pairing was exciting, it was also complex, and I’m honestly hopeful that there’s more for Phalue in the next installment in this series. One of my pet peeves in fiction that features lesbian characters is moments sacrifice lesbian complexity in favour of moving the plot forward. One of these moments happens early in the novel when we meet the lesbian characters. While the lesbian representation Stewart’s novel works wonderfully for the most part, I’d love to see more active and complex relationships at work in the novel, in addition to the fascinating plot.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book if you love fantasy, normalized queerness, and great writing. I couldn’t be happier that I read this and I am excited to pick up the next installment.

Please visit Andrea Stewart on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Bone Shard Daughter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Mo Springer reviews Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Harrietta Lee, or Harry, is a witch excommunicated from the magical community due to a checkered past and a lot of baggage. Her main goal is to make rent on time with by using what magic she has left to help people. One of these people is Tristan, an apprentice of the famous Meresti family, whose leader is Miriam, a former friend and part of Harry’s baggage. He lost a very important object and needs Harry’s help to find it, but there’s a lot more layers to this quest than a simple a find and retrieve mission. Harry has to grapple with a past she never truly healed from and hopefully not lose herself in the process.

This was a really fun and quick urban fantasy book. There’s a hint of romance between with Harry and Miriam, as well as with a demoness, but the book doesn’t contain much of that aspect. There are also parts that are undeniable erotic, with a BDSM scene. None of this felt like it detracted from the plot, but only added to it, because the author weaves together the quest and Harry’s personal arc so well.

Harry as a character was like a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to find butch characters, harder to find butch protagonists, and even harder to find butch main characters written with such complexity and vulnerability. I can’t remember the last time I felt so seen and represented in a book and that’s why this series quickly became a favorite.

The mystery was well done and never felt it dragged or took away from what I felt was interesting and engaging about Harry and her personal problems, because these two things were not separate entities. As the mystery unfolds, so does Harry’s baggage. As we learn more about Miriam, Tristan, Harry’s sister Luce, and her new demon friend Lilith, we learn more about the plot of this book, as well as the overarching series, that feels intriguing and satisfying.

The characters feel complex and I enjoyed learning about each one. Miriam has a duty to her family, but she is also a person with her own needs and wants, and in addition to that wants to do right by Harry. Luce loves her sister dearly, cares and worries about Harry greatly, but she also has her own life and career. Lilith is fun and mysterious, but there are hints of something deeper we have to yet to learn.

The world building felt real and I left this book wanting to explore more of it in the rest of the series. One of the most important things to world building is that it works with the characters and plot instead of standing separately. Here, the author does a great job of using the world to inform the character’s motivations and drive the conflict of the story. As you learn more about the world, you also learn more about Harry, the mystery, and her friends.

Overall, this is a fantastic first book to a wonderful series. After I finished it, I immediately read the next two books. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy.

Danika reviews This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano

I want to start by being clear that this does not have a sapphic main character, but it does have multiple sapphic side characters and subplots, which is why I’m reviewing it here.

If you still have complicated nostalgic feelings for Harry Potter, but you also want to read a book that says “Fuck TERFs” (literally–that’s a direct quote), This is How You Fly is for you. It follows Ellen, who has just graduated from high school and is trying not to think about what happens next. Her friends are excited about university, but she’s terrified. Not that her life is going that well now: she fights constantly with her stepmother, one of her best friends is pulling away from her, and she just got herself grounded for the rest of the summer.

As I said to start, Ellen is not sapphic. She does have complicated gender feelings–she’s questioning. One of her best friends, Xiumiao, is a lesbian, and she’s been struggling with an unrequited crush on their other best friend, Melissa. Xiumiao decides to distance herself from Melissa to try to get over her, and she is diving into preparing for college. Ellen feels like she’s being left behind, so when Melissa joins a quidditch team and convinces Ellen’s parents to have athletics be an exception to the grounding, Ellen throws herself into it. The team is co-ed, and there are a lot of queer players on the team. I enjoyed seeing Ellen start from scratch at this sport. She’s not athletic, but she’s determined to improve, and she finds joy in this even when she’s having difficulty keeping up.

This is a story that’s a little bit messy, which I loved. It deals with a lot. It’s a very, very loose Cinderella retelling, with quidditch instead of balls. The dynamic between her and her family is complicated and feels realistic. Ellen is also a main character I don’t see very much: she’s a feminist teenager who is passionate about social justice. She is vegan and tries to call out people for casual sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc, even if it’s her friends or family. Usually those characters are dismissed as annoying or a joke, but I (unsurprisingly) felt very sympathetic for Ellen. She doesn’t understand how her parents can dismiss injustice so easily. She’s also mixed race–half Mexican-American and half Irish-American–and constantly feels like she’s an imposter. Her stepmother is from Mexico, but her mother was born in the U.S. and passed away when Ellen was a young child. She doesn’t know how much she can claim as her heritage, and some part of her is envious of her stepmother’s more direct connection to her culture.

This is also a nerdy book, of course. There is a lot of discussion about Harry Potter, including talking about how to address JK Rowling’s transphobia in the fandom. She’s active on Tumblr, saying: “Tumblr is the lawless internet hovel where extreme fan culture meets extreme opinions and extremely pointless junk posts, and I love it to death.” I appreciated this, because I’m still on Tumblr, but I don’t know how realistic it is. Apparently in 2019, less than 1% of American teens use Tumblr. Of course, I’m sure a similar percentage play quidditch, and there’s probably more overlap there.

Although this book doesn’t have a sapphic main character, there are multiple sapphic side characters, including one that is a major subplot. I’m going back and forth on whether naming it is a spoiler, because clearly the book means it to be a surprise, but a) identity is not a spoiler and b) I definitely saw it coming several hundred pages in advance. Suffice to say that there is significant F/F content, though not with the main character. As for Ellen, I appreciated that her romances are also messy and complicated. It shows that you can be attracted to people you don’t necessarily like, and it allows Ellen to explore her feelings and attractions.

I had a great time reading this book. Multiple times, I found myself staying up hours later than I meant to because I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend this for former or conflicted current Harry Potter fans who denounce JK Rowling’s transphobia or for anyone who is or was a loud-mouthed teenage feminists (I mean that as a sincere compliment).

Marieke reviews And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One) is included in this collection.

It seems this year I have read more than my usual share of science fiction (murder) mystery: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, Jane, Unlimited, and Gideon The Ninth all fall into this category in one way or another. And in my scramble to find a novella that I could finish in time for this review, I came across And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. In the tradition of short genre stories, this one saw the light in an edition of a genre magazine (Uncanny in this case), which means you can read it online and for free here.

With the whole work clocking in at just under 20,000 words, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story other than the very basic premise it opens with, otherwise it becomes too easy to share the whole tale. First, the main character’s name is the same as the author (I will refer to her as ‘main Sarah’ to avoid confusion where possible). Second, the multiverse is real and recently discovered by another Sarah Pinsker, who then (third) contacted multiple other Sarahs to a Sarah Convention. The kicker is: one of the many identical-but-not Sarahs is murdered on the first evening, before the keynote even officially kicks off the weekend’s proceedings. Luckily, main Sarah is an insurance investigator, which is deemed close enough to a homicide detective for the convention’s organisation to request she investigates the death. And so the story begins.

At this point, the story follows the similar pattern of most murder mysteries, with the detective character noting down possible murder weapons a la Clue, and interviewing possible suspects a la Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I use games as a comparison here, because that is how the plot comes across: you can almost picture the video game prompting you to respond with one of two or three options, and there is a desire to keep track of the various clues main Sarah comes across (although I personally have yet to give into this when reading a detective novel or other murder mystery). This worn in pattern is reinforced later in the story, when a character references Agatha Christie, who wrote the murder mystery novel that served as source for this story’s title.

The existence of the multiverse becomes increasingly mindbending as the story plays out, with a deluge of Sarahs pondering its various ripple effects. The prime angle of the convention was to dig into the various differences and overlaps of the various worlds and their various Sarahs, ranging from the serious (why do water scarcity and climate change differ between versions of Earth and how can we use this knowledge to improve the situation on our home world?) to the mundane (why did we choose the pets we did?). Main Sarah repeatedly compares herself to the other Sarahs, as would only be natural, but she also notes this often turns into her making assumptions about the other Sarahs that are only proved wrong through discussions. It seems to me you don’t need to meet a near-clone for this pattern to occur–we all assume similar backgrounds about people who seem mildly similar to ourselves–but when faced with those near-clones, it does become more obvious.

Another important aspect of the multiverse is its divergence points: the points at which the lives of the Sarahs (and the courses of their worlds) start to differ, e.g. through a hospital visit or a returned phone call. While most of these divergence points are relatively small in scale, they can have huge consequences for the Sarahs who made those decisions and possibly for the worlds where those decisions were made. Main Sarah is almost tempted to start questioning her own decisions as a result of comparing herself with the others, but that way madness clearly lies. There are worlds where some decisions are delayed or happened earlier, and if one Sarah made a certain choice there is a world where another Sarah made the opposite choice or a completely different choice or did not choose at all. Every Sarah is a different side of a multi-faceted coin, with plenty of sides not visible (yet). And that doesn’t even touch on the multiverse versions of each Sarah’s loved ones–who are all relatively similar as well.

One of those loved ones is Mabel, main Sarah’s long-term girlfriend. She is ever present in Sarah’s thoughts, and is a recurring partner of other Sarahs we meet (although some decided to stick it out with one of main Sarah’s previous ex-girlfriends). We only meet main Sarah’s Mabel at the start of the story, where they discuss the veracity of the convention and whether Sarah should accept the invitation to attend. Even though we as a reader don’t get much of a sense of Mabel during this scene, she returns in Sarah’s thoughts at various points, always coming across as a calm point or safe haven for Sarah to return to (which makes sense, as she is also serves as Sarah’s main connection to her own world, being the only person in that world who is aware of where Sarah went).

The connection each Sarah has with with her loved ones is a main theme for this story, leading towards the main morale / message: love, be it platonic or romantic or some other variation, trumps all other options in the pursuit of happiness. While it may be a bit saccharine, it’s a message that I readily accept at this time of the year, even if it does come wrapped in a murder mystery as weird as this one.

Why We Need Queer Holiday Stories

Photo of a book and holiday mug with a Christmas tree in the background

I have a little collection of sapphic Christmas books that I save up to read in December. It isn’t a long list, but I try to make room for at least one every year. At first, I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. I don’t feel a strong pull towards Christmas books in general—although I celebrate, I’m not exactly a deck-the-halls-er. Usually my celebrations are a little more quiet, and the highlight is our family stocking exchange. The few times that I have attempted a straight/cis/allo M/F Christmas romance, I was left wanting. So why do I save up queer holiday stories, especially F/F romances, when I’m not usually much of a romance reader?

I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one. I run a bi and lesbian books tumblr, and every year, I see requests for queer holiday books, especially YA ones. Unfortunately, although there is a modest collection of queer Christmas romances and a handful of other holidays, queer holiday YA is very difficult to find, and any genre other than romance is thin on the ground. It’s frustrating to see so much demand for this and not see publishing houses prioritizing these titles—it’s not that no one is writing these stories, it’s that they’re not being picked up and promoted.

Which brings me back to my original question: what is the appeal? Why is there such demand for queer holidays books, especially for teens? In one respect, it’s simple: lots of people like themed reading, and queer people are no exception. It’s not unusual to want to prioritize horror books at Halloween or Christmas books in December, if that’s what you celebrate. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

Holidays are complicated for many queer people. It’s a time of family, togetherness, and tradition—and for many queer people, those have been difficult to come by. Biological families aren’t always accepting of their queer relatives, and whether that means ties are severed completely, or those relationships are made complicated, it affects how we think of holidays. Many people have to be closeted around their family or change their gender expression. They may be misgendered or face microaggressions when they get together over the holidays. Others have made their own chosen families, or are still seeking where they belong.

Tradition is also a sticking point for many queer people. Tradition can mean familiarity and happy memories, like exchanging stockings is for my family, but it can also be suffocating. It can be a reason to stifle someone’s gender expression, or an excuse to keep another family member unwillingly in the closet. Tradition can be used to reinforce repressive gender roles, or even to turn away from financial realities—it’s tradition for everyone to give everyone else a gift, regardless of who lost their job this year!

That tension between traditional depictions of holidays—as a mostly harmonious gathering of biological family—and the reality of many queer people’s lives doesn’t negate the appeal, however. In fact, I think that the fact that it doesn’t always match that vision of the holidays can make us long to have our own version. We want to see our own possible futures, and that’s even more important for teenagers. A queer holiday book, especially a sappy romance, can make us imagine that we can keep all of the good parts of the holidays without having to put up with the bad parts.

Queer holiday stories matter because they reconcile past and possibility. They imagine a family and traditions that are welcoming, that don’t require us to sacrifice parts of ourselves to fit in. I’m lucky enough to have a biological family who is accepting, but many other queer and trans people don’t have that privilege. Queer holiday stories let us immerse ourselves in a world that is gentler and kinder, that never asks us to choose between being our authentic selves and maintaining our familial relationships.

Even for queer people who have accepting biological families, it can still be alienating to see the same cis/het/allo Christmas stories over and over. Queer holiday books fill in those gaps as well as letting us imagine our own future traditions. I hope that soon we see a lot more queer holiday stories hit the market, especially teen ones and stories that depict many different belief system, races, genders, and other intersectionalities. The demand is there, so now we’re just waiting for publishing to pick up the slack!

Looking for sapphic Christmas books? Check out the Christmas tag!

This post originally ran on Book Riot.

Meagan Kimberly reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Childhood friends Sahar and Nasreen are desperately in love, but living in Tehran, their love is forbidden. Nasreen wants to lead the life her parents want for her, to marry a good man with a good job who can take care of her, even if it means she has to give up her childhood sweetheart. Sahar can’t lose Nasreen, so she considers transitioning into a man, as that is acceptable in their culture. It’s a novel filled with teen angst, questions of gender and sexuality, coming of age and deciding how to stay true to yourself while holding on to the people you love.

When it comes to the discussions of trans people and transitioning, it’s hard for me to speak clearly to it because that’s not my own experience. But throughout the novel, the discussions explicitly state “transsexual,” which I’m not sure if it’s an outdated term or if it’s specific to Iranian culture on the subject. Because in this culture, trans people are acceptable as it is seen as “fixing” the problem of homosexuality. There’s a lot to unload in that frame of mind altogether because lumping gender and sexual orientation into one doesn’t allow for nuance.

There’s also an interesting division within the LGBTQ+ community. Sahar’s gay cousin, Ali, introduces her to Tehran’s queer community to show her she’s not the only one and there’s nothing wrong with her. But Sahar is resistant to the idea that she is a lesbian. Moreover, there’s another trans character she meets who shows repulsion toward gay people, calling it unnatural.

Farizan creates dynamic, imperfect characters in Sahar and Nasreen. It would be easy to categorize them as overdramatic teen girls and to get easily annoyed with their personalities. At times, Sahar becomes frustrating, even as she acknowledges her flaws and irrationality. But through all that emotion, it’s a delight to see her go through the growing pains and become firm in her identity.

I admit I found Nasreen harder to sympathize with. She’s not a bad person, but she is more selfish and self-centered in comparison to Sahar. However, she’s never condemned for her desire to live comfortably. She’s not the kind of person to fight her role as a woman in her society, and it doesn’t make her weaker or inferior. She simply chooses to survive the best way she knows how.

That doesn’t mean I think she deserves Sahar. Nasreen’s treatment of her best friend is never justified by her desire to survive and live a comfortable life. It’s this complex and messy narrative that makes the novel a compelling read. Nothing’s black and white. Characters aren’t necessarily good or evil. There are no right answers.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Sahar and Nasreen don’t end up together. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Sahar, but it feels like the right choice for the story. However, there’s a spark of hope at the end as the novel wraps up with Sahar meeting a new girl at college.