Mallory Lass reviews Lily and the Crown by Roslyn Sinclair

I couldn’t find a way to write this review without spoilers, so you may want to proceed with caution if that’s a deal breaker. Also, this book wasn’t my jam. Despite featuring one of my favorite tropes (age-gap), being a space opera, and lots of people singing its praises, I couldn’t get into it. Lily and the Crown developed from a Devil Wears Prada AU fanfiction, so that was also part of the intrigue for me.

Lady Ariana “Ari” Geiker is a 20 year old botany prodigy who has turned her quarters into a botanical garden. She is the daughter of Lord Geiker, stationmaster on Nahtal which affords her certain excesses and freedoms. When we first meet her, she is presented as a workaholic with reclusive tendencies. To her surprise, her father sends her a woman slave (captured in a recent pirate raid), who he hopes will keep her company and make sure she eats regularly. Ari can’t bear the thought of having a slave, so she forces the woman to choose a name. “Assistant” is settled on. Assistant is a captured and interrogated pirate slave in her 50’s. Or is she? I think the reader is meant to be in on the fact that she isn’t who she claims to be. She is actually Mír, the ruthless marauding pirate leader.

The setup of this story irked me from the beginning and here is why:

First:

The whole story is premised on the fact that this universe has slaves. The only way Assistant finds her way into Ari’s life is through this ruse of her being a pirate slave turned spoil of war. The fact that there are slaves with no real explanation of why that is a part of this space society bothered me. No one is nice to them except Ari. We didn’t get an explanation as to why there are slaves until 2/3rds through the book, and it wasn’t satisfying:

“Slaves were ordinary people. They came from everywhere—children whose parents sold them out of poverty, people captured during war or raids, people who had gone too deeply into debt and had only themselves left to sell for repayment.“

If slaves were ordinary people, and thus anyone was at risk of becoming a slave, you would think they would be shown more humanity. It just didn’t jive, and I think another plot device could have been used to set this story up. If slavery is going to be worked into the backdrop of a universe, I expect some larger social commentary than “slavery is bad and we should try to abolish it” (which is Ari’s, and ultimately Mír’s position). It’s not enough.

Second:

The reader knows Assistant is not who she says she is, so the entire book is a lead up for that revelation to finally, finally, come to Ari. I just didn’t find the lead up all that engaging. In fact, the last 5th of the book–when that reckoning finally happens–is the best part, and I think if it would have come much earlier, I would have been more engrossed. I am certainly more interested in what happened between the end of the book and the epilogue than I was with what happened between their first meeting and the reveal.

Now, about why it took so long. Sinclair spends a lot of time really hammering home that Ari is just missing the boat. Ari repeatedly brings up that the people around her think she is weird. I was trying to figure out if her social miscues were because she was on the autism spectrum, but in the end, I think she was just sheltered. Her mom died early in her life, and her dad was too occupied with his role as military strategist and consumed with his grief over his wife’s death to raise Ari with any semblance of a normal upbringing. This makes her socially awkward, sheltered and extremely naive.

So while we are waiting for the reveal, Assistant sets out to seduce Ari. I think in part because she is intrigued by her oddities, her enthusiasm for plants, and her obvious intelligence. But I also think coming from the life she did, leader of a massive rebellion, she was bored. As was I. Seduction quickly turned to sex, but I didn’t like how Ari losing her virginity transpired. Assistant pounced on her in the middle of the night after telling her a violent bedtime story that clearly unsettled Ari. Ari’s body certainly responds to Assistant, and she comes willingly. I still feel a little icky about her emotional/mental state before and after. The power dynamic for me is out of whack. Assistant holds all the cards in their intimate relationship, never letting Ari pleasure her. After their first time, they are consumed with each other. Assistant, with taking Ari as often and in every space in their quarters she can, and Ari, with the first person she has ever truly felt cared for her, and who she feels she is caring for in turn by keeping her out of the traditional slave life. She even comes to the conclusion Assistant feels obligated to have sex with her because of her role.

The bulk of the sex between Ari and Assistant was missing all the wonderful negotiation that usually comes with age-gap relationships. It isn’t until the reveal that Ari gets on nearly equal footing with Mír, and then they really shine together. Ari exploring Mír’s body for the first time was a wonderfully written scene. I just wish it came earlier and served as the start of the second half of the book. Ultimately, we discover Ari sets Mír off balance, and that scares the crap out of her. It’s also an exploitable weakness in war.

Despite the deception, once Ari reconciles Assistant and Mír as one in the same in her mind, she still needs something Mír may not be able to give: her love.

Will these two find a way to put their complicated and tangled pasts behind them and find a way to move forward? Will Mír succeed in taking over the Empire? Will Ari stand by her side or go back to her plants? Can they find a middle ground?

Sinclair’s writing is good, and despite not jiving with this story, I would pick up something else she’s written.

Susan reviews My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is an autobiographical manga about the creator’s life as a young queer Japanese woman with depression, who decides that the best way to resolve her difficulties connecting with people and her understanding of her own sexuality is to hire an escort.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneless is a a really fascinating look at the creator’s life, especially because the way she talks about her depression is extremely relatable. Some of the mental loops she describes and her resolutions (She talks about how she always treated herself and her accomplishments like crap because she couldn’t love herself, but once she started actually looking after herself the people around her started treating her better! And there is a panel of her yelling “If this is how it is, I’ve got nothing to lose! I’ll claw my way out of bed with my last dying breath!” which is how I feel about my mental health too!) are extremely familiar, but presented in a way that softens the blow. She makes me laugh even as I’m nodding along. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the problems she’s had, or how awkward she is, and it’s impressive.

(I found the sections where she spoke about her mother to be very strange, but in much the same way that I found the way Alison Bechdel spoke about hers in Are You My Mother? to be strange, so I don’t think that part of the book was ever going to work for me. Your mileage may vary!)

The art style is very minimal and sketchy, which works for the narrative of the book. It does so much of the heavy lifting to keep things on this side of funny and bearable, even when she’s talking about serious matters like her eating disorder. I found it especially effective for the scenes at the love hotel, because it’s not presented in a titillating way! I’m a fan of story about sex workers than manages to not centre the male gaze, and the fact that this story focuses on how awkward Nagata Kabi felt herself to be really works. I especially loved the follow-up comic where she talks to another escort from the agency, and the authorial comment that it’s much easier to speak to people who know her from her manga, because “it was like I’d submitted material about my personality in advance.”

Basically, this was an entertaining manga that speaks frankly about Nagata Kabi’s depression and recovery, and the way that hiring a sex worker changed how she thought about herself. It was really cool, and I enjoyed it a lot!

(The follow-up manga, My Solo Exchange Diary, has also been licensed and should be out this month!)

[Caution warning: depression, eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Alexa reviews Into the Mystic Volume 3 by NineStar Press

Her ghost had once told Clotho that no proper ghost story has a happy ending, because ghosts don’t end. 

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for fantasy, paranormal and fairytales, so of course I had to pick up an anthology that has nine F/F stories with paranormal elements. While the stories had the paranormal and the sapphic main characters in common, there was a great variety in paranormal creatures, writing style, and my feelings towards them as well.

Some of the stories were truly creative gems with unexpected and rarely seen ideas: the opening story, It Started Before Noon by Ava Kelly is in itself about ideas that are made into stories. The main character is a muse who grows story inspiration in a garden like flowers, but she just can’t get the romance buds right. I loved the little details, like how the different types of stories (comedy, angst, etc.) had different flowers and needed different kinds of care. Swoon by Artemis Savory had siren-like creatures acting like pirates whom I would have loved to learn more about. I loved the myth surrounding these sisters, but I still had so many questions – I would love to read a full length novel with them.

Other stories took more often used concepts or species, but still had the kind of magic that makes them an easy 5-star read. Home by K. Parr centers a wolf pack made up entirely of women, and a college student who is accepted into the pack (and the family) after getting close to the pack’s Alpha. I loved that this story had an older love interest, and I loved the description of the pack dynamics as well. The Hunt by M. Hollis is about a young vampire forever stuck as a teenager who has been adopted by a lesbian vampire couple. On her first hunt, she meets a human girl, and she finds herself wanting to meet her again. I felt like this story ended a little too soon, I would have loved to read more. And By Candlelight by Ziggy Schutz was one of my favourite stories in the anthology: I admit that I still don’t really understand the logic of it, and yet the two main characters and their relationship was so endearing that it absolutely stole my heart.

Vampires and werewolves seemed to be a popular choice for this anthology, and yet each story had some kind of unique spin on it. My Cup of O Pos by L. J. Hamlin has a disabled vampire with Ehlers-Danlos syndmore (ownvoices!) who goes out on a date with the cute human nurse from the ER who treats her with respect and compassion. This story also takes place in a world where vampires are common knowledge and there are laws about what they can and cannot do, and it uses this fictional/fantasy marginalisation to address real-life marginalisations and their intersections as well. Dance With Me by Michelle Frost is a romance between a werewolf and a vampire that left me with many burning questions about the backgrounds of the characters, wishing that there was a longer story to read.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stories that caught me off guard and I didn’t end up enjoying them much. I am used to most non-YA lesfic I read having at least some kind of sexual content (My Cup Of O Pos has sex scenes as well, and yet I felt like I got to know the characters), but Heart’s Thaw by Bru Baker and Fire and Brine by Lis Valentine were both mostly erotica with very little plot or characterisation. While I liked the original idea in Heart’s Thaw and the twist in Fire and Brine, I felt like I barely got to know anything about the characters, other than the sex scene that takes up half of such a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and I found some true gems in it, but I do wish that the blurb or tags made the sexual content of books clearer. It was especially off-putting because most of the stories didn’t have any sex at all, so having two stories that were purely erotica just didn’t seem to fit in well with the others.

Rating: 4 stars

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Marthese reviews Gretel and “Dragon Essence” by Niamh Murphy

”She had trusted two strangers in her house, offering them food and shelter. It was nonsense not to trust her.” – Gretel: A Fairytale Retold

With GDPR the copious amounts of author newsletters were at best purgatory. The ‘please subscribe to us’ emails were really great to weed out authors that I am not so interested in reading anymore. One author’s newsletter that I kept was Niamh Murphy’s. This author sends a lot of freebies and previews, is interested in fantasy and historical fiction (she’s actually a historian!) and sends advice and tips on where and what to read. I particularly liked her newsletter of Sapphic Fairytale Retellings! Anyone subscribed to her newsletter has received the short stories I will review below!

Despite knowing of this author, I hadn’t read any of her stories before last week, but now I’m intrigued. I started by reading “Dragon Essence: A Prequel to the Dark Age Trilogy.“This was, and and still is currently, free with a newsletter subscription! I have never read a prequel before the actual series, but this particular prequel was good at introducing the world and making the readers invested in seeing more from from it. The prequel is very short and can be read during a lunch break.

The plot surrounds Andra, a Captain of the Dragon Ward. Andra’s lover, Olwen is a mage set on getting a hold on a dragon egg – which Andra is bound to protect. Olwen gets killed, and the way to bring her back to life may see Andra breaking all sorts of oaths. This was a refreshing read, though very morally dubious. Why I could understand why the characters were acting in a certain way, I didn’t feel it was 100% okay. Be forewarned, there is violence on mythical creatures and violence of the human kind. The story contained also a preview of the first book Dragon Whisper. I love queer fantasy, especially with dragons and I’m interested to see how the wizards vs druids and the humans vs dragons elements will play out. I also do not know many queer fantasy books/historical fiction books with druids.

After I finished “Dragon Essence” I felt like reading the series…only it is not yet out. So I read Gretel: A Fairytale Retold, which as you probably guessed is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel: one of my favourite childhood stories! Gretel isn’t that long and is a bit fast paced, but then again, so was the original story. Hans and Gretel are introduced while running away from wolves and fortunately they are saved by a woman who offers them lodging until Hans heals. Gretel and Hans are away from home and have been looking for work. Maeve, the woman who saved them, lives in a cottage in a fort – all on her own. Gretel and Maeve grow closer in a really sweet way (and sexy way too as it involved a first-time sex scene in the woods!), but Hans is ever suspicious of the ‘witch’. Gretel has always had Hans and Hans had always had her back…until both those things are not true anymore. This story has a happy ending for the couple! It also has one of the best concluding lines from a character that I’ve ever seen.

While short, I think this story was great. It is a fast-paced story but there was no ‘love-at-first-sight’. It also featured a realistic fracturing of a family bond and growing romantic bond. I found Maeve to be an interesting character because she’s kind and feminine but still strong, physically and mentally. I absolutely hated Hans. Perhaps if it was longer, we could have seen a nice side of him. The writing was simple but effective and emphatic. This novella is currently free!

Overall, this is an author I would look into more. Niamh Murphy also has a youtube channel where she talks about books. I enjoyed discovering this author especially because of the fantasy and  retellings with a dash of history. I look forward to discovering new authors of those genres.

Mars reviews Seeing Red by Cara Malone

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is like that daytime soap opera that you can’t help but watch, no matter how much the characters have you clutching your pearls and loudly shouting about foreshadowing. Everyday heroes, villains, and questionable moral situations abound in this entertaining and somehow heartwarming story.

Our main hero here is Hunter Ross, completely exhausted loving auntie extraordinaire. Hunter is the ride-or-die sister that we all wish we could have. She dropped out of nursing school two years ago to help her sister Piper support her two nephews. No matter what they do though or how many hours Hunter clocks in at the nursing home, the looming tower of bills never seems to go down. Hunter barely has time to sleep, never mind romance.

As she tries to keep Piper walking on the straight and narrow after a brush with crime that got her scamming husband Jed Wolfe thrown in jail, the universe throws the sisters a bone in the form of the Kiera Murphy, a sweet college student with a generous heart and a rich, sassy grandmother looking for a nurse as she begins to slowly lose her memory. As fate would have it, Hunter appears in their lives and is just what the doctor ordered. .But is she? With Hunter comes her family, and with Hunter’s family, there’s always something looming.

While this story has a lot going on including (but not limited to) identity theft, sororities, family, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, the author has woven together serious themes and the light-hearted warmth of new love into a sweet and sometimes sizzling story. I would say that this story is a good poolside read. It’s deals with heavy themes but doesn’t leave readers bogged down, gets dark without breaking your heart, and provides just enough mystery that it’ll be impossible to read just one chapter at a time.

Mary Springer reviews Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara

Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara cover

Trigger Warning: the book contains scenes of suicide, rape, and assault and this review will discuss them.

This review contains spoilers.

Katherine was married to the King of the Northern Kingdom when she was thirteen. Seventeen years later, she plans to kill herself, but she is saved by a beautiful young woman. Soon she finds out this beautiful woman, only seven years younger than her, is her stepdaughter, Eirwen, also known as Snow White. What follows is a tumultuous love story and retelling of a classic fairy tale with a unique twist.

I have had a difficult time gathering my thoughts on this book. To be clear, I did enjoy reading this. However, there are several elements that I’m having a hard time reconciling with my enjoyment. Katherine married King Ferdinand when she was thirteen, a mere child. When we first are introduced to her as an adult it is through a graphic scene in which she has painful sex with Ferdinand. He is angry with her for not getting him a child after so many years of marriage. Katherine, believing him to be a good man and her to be a bad wife for not getting pregnant, then decides to kill herself in the garden. This is where she meets Eirwen. Later on, Ferdinand tells her to get a hobby, specifically hunting, and there she meets Phillip. Phillip decides he is in love with her and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, this leads to him sexually assaulting her.

Another hard part about reading this is how the two men were supported and even enabled by those around them, men and women. Ferdinand blames Katherine for all his misdeeds, which is what causes her to be known as the Evil Queen. He has effectively isolated her from any support, including her own ladies-in-waiting who gossip about her behind her back. This is what leads to Phillips being so able to hurt Katherine, because she has no friends, no support system. This did feel believable and realistically explained the fairy tale aspect of Katherine being known as evil.

One of my biggest feelings of unease going into the book (before the assault scenes) is that this is a love story between a stepmother and stepdaughter. However, this book reassures the reader in that regard. Katherine and Eirwen are only seven years apart in age and Katherine only sees Eirwen once, on her wedding day to Ferdinand, before the beginning of the book. They are technically family by law, but do not grow up together and they do not act and are not treated as a mother and daughter. For the majority of the story, Katherine is thirty and Eirwen is twenty-two or twenty-three.

The romance felt real. From the moment Katherine meets Eirwen she is captivated by her and struggles with understanding how she, a woman, could be attracted to another woman. Eirwen has the same inner conflict. Not only did both characters feel complex but their romance developed in a believable manner.

The world building was well done. It wasn’t too complex because it didn’t need to be and I enjoyed being able to simply immerse myself in the characters. In this version, the dwarves are miners who have become hunched over or “dwarfed” from working in the mines. They are not good people in this edition, but it follows the book’s theme of patriarchy and misogyny, so I was fine with this change.

There were some choices the characters that felt too sudden. There were moments when characters would reveal motivations that I felt were not previously set up. For example, without giving too much away, Eirwen thinks about part of her plan for revenge against Ferdinand and how Katherine is involved. Her logic felt out of place because it seemed like it hadn’t been set up or foreshadowed. Later in the novel, Katherine tells Eirwen one of the things that attracted her to her in response to Eirwen’s plan for revenge. This reason for attraction felt odd because it seemed like it had been mentioned before at all.

The ending felt somewhat unsatisfying. There was so much violence perpetuated against Katherine and Eirwen that I was disappointed to see how those injustices were dealt with. However, considering the world and characters the author has built, the ending does make sense. Like I said, I’m not sure how to reconcile many elements of this book. However, I wasn’t totally disappointed in the ending and I am happy with where the characters end up.

Having said all of this and voiced many gripes I have with this story, I would recommend reading it. This book was engaging, interesting, and in many ways enjoyable. The story of Snow White is originally so intent on pitting women against each other over conventional standards of beauty and it was great to see a version in which both women get to have more character and agency. If you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings with a twist that the women actually love each other, I recommend picking up Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara.

Danika reviews Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow is one of my favourite YA books, so of course when I heard that she had a bisexual middle grade book coming out, I was eager to pick it up. Drum, Roll Please definitely lived up to those expectations. Melly is 13, and the day before she was dropped off at Camp Rockaway, her parents told her they were getting divorced. She’s had no time to process this before she’s tossed into this new environment for 2 weeks, and even her best friend being there doesn’t seem to help, especially when Olivia is too busy hanging out with her crush to remember her. Melly may be a drum player, but she has trouble finding her own voice. One way or another, these two weeks will change that.

I loved this book. It’s such a quiet read–fittingly. It’s about music and friendship and divorce and growing up and crushes, but mostly it’s just about Melly finding herself and being true to herself. She’s someone who is used to being in the background, to following along with whatever her best friend, Olivia, wants to do. But her parents’ divorce and the atmosphere of Rockaway Camp shift things, making it difficult for her to stay passive. Melly is placed in a band, and she has to find a way to communicate with her bandmates as well as find her own voice.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Olivia is complicated and thorny. Olivia is at first clingy, until she gets a crush and spends all of her free time with him. Melly is hurt, but she also isn’t sharing anything with Olivia. She keeps telling her that she’s fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes one of her bandmates, Adeline, to break Melly’s shell, so she can finally talk about how she’s feeling. I loved reading about this tiny clueless bisexual’s first foray into crushing on a girl. She gets butterflies in her stomach, and then: “I looked at her hard, trying to understand. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so how was I supposed to recognize it when I saw it?” Been there! The two of them are very cute, and I was happy to see Melly reaching out to develop new connections. The word bisexual isn’t used, but Melly does talk about having a long-term crush on a boy before.

I appreciated the complexity of the relationships and their dynamics. Olivia may not have been there for Melly as much as she wanted, but Melly wasn’t communicating with Olivia. Her parents may not have been fair to her to tell her just before she left, but maybe she wasn’t being fair to them, either. Melly needs to find herself and get in touch with her own emotions, but that doesn’t mean abandoning her empathy. Relationships–of all kinds–are complicated. Communication is difficult. And Drum Roll, Please doesn’t try to simplify it. We can be sympathetic from one angle and cruel from another. There aren’t easy answers.

Although I never went to a music camp (mine was theoretically a Christian camp, but that was mostly lip service to get funding), I thought Drum Roll, Please really captured the atmosphere of summer camp. Within a day, it feels completely normal, but it’s so different from the rest of your life. The activities, the atmosphere, the people–it’s as if this time exists in a bubble. Friendships tend to develop easily, and you feel like you’ve known these people much longer than a week or two. But once you leave, the memories seem unreal. Most of these people you’ll never see again, except perhaps at camp next year. Despite its ephemeral nature, that time felt formative–it definitely is in Melly’s case.

I’m so happy to see another queer middle grade book out there. This is a great addition to the genre, alongside Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, though I feel that Drum Roll, Please is a half step up in maturity–right between middle grade and YA. I definitely recommend this, whether for a tween reader or an adult. I really got invested in Melly’s story–and who can resist that cover!

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst cover

Inkmistress is Audrey Coulthurst’s second novel, and the first of her works that I have personally read. It’s the story of a young demigod hermit, daughter of a human and a wind god, whose teacher has raised her separate from human beings in an effort to protect her from them. Asra is an herbalist who has the power to write fate into being by using her blood as ink and her lifespan as fuel.  She’s used the power only once before, inadvertently causing an ecological disaster, so it’s only out of the real fear of losing something precious to her that she uses it for a second time.  The love of her young adulthood, a human villager named Ina, is sworn a political marriage with the ruling son of another village unless unless she can gather enough of her own power to not need to marry.  In this world where every human being takes on a “manifest,” a bond with an animal which allows them to shapeshift, Ina’s lateness to develop the skill has made her vulnerable.  Longing to marry her herself, Asra writes Ina will find her manifest tomorrow, and her lack of specificity sets off a chain reaction of horrors; the village is massacred by invading bandits, and Ina takes a dragon as manifest by force, cutting herself off from the gods and dedicating herself to vengeance.  Asra has no choice but to follow her, down from the mountains she has lived in all her life, desperate to turn Ina from her horrible quest.

This book had me walking a balance beam between “Oh, I really like that!” and “Hmm, I think I would have done that differently,” which means it kept my attention until the last page.  I liked that the magic got very little explanation, and that was explained wasn’t done in a way that kicked me out of the narrative.  I very much enjoyed that the appearances of characters were described naturally, with no resorting to weird food metaphors to describe the characters of color. I appreciated that there was a sense of history to the piece, without any of the plodding common to early works of fantasy novelists; the characters were simply living their lives, navigating what eddies they had to to keep from drowning in fate, and the fact that they were in a world where the gods were very close to them didn’t matter as much as getting the harvests in, or avoiding a well-traveled road on a muddy day.

Both the protagonist and the antagonist of Inkmistress are bisexual, each of them having partners of multiple genders within the text, and it goes unremarked-upon by other characters, which is something I found comforting. In a world with dragons and shapeshifting warrior kings a person’s sexuality should be a subject of no note.  That said, there is a character who was disowned by her parents for getting pregnant without getting married first, so this world isn’t that far divorced from our own, which made the world feel familiar.

The things that I didn’t enjoy as much mainly came down to characterization.  Asra has spent her entire life on a mountaintop, separate from the village below and, after her master dies, totally alone for all the winter months. This has instilled in her a certain believable naivety and hunger for human communication, and it doesn’t seem like she ever overcomes that during the course of the novel. No matter how she is abused or manipulated for it, she does not gain worldliness.  In addition, despite the fact that she’s had it drilled into her head since infancy that her powers are dangerous, and that humans will take advantage of her to force her to use them, I’m not sure there’s a character with a speaking role who she doesn’t end up blabbing her secret to.  Predictably, this leads to her becoming a weapon for one character after another to use against their enemies. This does drive the plot, but I kept wondering how Asra thought she was going to survive, when everyone who knows her name seems to know that her blood could make them into something approaching demigods themselves.

I was most of the way through the book before I realized what it was reminding me of: there was a ghost of the same sort of driven desperation that I enjoyed in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” That was a good surprise, since I adored that novel, and I could see something of a quieter, less-driven Yeine in Asra.   Asra accepted that she had only so much power, and due to that, that her agency was limited.  She never had enough choices, and none of the ones in front of her were good; in defter hands, that could have taken on a beautiful anxiety. As it is, the character’s constant uncertainty made her come off to me as a bit weak-willed.

Weak-willed can be kind of interesting, though, and Asra’s malleability was consistent.  While she couldn’t adhere to one frame of mind or one decision beyond “Stop Ina,” she’s that rare protagonist who is both terrible at saying no, to anyone, and generally capable of getting her own way out of her problems.  The fact that “out of a problem” means “into a worse problem” every single time just ratchets up the tension.

That said, I thought that the last few pages were a bit too pat and easy.  Asra had gone through physical, spiritual and emotional agony to come to where she was, but throughout the entire narrative she wasn’t ever able to make a choice and stick to it.  She vacillated between supporting one villain or another, walking one path or another.  Wind’s daughter that she’d thought herself to be, wind’s lover that she becomes, it seemed as if she spent the entire novel being blown this way and that, with little control of her direction.  I would have liked to see her plant her feet and make real demands of the world around her.

Final rating: ***

Genevra Littlejohn is a multiethnic, queer martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and their two cats, baking and reading and cussing at her tomato garden.  She’s at http://fox-bright.tumblr.com, or you can find her on Facebook.

Susan reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After is an all-ages graphic novel by Katie O’Neill about two princesses joining forces to rescue people and save the kingdom from an angry sorceress, and it’s really cute.

Sadie and Amira are very different styles of princess; Sadie is a traditionally feminine princess with an adorable pudgy dragon, who’s been locked in a tower by a wicked queen, and Amira is an action princess with very cool hair and a cookie-loving unicorn. It’s fun to see their different styles work together for solving problems, and I enjoyed seeing them work together to solve problems like dancing ogres and grumpy princes and wicked queens, and rescue each other!

They also solve problems without violence, and by gathering friends and supportive acquaintances! I don’t know if it’s supposed to be commentary on stereotypically feminine methods of resolving conflict or the tropes of magical girls and princess stories – but also I want stories that have all of the tropes of magical girls and princess stories, but with queer leads, so it worked for me. Plus: the drama is based on sibling relationships, rather than wicked mothers or stepmothers, and that’s a very welcome change. (Especially for me; complicated sibling relationships are my kryptonite.)

The art is very cute (and impressively different from her other all-ages graphic novel, The Tea-Dragon Society). Sometimes it’s maybe a little too simple, but it does work for the story being told, and the last page makes up for it.

It’s a light and fluffy story that reads very quickly, but it feels like a fairytale, and to be honest: that’s all I wanted. If you’re in the mood for a fluffy queer fairytale, this is a good place to start.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.