Sam reviews Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Nona the Ninth

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ʼTis at last that most frightful and morbid of months, a spooky season of ghosts and ghouls, the danse macabre we raise our jaded bones to join but once each year—October is here! And not a moment too soon, because it’s time to check in on everyone’s favorite lesbian necromancers from space. Three years ago, Harrow the Ninth managed to be both a hotly anticipated and shockingly unexpected followup to Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. But after collectively turning our minds into pretzels trying to figure out what exactly was happening there, we finally have part three of the Locked Tomb series in Nona the Ninth.

Now, if you haven’t been keeping up with news of the series since you put down Harrow, you might be wondering—wasn’t the third book in the trilogy going to be Alecto the Ninth? And you wouldn’t be wrong. Alecto the Ninth is listed in all books published so far, and according to the author, the Locked Tomb was indeed intended to be a trilogy from the beginning. But Tamsyn Muir has since revealed that the first act of the novel ballooned while she was writing it, to the point that Muir’s editor forced her to break the manuscript into two books instead.

When I heard this news in the lead-up to Nona the Ninth’s release, I made peace with the possibility that previous protagonists Gideon and Harrow might not appear in this book at all. As it turns out, that was a very practical emotional defense to have going into Nona. If your only interest in these books is seeing more interactions between Gideon and Harrow, I don’t think you’ll like this particular novel. Which is a shame, because Nona the Ninth does a lot of other really neat things for the Locked Tomb quartet—and I say this as someone who has written extensively here about how much I love Gideon and Harrow! But here we get to see a side of Muir’s universe that we’ve only ever gotten hints at, and the characters she does choose to focus on definitely earn that spotlight. It’s not as surrealistically baffling as Harrow the Ninth was, but Muir doesn’t settle back into the comfortable foundations that I see now she was laying in Gideon the Ninth. I got a sense of Muir still pushing herself as an author, experimenting with form and narrative in exciting ways.

Because beyond the exposition and plot twists and preparation for the next book, Nona the Ninth grapples with some really compelling questions. What does it mean to love someone? Where do we look to find God, and what makes them worthy of our love—especially when God hurts us? What makes us worthy of the world’s love, after all we’ve done to hurt it? While Harrow the Ninth was unambiguously a book about grief, Nona plunges deep into the waters of family, faith, and forgiveness, all through the eyes of a girl who just wants one last birthday party before it’s too late.

I fully expect Alecto the Ninth to cast new light on the enigmas of Nona when it comes out. One of the really astounding things about the Locked Tomb series is how each book informs and illuminates the ones that came before. It makes them eminently re-readable, as each time through you see more and more pieces coming together to form a thematic whole. However, it also means that there is a lot of relying on faith that Tamsyn Muir will be able to cash the check she’s written with all this set-up, and I understand why some fans are looking at the looming end of the series with trepidation. Personally, I’m still safely on the side of eager anticipation for the series finale—though not as impatiently as I was between Gideon and Harrow. Even if the wait is long, I actually think Nona the Ninth provides exactly the kind of layered, thoughtful, yet charming company we need to make it through in the meantime.

Content Warnings: gore, violence, apocalypse

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 Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Ready to cut loose from her life serving the Ninth House and a doomed future, Gideon makes plans to escape the planet, but Harrow has other plans for her. Harrow has been summoned by the Emperor to engage in a trial of necromantic skills and intellect. If either of them is to get what they want, they have to work together to discover the truth and survive it as a team.

Gideon uses her sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism to survive her servitude with the Ninth House. Throughout their lives, Harrow has made Gideon’s life a nightmare, manipulating her into getting involved with House politics. The evolution of their relationship as they become a necromancer/cavalier pairing sends them on a path to better understanding one another. Their antagonistic banter makes for a fun and funny romp of magical lesbians in space.

Gideon’s sexuality is established straightaway when she tries to bribe her superior with dirty magazines. Then, throughout the story, she grows close to Dulcinea, the Lady Septimus (of the Seventh House). While it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that Gideon is queer, it simply exists as part of who she is and is never questioned or condemned by characters around her, as it is a normal part of this world.

Muir’s world-building is intricate and complex. The story showcases necromancy magic more as a science, as well as part of the political structure of this world. Cavaliers and necromancers work together toward gaining power for their Houses, but within the events of this story, the characters start to learn their world and lives are not what they seem.

The narrative takes a turn as secrets start to come to light. The more the truth comes to light, the closer Harrow and Gideon become, pointing toward an enemies-to-lovers relationship in the works. The point where the tension breaks between them creates a satisfactory moment of letting go of the past so that they can move forward with a new kind of relationship.

I listened to this on audiobook as narrated by the animated and engaging Moira Quirk. Quirk truly brought each character to life, which helped in trying to keep track of all the different cast of characters throughout the story—although some kind of character chart/map would’ve been much appreciated.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting to read the rest of the series.

Maggie reviews Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

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In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo brings to old Hollywood a fascinating premise: What if the magic of the silver screen was actually magic? What if the studio system literally owned everything, from looks to talent to one’s very name? Nghi Vo spins out a shadowy, dangerous world filled with fey magic and dangerous deals, where every movie is a chance at literal immortality or complete destruction. It’s lushly imagined, a fully-fleshed world full of dark corners and terrible consequences, and I loved every page of it. Nghi Vo delivers on magic, glamor, and the desperate underground queer love of the era in a thrilling journey where every gift comes at a terrible price.

Luli knows the dangers of the Hollywood Studios, but the lure of the silver screen is in her blood from the moment she sees her first picture and she’ll do whatever she must to become a star. She also knows that a Chinese American girl from a poor neighborhood has even fewer avenues to stardom than most of the hopefuls that swan through the studios. Through cunning, a little bit of knowledge, and luck, Luli claws her way into a chance with a studio and lays out her terms. She won’t play maids, she won’t talk funny, and she won’t play a fainting flower for every leading man to discard for someone whiter and blonder. Her refusal to back down makes the power that runs the studios furious, but Luli is determined to hold onto what she can, even as she’s forced to concede her name, her background, even her relationships. If she won’t play a maid, and they won’t let her play a leading lady, Luli finds the role left to her is monster, and it’s up to her to embrace it.

What I loved most about this book was the glamour and scandal of Pre-Code Hollywood is enhanced but not overshadowed by the mystical. The Hunt may ride once a year, but in the meantime, everyone is in fierce competition for access to the best scripts, the best roles, and the best connections. Luli goes into the dangers with her eyes wide open, but the lure of becoming a star is too much for her to resist.  Luli also grapples with the limits the studios impose on her versus the importance of being seen as a Chinese American star. It also reveals the thriving but underground queer scene of the era. While the studios literally matchmake and arrange marriages for their stars for maximum marketing potential, Luli discovers the trick of navigating between a public persona and private relationships through a series of girlfriends, underground clubs, and meeting with other queer actors. Luli’s queer relationships are both shaped by the omnipresent pressure of the studio system she lives in and one of the major parts of her life that are hers and not for publicity, and as she realizes she has more to lose, she also learns what she is willing to compromise about herself.

In conclusion, I loved this detailed, gorgeous trip through Pre-Code Hollywood, where both the beauty and the danger are greater than ever. Luli is a ruthless and yet complex main character, existing at the nexus of a number of different worlds, and she kicks and struggles to have the life she wants. Any one of Hollywood with magic, a Chinese American actress struggling to make a name for herself, or undercover queer culture in Hollywood would be interesting, and Nghi Vo masterfully mixes them all together for one unforgettable book. I definitely do not regret picking this one up.

Sam Reviews The Telling by Ursula K Le Guin

the cover of The Telling

Did you know that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a science fiction novel with a lesbian protagonist? I wouldn’t blame you if not; The Telling is not one of her more popular books. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to review it—I try to feature sapphic authors with my reviews here, if at all possible. But I have a soft spot in my heart for The Telling, and I do believe that it is highly underrated when it comes to Le Guin’s esteemed corpus of work.

The Telling is part of the fan-dubbed “Hainish Cycle,” a group of loosely connected books and short stories that boasts some of Le Guin’s most widely respected works, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. They weren’t exactly intended to build a cohesive canon between them, but the general gist is that humans originally spread throughout the galaxy from a planet called Hain. The Hainish colonies (including Earth) all eventually lost contact with and then memory of each other; each book or story then shows a planet at or shortly after the moment when contact is re-established. It’s a useful way to frame the classic sociological sci-fi writing that Le Guin is known for—an Envoy or Observer from the slowly burgeoning coalition of planets can arrive at a completely new human society, which Le Guin can then use to dissect and explore some facet of real life through speculative worldbuilding.

That said, The Telling feels a little different compared to the rest of the Hainish Cycle. And for good reason—released in 2000, The Telling is the first full Hainish novel Le Guin wrote since The Dispossessed in 1974. It reads softer, more intimate than the books that came before, feeling almost more like fantasy than science fiction at times. The Telling follows Sutty Dass, an Observer who arrives on the planet Aka to record its history and culture while Hain makes its diplomatic overtures. During the time dilation of Sutty’s near-light space travel, however, Aka experienced an intense social upheaval that saw a tyrannical capitalist hegemony take power over the planet and attempt to wipe out the entirety of Aka’s long history. It then falls to Sutty, who grew up under religious oppression on Earth, to uncover and understand Aka’s historical and spiritual traditions as they are actively being eradicated by the corporation-state.

The gay content in The Telling is rather subtle and subdued, but it isn’t an afterthought. Sutty’s lesbianism is an important aspect of her character, and when she starts meeting maz, the keepers of the Telling, many of them are gay couples as well. There is a quiet romanticization of gay monogamy throughout The Telling that moved me when I first read it, and although not every aspect of the novel has aged as well, I’m still very endeared of it for that reason. If you enjoy classic science fiction, where the point is less a thrilling story and more the discovery of a brand new world, The Telling is by far my favorite of the bunch.

Content Warnings: homophobia, suicide

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.

Maggie reviews Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

the cover of Wild and Wicked Things

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With a frenetic, Roaring Twenties-type vibe, Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May is set in a post-WWI society where half of society is trying desperately to recover from the devastation of the Great War, and the other half is trying desperately to party hard enough that they forget there was devastation in the first place. There is a Prohibition in full effect, if Prohibition was for magic and magic paraphernalia rather than alcohol, but on isolated Crow Island, real magic is still available for the right price or if one knows where to look. Timid Annie Mason arrives on the island to settle her late father’s affairs and locate her estranged friend Beatrice, and she is unprepared for the brazen island nightlife, or the lure of the forbidden. Full of gothic decaying houses, blood magic, and that feeling of getting an instant crush on a girl in a well-made suit, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer fantasy for anyone interested in witchcraft with a side of house parties.

When Annie moves to Crow Island for the summer, she rents what she thinks is an isolated cottage, only to find that it’s next door to a large and rundown mansion named Cross House that still hosts opulent parties. Next door, Emmeline Delacroix and her friends desperately continue hosting the magical parties their late mentor Cilla used to be famous for in a desperate attempt to keep their lives on track. Emmeline is drawn to Annie, despite Annie having no place in her world of underground deals and rituals. Annie, for her part, is drawn both to glitz and the thrill of a little danger that she hasn’t experienced before and her connection with Emmeline who she finds dark, mysterious and compelling. And the more she digs into why Beatrice came to the island and her late father’s affairs, the more she becomes enmeshed in Emmeline’s world of underground magic. 

I quite enjoyed the vibes of this book. The atmosphere is lush and compelling, but May doesn’t fail to convey the gothic undertones of decay that lurk in every corner of the island. All through this glittering scenery is the sense that official ruin could fall at any moment if the wrong person decides to notice their banned magic, and yet Cross House’s livelihoods demand that the glittering party goes on. Emmeline and Annie’s budding relationship seems both inevitable and doomed, and I loved the slow reveal of backstory for all of the main characters. Into this heavy atmosphere, May injects a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that leave both the characters and the reader scrambling.

In conclusion, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer read. The vibes are immaculate, the setting is decadent, and the action is wild.  It’s a perfect way to simulate a little getaway thrill and indulge in your gothic witchcraft side at the same time. 

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

the cover of Manhunt

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I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.

Larkie reviews Finna by Nino Cipri

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I first came across this book when I was looking for a Christmas gift, and even though it didn’t quite fit the gift idea that I had in mind, I knew that I had to read this book. Finna is an absurd little story that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of working a low wage corporate retail job. The plot is simple: Ava and Jules work in definitely not IKEA, and a shopper’s grandmother has wandered off into a wormhole and gotten lost in the maze of multidimensional Scandinavian furniture store hell. Their supervisor sends them after her. Also, they just broke up.

The premise is a little ridiculous, but it feels totally plausible. Of course corporate downsizing eliminated specialized teams who used to handle interdimensional recovery! When has any large corporation cared about the safety of their workers? And training naturally consists of watching a single VHS tape that was filmed decades prior, before you’re expected to just…do whatever it is the company needs you to do. Capitalism is bleak, but we live in it, and we have to play by its rules. Some people, like the manager, embrace these rules because they think that playing by the rules will get them somewhere. Others, like the main duo, are just trying to get by, and try their best to create the best out of a bad situation.

This brings me to the relationship between Ava and Jules. As readers, we come into the relationship at its worst. Ava is anxious and overbearing, constantly thinking of how things can go wrong and trying to mitigate every possible disaster. This includes managing Jules, who is adamant about being their own person, despite the soul crushing job and their difficult past. The relationship wasn’t an inherently bad one: Jules managed to ease some of Ava’s tension, while Ava was more on top of things like dishes. But Ava’s need to fix anything grated on Jules’ desire for independence, and their reluctance to open up just made her worry harder. I really appreciated how there wasn’t any blame or fault assigned to the breakup, it was just a bad thing that had happened. But we also see the good parts of their relationship, how they started as work friends with fun little injokes, the kind of bonding that only happens in work situations. Their relationship is probably the reason why they both stayed in the bad job in the first place, and it made a bad situation bearable. And sometimes, what you need to work out your problems is some quality time together to talk about your feelings, while also escaping carnivorous chair plants and fighting off creepy clones.

This book was fun, and also really heartfelt. It’s about deciding what’s really important and the kind of people you want to spend time with in your life. It’s about queer love and the many forms that can take. There’s so much packed into such a little package, and even more that I haven’t touched on here. I had a hard time putting it down, which meant it was good that it wasn’t that long, because I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done if it was any longer!

Sam reviews The Warrior Moon by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of Warrior Moon

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If there is one simple truth about writing that is not given nearly enough credit, it is this: endings are hard. It is far easier to begin a story than end one; it is even easier to continue a story than end one. Ending a story means answering any questions that deserve answers, completing any character or narrative arcs yet unfinished, and bringing the story to a definitive and satisfying conclusion. A good ending feels worthy of the time and effort the story took to reach it; a fantastic ending elevates what came before to new heights once the reader can view the complete work in its entirety.

But even putting quality aside, I believe that what makes endings so uniquely hard to write is that all endings (if true endings they really are) require the author to stop writing and finally let their work stand on its own. To end a story, the author must put down the pen and say, “It is finished. There’s no more—this is all there is. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Warrior Moon is the last book in her Ascendent trilogy, finishing the story began in The Tiger’s Daughter and continued in The Phoenix Empress. And it is the definitive end to the trilogy. While there is certainly enough imagination and and emotion in both the world and the characters Rivera has created that she could string this out into yet another who-knows-how-long continuing fantasy series if she wanted (and I would happily buy each novel as it came out if she did), she instead chose to give Shefali and Shizuka, Hokkaro and the Qorin, and this whole tale of gods and lesbians a proper ending. No matter how the final book ended up, I would respect K Arsenault Rivera for that.

As it stands, there is plenty else to like about The Warrior Moon, but also a few places where I feel it falters. With Shefali and Shizuka’s tales imparted to each other over the last two books, it is finally time for them to fulfill their childhood promise to ride north and slay the Traitor. The entire novel is spent on the campaign against him and his two remaining demon generals, but therein lies the book’s first issue. It has a bit of a “trek through Mordor” problem as the offensive has to trudge through miserable conditions and tragic delays just to reach their objective, and the first half of the book can feel like a bit of a slog. The tone is kept fresh by a much wider range of viewpoint characters, but as much as I enjoyed them all, it wasn’t a break from Shefali and Shizuka that I wanted—it was smoother pacing. Once the action picks up it really picks up, though, and I couldn’t put the book down after about the halfway point.

But how is The Warrior Moon as an ending? By my earlier definition, a good one, without a doubt. In a trilogy defined by tragedy, it manages to land just the right moments of hope and resolution, and wraps up everything it needs to for the story to end (which means no, we don’t get to see any of Shefali’s adventures in Sur-Shar, Ikhtar, or beneath the earth; it was the right call, but I’m still a little disappointed!). I’m not sure it manages to make a sweeping statement on the rest of the trilogy in retrospect, but The Warrior Moon certainly earns the ending that it has. During the last few paragraphs I was tearing up so hard that I couldn’t even read the words on the page!

Overall, The Warrior Moon is a good read, and the entire Ascendent trilogy is a great one. That the kind of epic fantasy trilogy I would have loved when I was younger now exists starring a lesbian couple feels like nothing less than a gift, and it’s one I will long be grateful for.

Content Warnings: body horror, gore, mind control, spiders

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.

Maggie reviews Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot

the cover of Bluebird

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Bluebird by Ciel Pierlot is a rip-roaring space adventure that takes place around the edges of a larger galactic conflict. Three large factions have ruthlessly carved out their own territories, and they’re constantly beefing with each other over new sectors. Crushed between them, refugees flee war and have to decide whose rules they can best live with, a black market flourishes, and a resistance movement called the Nightbirds helps people out of Faction territories if they’re in danger and get to safe neutral space. Rig, a Kashrini pilot on the run from her former faction, has found a new life’s work in working with the Nightbirds and also in rescuing her people’s cultural heritage, but she never forgets that her former faction still wants her back, along with the weapons plans she designed and then took with her when she left. When they finally catch up with her, Rig is thrown into the company of Ginka, a mysterious yet hyper-competent assassin and they tentatively decide to team up and save, maybe not the galaxy, but the things that are the most important to them.

I had a lot of fun reading this. The action was well-paced, and there were enough details about the larger faction conflict to give you context but not so much as to bog down the plot. The vibes are very much “plucky, mismatched crew in a bucket of bolts” that’s always so much fun in space. Both Rig and Ginka are great at what they do in very different ways. Rig is a talented pilot and shot, a genius engineer, and she genuinely cares about people. She’s not so great at planning. Ginka has extensive training in planning and fighting, but she plays her background very close to her chest – the gradual reveal establishes plot tension, but once she saves Rig at the very beginning, her mix of reluctant loyalty and disbelief at how Rig operates is very charming. An incredibly entertaining disaster duo out first to save their own lives, then to save Rig’s cover, and finally to save their loved ones from faction violence, Rig and Ginka charmed their way into my heart very easily.

Also I’m always delighted to get some “queerness just happens in space.” Rig, on top of being a crack resistance member and all-around disaster fugitive, comes with her own incredibly talented space librarian girlfriend, June, and can swan in and out of the important library buildings at will. She is comfortable in June’s space, and June is comfortable that her girlfriend only comes back in between missions to save people. The events crashing down on Rig force them to re-evaluate what they want out of their relationship long term, but they never doubt their love and affection for each other, and they understand each other and each other’s passions very well. They’re super cute, and I adore them.

In conclusion, Bluebird is such a fun time if you’re looking for some high-octane space adventures. The world is rich and lovely, without being too overly detailed. The characters are layered and likeable. And the action starts out right from chapter one and draws you steadily, onward through many great reveals and gunfights. I would definitely read more in this universe, but I will be keeping an eye out for this author in general.

Sam reviews The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Phoenix Empress

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K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, ended with a lot of stories left to tell. Both of its main characters, Shefali and Shizuka, had gone on perilous and dramatic adventures only hinted at in the book itself, and their future clearly holds challenges yet to come. But still it ended, closing out with an emotional and satisfying conclusion despite so many unanswered questions. I knew The Tiger’s Daughter was the first book of a trilogy, but I have to wonder if the author knew when she wrote it. Because while its sequel novel, The Phoenix Empress, feels like a natural extension of where things left off, in some ways it feels far more dependent on being part of a trilogy than The Tiger’s Daughter ever did.

Before I worry fans of the first book, let me say that if you liked The Tiger’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Phoenix Empress. For a novel so concerned with how years of trauma can change someone, both Shefali and Shizuka felt completely true to the characters I fell in love with. It’s written like a reverse of The Tiger’s Daughter, with epistolary chapters from Shizuka’s perspective interspersed with present-day narration from Shefali. Getting to suddenly see through Shizuka’s eyes adds a compelling new depth to the story we already know; learning that many of her moments of arrogance and hubris were fueled by uncertainty and fear deeply humanizes her as a character. Also, hearing Shizuka call Shefali handsome for the first time was a revelation—I saw the butch/femme dynamic between them during the first book, but having it signposted so explicitly in the second was spectacular.

But for all that I loved, The Phoenix Empress did have some peculiarities that stuck out to me. The real heart of the book is Shizuka’s story of what happened to her during Shefali’s time away, and how she became empress. After that story ends, however, the book still has a good many chapters left to go, and it’s almost all exposition setting up the last book in the trilogy. These chapters didn’t undermine the emotional weight of Shizuka’s tale, but I can’t say that they built upon it either. Despite still being good writing with good characters, I don’t think the ending served The Phoenix Empress quite as well as it serves the trilogy as a whole.

Overall, The Phoenix Empress does a better job of being part of a fantasy trilogy than it does at being a novel. However, it is still very good, and as a follow up to The Tiger’s Daughter it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it can be very intense at times; none of the content warnings listed below are lingered on for very long, but if even a mention is too much for you, you may want to pass this series by. But if you read and loved the first book like I did—well, then I can’t imagine much is going to keep you from reading every book that follows.

Content Warnings: body horror, drowning, gore, cannibalism, mind control, vomiting

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.