Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

My Top 10 Sapphic Reads of 2021

A collage of the book covers listed with the text Best Sapphic Books of 2021: My Favourite Bi & Lesbian Reads (The Lesbrary)

Generally, when I make an annual wrap up list, I include any Lesbrary books I’ve read that year, regardless of publication date. In 2021, though, I was reading so many books for All the Books that all of my picks happen to be new releases. To be clear, these are just my favorites that I read. There were so many queer books that came out that I wanted to read but haven’t gotten to yet, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, and She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I’m guessing those would all be on this list if I had read them in time.

I’ve decided to do this countdown style, but it’s a pretty arbitrary order. I recommend all of these, and I enjoyed them in different ways. (How do you compare a thought-provoking fantasy to a heartwarming YA contemporary to a soul-crushing litfic title?) I’ve also borrowed heavily from my reviews, full disclaimer.

10) Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

cool for the summer cover

Dahlia Adler is a personal hero of mine not only for writing great queer books (and editing lots of fantastic anthologies), but for running LGBTQ Reads, the queer book blog everyone should know about and follow. She pours so much love, time, and energy into that incredible resource.

So of course I had to pick up her new bisexual YA novel! It’s told in two timelines: the confusing summer that Lara spent with Jasmine; and the present, when Lara starts dating the guy she’s had a crush on for ages. It’s a bit of a Grease set up: Jasmine shows up unexpectedly at her school, and Lara has to reconcile that summer with her life as a whole. She also is grappling with her sexuality, and it takes her a while to accept that she’s bisexual.

I really enjoyed how this book depicted how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and they bond over that as well. I still don’t come across a lot of queer YA with Jewish main characters, never mind both the main character and love interest, so that was nice to see.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

9) Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Rise to the Sun cover

I read this during a heat wave, and it begins with two best friends driving to a summer music festival with the volume cranked, singing at the top of their lungs. It felt like exactly what I was craving reading!

While this is a story about friendship, summer love, and music—with a scavenger hunt, too!—it also has a lot more depth than that would suggest. It tackles gun violence, sexual harassment, and grief. Both characters are struggling with their sense of self.

My heart ached for Toni and Olivia, who get overwhelmed with their own insecurities and fears. They make mistakes. They hurt people. But they’re also doing the best they can and learning.

I love how much depth there is to both main characters and to everyone’s relationship dynamics (romantic relationships and friendships). This could easily have been a much simpler summer love story, and I would have enjoyed that too, but instead it felt much more messy and realistic. I appreciated Olivia’s journey to recognizing both her faults (and the damage they’ve caused) as well as her self-worth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

8) A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. 

This begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. 

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

7) Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

the cover of Follow Your Arrow

I feel like this book deserves so much more attention than it’s gotten. It examines bisexuality as a distinct identity, including feelings of imposter syndrome. It also has a bi main character with a gender preference, which I don’t see a lot in books!

This was also a bit of a personal read for me. CeCe and her ex-girlfriend were influencers that had the perfect relationship that baby lesbians looking up to–until Silvie broke up with her. She worries that her audience won’t accept her outside of this relationship, especially if she starts dating a guy. Though I’ve never been famous, I have experienced a tiny version of this, and it was terrible.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

6) Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

This was really a year of fantastic bisexual YA reads. This one has the bonus of being one of the very few polyamorous YA books I’ve ever come across!

I started my review “Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️” and that continues to be my main pitch. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

My heart hurt for Lee when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life, which includes polyamorous relationships, and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I loved this story that takes on the messiness of queerness, shifting identities, and figuring yourself out (especially as a teen).

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

5) Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

This is a tricky one to rank, because if I’m completely honest, I didn’t always enjoy reading it. It’s a gritty fantasy about colonialism and war, which isn’t usually my genre. But it also left me thinking about it long after I finished, and I think it’s really well crafted. Though I put it down feeling a bit exhausted by the emotional turmoil, months later, I’m now looking forward to the sequel!

Even after writing a thousand word review about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general.

While it’s a comparatively small part of the book, I am interested to follow this series to see where Touraine and Luca’s relationship goes. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It can be frustrating, but it’s also compelling enough that I am itching to find out what happens next.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

4) The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

the cover of The Chosen and the Beautiful

I’ll be honest: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. But I still adored this queer, fabulist take on the story. It’s told from the perspective of Jordan, a bisexual Vietnamese American adoptee who occupies an uncomfortable space in society: she’s wealthy, but not entirely accepted by her peers, who still treat her as exotic.

In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

Although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends.

It’s this beautiful atmosphere and language that made me fall in love with the book, and I can’t wait to read more from Vo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

3) A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

the cover of A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and bloody scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

2) The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

The Heartbreak Bakery cover

To be clear, this isn’t a lesbian or bi woman book. It has an agender main character who dates multiple genders, and the main romance is between Syd and Harley, who is genderfluid. (This is where I use the wishy-washy definition of which books the Lesbrary covers—books about a main character who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man”—to talk about a book I love and think you will too, even though it’s not sapphic.)

When Syd’s girlfriend breaks up with Syd seemingly out of nowhere, it’s crushing. Syd funnels that pain into baking, the same way Syd deals with everything. Except that it soon become apparent that everyone who eats Syd’s breakup brownies breaks up, including the owners of The Proud Muffin. Now Syd and Harley, the bakery delivery person, are on a mission to track down everyone who’s been a victim of broken-hearted brownies and find a way to fix it.

If that premise doesn’t grab you, we do not share the same taste in books! 

This book is so celebratory of queerness and queer community. People check Harley’s pin for their or his pronouns every day. Everyone is so accepting and kind, even in difficult moments. (And even if they express that a bit differently!) The bakery is almost entirely queer people, including an aro/ace character. There’s a polyamorous brunch! This is a bit of a spoiler, because it happens at the end, but I have to mention it any way: there’s a big gay Texas bake off! “Sure, but what makes this a bisexual babka?”

It feels like a big queer hug. In fact, I was overcome with cute aggression after finishing it and had to suppress yelling and shoving it random passersby’s hands. “READ THIS! IT’S SO GOOD.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

1) Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

the cover of Milk Fed

My top read of 2021 is probably the book I would recommend to the fewest people.

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. 

At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

It’s also a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

What were your favourite queer reads of 2021? Let’s talk about them in the comments!

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Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

the cover of Labyrinth Lost

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Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.

Danika reviews Fools In Love: Fresh Twists on Romantic Tales edited by Rebecca Podos and Ashley Herring Blake

Fools In Love cover

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What I love about this collection is that nowhere on it does it say it’s a specifically LGBTQ anthology, but if you read sapphic YA, you’ll recognize those two editors and know you’re in for a treat. This is a collection of stories from fantastic YA authors (Rebecca Barrow, Ashley Herring Blake, Gloria Chao, Mason Deaver, Sara Farizan, Claire Kann, Malinda Lo, Hannah Moskowitz, Natasha Ngan, Rebecca Podos, Lilliam Rivera, Laura Silverman, Amy Spalding, Rebecca Kim Wells, and Julian Winters), each inspired by a romance trope, like Enemies to Lovers or Snowed In Together (a personal favourite).

While these are all love stories of some kind, they cover a range of genres, including fantasy and superhero stories. The first one, “Silver and Gold” by Natasha Ngan, may be my favourite. It’s a second chance F/F romance set during a fantasy dog-sledding competition. Well, wolf-sledding. Across treacherous terrain, and interrupted by a sea monster. And then she gets snowed in together with the competition. Who can resist that?

The first few stories were F/F, which I, obviously, loved. It turns out that there are very few M/F romances in this collection. Most of them are F/F, a couple are M/M, and a couple are M/F. It delights me that this isn’t being marketed as just LGBTQ, because we all know romance anthologies that include no queer people at all, or only one story, so this is a nice reversal. There also wasn’t, if I remember correctly, any homophobia faced in these stories.

As with all anthologies, the range of stories means there are some you’ll enjoy more than others, but overall I really liked this collection. Romance short stories can be tricky for me, because there’s so little space to get to know the characters, but most of these pulled that off and offered satisfying glimpses into these relationships.

Most of the stories play with a few different tropes, despite being assigned to one. There’s a M/M superhero/villain fake dating forbidden romance that’s also childhood friends to lovers, for instance.

Some of the other premises of the stories:

  • a F/F romance where the main character is too awkward to explain to her crush that she is not, in fact, her rideshare driver, so she just drives her to her location. Relatable.
  • a polyamorous M/M/F triad relationship that melted my heart
  • a summer camp where the fat femme main character cosplays as a fairy and falls for another fairy–and also she’s cursed to only tell the truth
  • a cute M/F fake dating at Passover story
  • a girl goes back in time to kill the man who murdered her mother. Instead, she meets the murderer’s daughter and falls in love, before being yanked back to her time
  • a trans M/M boy band romance
  • a F/F scifi princess in disguise romance
  • It’s (probably) the end of the world, with a comet on its way to Earth. What else do you do but break into the zoo with your ex girlfriend to pet the giraffes?

This has all the fuzzy feelings I expect from romance stories, but with a sprinkling of drama and even some action. The variety in genres kept it feeling exciting, and I really liked the tropes format–in fact, I would definitely read anthologies based on just one of many of these tropes (did I mention I am obsessed with the Snowed In Together trope?) If you want a cozy romantic read this December, this is a perfect choice.

Larkie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne cover

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What a book! I didn’t know all that much about it before I started reading, and all the reviews I read felt like they confused me more. Once I got into this book and realized how complicated it was, I could see why. The first half of The Jasmine Throne is fairly slow, as Suri sets up the world. At its core, this book is about how to remove a fanatical, xenophobic emperor who believes so strongly in his superiority that he is willing to burn his own sister to death. This sister, Malini, is exiled so that she can’t continue plotting her coup to put her other brother on the throne. She is sent to Ahiranya, the weakest state in the empire, with its history of mysterious magic, a reputation for its brothels and loose morals, and a rot that has spread from the crops to the people. There we meet Priya, a maid for the regent of Ahiranya, who just wants to live her life and help the people she can. Priya ends up caught between various rebellions, as her brother Ashok leads a small but violent band of rebels, her sister Bhumika wants to work within the empire’s political system to get more support for the Ahiranyi, and Malini realizes that Priya is more than a simple maid, and therefore she presents an opportunity to escape exile and start a war.

With all the groundwork that Suri does in the first half, this book never felt overly complicated or confusing, even as the plot took off and hardly paused to catch a breath. I appreciated the complexity, because, while I love a good band of rebels fighting an evil empire any day, I often wonder about their society and what they plan on doing after fighting is over. Suri manages to address all the questions I usually have during this kind of story, and while she doesn’t solve everything (that’s what the sequels are for, right?} she does make this feel like a complete, complex world. The characters all have their own strengths and weaknesses, they tend to be right in some ways and wrong in others, and a lot of the tension in this book comes from Priya trying to decide exactly where her loyalties lie and how she wants to navigate these relationships.

When I started this book I was a little worried about some of the characters being almost cartoonishly evil and others were entirely Good and Just, but there is a lot of room for character development and background, and there are a lot of characters to bounce between, so I never got bored with one of them. Rao and Bhumika were probably my favorite POVs, because Rao was the most intriguing and I didn’t know where he fit into the wider story, and Bhumika thought the most like me: she was more worried about civilians being hurt and starving than a lot of the other rebels.
I absolutely loved the setting and the rich visuals in this book. Flowers, mosses, vines, they were everywhere—blooming in people’s hair as they suffered from the rot, springing from Priya’s unbridled emotions as her power grows, or carefully cultivated by Bhumika, the imagery of all these plants made me want to go for a walk in the jungle. I love a good creepy forest, and while I feel like the creepy forest could have been creepier, there is plenty of great scenery. Flower body horror is an acceptable replacement for creepy forests.

Finally I feel like I have to talk about the romance, because that is a lot of what drew me to this book, but it was really secondary to a lot of the plot. Which is fine! I have romance books if I want the romance to be center stage. But also this is definitely going to be a slow burn over however many books are planned for this series—Priya and Malini definitely like each other, and there are lots of gay little moments, but a lot of their relationship is spent in negotiation. Priya knows that Malini is manipulative (by necessity, she had to be in order to survive) and is worried about her feelings not genuinely being returned. Malini’s upbringing was a lot more homophobic and she has a Lot going on. She’s trying to escape a prison, break an addiction, and get back to engineering a coup for a brother who would rather be a priest than an emperor—she doesn’t have a ton of time to think about a crush. And with the way book 1 ended, I’m not sure she’ll find it any time soon, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Danika reviews When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

When I Arrived at the Castle cover

I loved Emily Carroll’s previous book, Through the Woods, which is an unsettling and beautiful horror graphic novel, so I was excited to pick up her next book. When I found out it was a sapphic vampire horror erotica graphic novel, though, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Emily Carroll’s art style is gorgeous and compelling, and the black, white, and red colour scheme works so well in this. The story has a haunting, almost fairy tale feel that slips into the dreamlike. Do I completely understand what happened? No. But I was enthralled by this gory and sexy story. I really want to read more queer horror erotica. This, like Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn, is equal parts erotic and disturbing. There is plenty of gore and blood, but it’s juxtaposed with the sexiness, which just heightens that feeling of unease.

Caroll is a master of page design, and almost every spread is arranged differently: the view through a keyhole, an all-text page telling a story, a coffin illuminated in a ray of light. I’d want them framed and on my wall if there wasn’t the nightmare factor.

a page from When I Arrived at the Castle, showing two figures in the doorway of a room filled with two stories of red doors. The text reads: "Doors. Like a nest of ravenous baby birds, their mouths yawning from floor to ceiling. And I a worm, dangling from her beak."

I read this in October (I’m… a bit behind in reviews), and made for a perfect Halloween themed read, but for those of you who like to get creeped out all year round, definitely add this to your TBR.

This seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and pretty difficult to get your hands on. My library had it, luckily, but hopefully it gets reprinted soon, because I would love a copy for my permanent collection.

Sam reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name cover

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I went into A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name with no idea what to expect. I’d even say that I came to the novel feeling a little ungenerous, though I’m not sure I could tell you why.  But despite this, The Unspoken Name caught me in the grip of its energetic story and engrossing characters until I surprised myself by finishing it in just a few days.
The book opens on a scene many fantasy readers will recognize: our main character, Csorwe, is a teenage girl raised to be sacrificed to a god of darkness by a religious order obsessed with death. Even without knowing that The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin is the author’s favorite book, the inspiration is easy to spot. But by the time a well-spoken wizard from another world arrives to offer Csorwe a different life, I found I didn’t mind the familiarity. I already liked the characters, and I wanted to find out what happens next.

What happens next, as it turns out, is a pretty good fantasy adventure. The book primarily follows Csorwe as she grows into her own in said wizard’s service, though it occasionally jumps into the perspective of Csorwe’s easily hateable rival Tal. I feel like Tal’s chapters could be a dealbreaker for some readers, as he is an insufferable jerk, but the two play off each other well enough that I didn’t mind (it helps that Tal, like Csorwe, is very gay). In fact, all of the characters in The Unspoken Name are deeply believable, as interesting as they are consistent. I felt like I got to know them as I read, which made any cliché or familiar story beats seem only natural in context. The entire book tends to play out this way, with every semi-predictable development arriving with a satisfying inevitability all the way to the end of the novel.

The book’s setting is as believable and fun as its characters. Larkwood’s collision of fantasy worlds connected by a shattered un-world in the middle is vibrant and imaginative, and all the better for its lack of defined borders and nitty-gritty details. I actually wish that the magic of the setting (which is rather plot-critical) had the same space to breathe; it’s a bit of a personal nitpick, but I’d prefer there remained a bit more mystery to the magic system. It’s saved by just how much the characters themselves believe in it—faith is a critical aspect of magic in The Unspoken Name, and Larkwood does a tremendous job selling the emotional weight of that faith to the reader.

Of course, being the romantic sap that I am, I spent a lot of time looking forward to a lesbian love interest to show up. The wizard-in-training Qanwa Shuthmili does not disappoint when she finally makes her debut. She’s just as fascinating and enchanting to the reader as she is to Csorwe; it’s obvious what’s coming for the two of them, but just like the rest of the book, watching their relationship develop feels natural and exciting rather than trite or played-out. The fact that you can easily read Csorwe and Shuthmili as butch and fem also meant I had basically no choice but to love them.

I actually wish we got to spend more time with Shuthmili, or better yet, had a few chapters reading from her perspective. She’s well written enough that it’s not strictly necessary—her decisions and actions all make sense without hearing an internal monologue—but she’s such an obviously complex character that I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out by only seeing this love story from one side.

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that. There’s no denying that The Unspoken Name is a fun, creative, and deeply satisfying gay fantasy book, and it’s absolutely worth reading for that alone.

Content warnings: mouth/tooth injuries

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Maggie reviews Thornfruit by Felicia Davin

the cover of Thornfruit

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Thornfruit by Felicia Davin is a delightful queer fantasy adventure with some interesting world-building twists and memorable characters. Thornfruit follows two girls, Ev and Alizhan, as they come of age in a flurry of intrigue and romantic pining. Ev helps her father take their farm produce to market, practices fighting and self-defense, and longs for adventure like those in her beloved books. One day she sees a ragged girl stealing fruit and helps her out. Alizhan was born with a magical ability and can read minds, and the merest touch of skin sends both her and the other person into a torrent of pain. She’s in service to a noble woman, one of the only people she cannot read and who doesn’t cause her pain, and who uses Alizhan to spy on her rivals. One day in the market she encounters a girl who gives her fruit and only feels friendly towards her, and the experience is so novel she spends the next ten years watching her and thinking about the encounter. A series of events concerning her mistress pulls the wool from Alizhan’s eyes, and she sees that her mistress has more sinister motives than Alizhan imagined. Alizhan flees the city with the only person she can trust to help her – the girl who has felt friendly towards her for ten years, Ev. Together, Alizhan and Ev face human trafficking of kids with abilities, corruption in the highest quarters of the city, and the depths of mutual pining when one of them can read minds.

I found the relationship between Alizhan and Ev very cute, and what drove most of my interest in this book. Ev is tough, smart, determined to do good, and very bisexual. She’s upset when the boy she’s liked since childhood tells her of his engagement to another woman, and she frequently finds other people they encounter attractive. But she likes that Alizhan came to her for help and trusts her, and she finds Alizhan cute. Alizhan, of course, can’t help knowing that Ev is attracted to her. She knows exactly how often everyone around her is thinking about sex or when they’re attracted to someone, but because she feels pain every time she is touched with bare skin, she can’t imagine feeling sexual attraction herself. Also, because she is so immersed in everyone’s minds, she’s face-blind, and so doesn’t understand what guides other people’s attraction. But she likes Ev immensely, because of how Ev feels towards her. I was really interested in both how Alizhan worked to understand how Ev and other people work, and how Ev worked to overcome her instinctive reactions to Alizhan’s gift and help her on her mission. They’re both really cute, even if they haven’t figured out exactly how they’re going to work.

The world-building also has some really interesting elements. The planet doesn’t rotate, and all life is based around that fact, and how close or far away one is from Noon, or whether you’re in a daylight or a twilight or a dark area. Davin comes up with some interesting details to sprinkle though – such as having windowless rooms in the center of buildings in Day areas for sleeping or protecting things from light, or how time is divided up. I was really into the whole idea, and I can’t wait to see it expanded on in the rest of the trilogy, as they travel from a Day city to other zones. Frankly, I would love to know more about how the world at large works, because the global economy must be fascinating, and I hope the other books explore this more.

In conclusion, Thornfruit was a great f/f fantasy read. It was exciting and had a lot to keep my interest high. I was really rooting for Ev and Alizhan as they figured out how to work together and what sort of situation they were in. I definitely recommend this for anyone who wants a fast-paced fantasy read for a cozy night!

Cath reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

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Cara can travel between parallel worlds – but only because her life has been cut short on those other worlds, by disease or turf wars or a million other things. On 372 parallel worlds in total, to be exact. But on this world, Cara’s survived, and she’s been pulled from her family’s home in the wastelands outside the glistening Wiley City to travel and retrieve the data others desperately want but cannot access themselves. She’s got it all, and if she can just keep her head down, she’ll be allowed to become a citizen soon and be free from being sent back to the slums.

At first, that’s all Cara wants to do. She does her job, flirts with her handler, visits her family and tries not to think about what it means that they’re still outside the city’s walls. But then one of her few remaining parallel counterparts turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, and when she picks up that world to travel to, her life starts to turn itself on its head.

This book starts off with a hefty dose of exposition, but I enjoyed that section a lot because it involves such things as describing how desperate people often blend traditions of various kinds, spiritual and otherwise, to grab whatever hope they can. And soon after that intro, the plot twists start coming and they don’t stop coming—I was texting friends while I read about “oh man, ANOTHER huge twist!” But for the most part, those twists didn’t feel contrived. They felt like natural progressions of the story that I just hadn’t expected, and they kept me reading and hoping for another one that would blow the world of the story open for me like the previous ones had.

However, the last quarter or so of the book starts to feel like a different sort of story—there’s still action, but it starts to feel more formulaic, if not predictable. Some portions also started to feel more like descriptions of just how Cara’s day was going, which I often enjoy, but felt very different from the twisty story that had originally grabbed me.

Even so, I really liked this book. Because it’s a parallel world story, we see the same characters crop up in different worlds, all a little different than the last. It’s very “butterfly effect,” where one event or choice changes who a person is in such a way that they’re still recognizable as themself, but different aspects of their personality have emerged, and it was very intriguing to figure out who was going to pop up next. Especially since Cara wasn’t supposed to involve herself with the people she met on parallel worlds, but kept doing so anyway.

The romance content was one of the weaker points of this book for me, though. Cara has had a crush on her handler, Dell, for years now as they’ve worked together, and she thinks Dell also likes her—but neither of them will make a move. They flirt, but at first they keep shutting each other out in ways that feel logical. When you find out why, it definitely makes more sense, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the romance developing between the women.

The book contains much more frank depictions of substance use/abuse, as well as sex work, than you see in many other books. A number of characters are also subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and the sections describing all of these were more difficult to get through because their effect on Cara was very evident in the text and the difficult details were not glossed over.

Overall, The Space Between Worlds was a book that has definitely ended up on my re-reads shelf, and I’m excited to figure out whether I’ll notice the buildup to the plot twists a second time around.

Rating: 4 stars

Content Warnings: substance abuse, assault, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, violence, death