Bestselling Book Gets a Second Wind: Juliet Takes a Breath: The Graphic Novel

Juliet Takes a Breath Graphic Novel cover

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Back in 2016, when I first heard that there was a new young adult novel by a queer Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who was also potentially my cousin (just kidding—all the Puerto Rican Riveras from the Bronx aren’t related, y’all), I remember feeling so excited. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (she/her) is the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old baby dyke from the Bronx navigating the coming out process, radical feminism, and what it means to be a queer person of color.

In December 2020, nearly five years after the novel’s debut, Rivera released the graphic novel adaptation of Juliet Takes a Breath with gorgeous illustrations by Celia Moscote. I read the novel the summer it came out and was blown away.  I picked up the graphic novel seven years later and was just as impressed.

Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming of age story that opens on the eve of Juliet’s departure to Portland, Oregon for a summerlong internship with white feminist author Harlowe Brisbane. At family dinner, Juliet reveals that she is gay and has a girlfriend. Although Juliet’s brother, abuela, and titi are supportive, Juliet’s mother is rattled by her revelation and the two have little time to process their feelings before Juliet must leave. When Juliet arrives in Portland, she meets free-spirited Harlowe, who she clearly idolizes. However, as the summer progresses, Juliet develops her own queer identity, finds community amongst queer people of color, and comes to learn that Harlowe is not necessarily worthy of the pedestal upon which Juliet has put her.

Juliet Takes a Breath features a refreshingly diverse cast of characters, which includes individuals who are bisexual, trans, and biracial. Puerto Rican culture is also prominently featured in the graphic novel, infused into its language, history, and imagery. Juliet’s Puerto Rican-ness is the foundation of her identity. She is anchored by her close-knit family, which provides her unconditional love and support even amid conflict.  Moscote perfectly captures the personalities and emotions of Juliet’s loved ones. Her renderings of Juliet, a beautiful,  curvaceous young woman with caramel skin and dark curls, in various states of emotion—joy, anger, pleasure, and sadness—are stunning.

Seven years later, I still love this story. As a queer Puerto Rican woman with Bronx roots, it made me feel seen. Beyond that, I loved how Rivera educated her audience on the importance of intersectionality and community and boldly tackled complex and emotionally charged issues like the white savior complex in feminism. The graphic novel format made these topics even more accessible. I highly recommend checking it out! 

Rivera is also the author of the original comic series b.b. Free, as well as Marvel Comics’ AMERICA series, which follows the adventures of America Chavez.  If you’d like to learn more about Rivera, you can check out her Instagram, @quirkyrican, where she posts about her writing and the joys of being a “masc mom”.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, racism, and white saviorism.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

An Underrated Fantasy Western: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

the cover of The Good Luck Girls

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I am actually going to talk about two books in this review, because while I thought the first book was fantastic, it was not until I finished the sequel that I fully realized exactly how good I thought these books were.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis follows a pair of sisters, Aster and Clementine, as well as a few of their friends as they escape what is known as a welcome house after Clementine accidentally kills a wealthy patron.  While the first book is a journey story and the second dives much deeper into the nitty-gritty of revolution, both books are very much fantasy Westerns set in a bleak world inspired by the United States, with heavy themes of justice, inequality, and survival in spite of it all.

Oh boy, did I not expect to love this series as much as I did. I almost didn’t read it at all because even though it is YA, I still feared it would be too bleak for me, the themes of sexual trauma too heavy and too real for me to be able to handle. Fortunately, I decided to give it a shot anyway, because this is a perfect example of why I keep reading YA. I loved all of the characters and their relationships, but more than that, I loved how seriously the book took each of them and their struggles, while also holding them accountable for the ways they hurt people because of it. I loved that it let them be flawed and make mistakes and still deserve love—still deserve better than what the world gives them. And I loved that it let them be angry.

I also appreciated that even though it was YA, it never felt like it was talking down to its readers. These books have a very clear perspective (as they should, and as pretty much every book does), but the author uses the story, rather than the narration, to get that perspective across, which, to me, felt more effective.  I don’t want to say too much, but what I will say is of all the YA I’ve read, I think this series engages the most maturely with revolution and oppression, with the hard choices it requires and the ways oppression pits people against each other when they should be on the same side. While it is certainly for and about teenagers, it doesn’t simplify or sugarcoat. It is harsh and it is hard and it is dark, but it is also a fight worth making.  For all of that, though, there is an optimism that remains, sometimes dimmer but always there.

I really wish more people would read these books because they are so damn good. They are exactly the kind of books I deserved to have in high school and am grateful current teenagers have now. I can’t wait to see what Charlotte Nicole Davis does next.

A Rich Fantasy Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

the cover of Empress of Salt and Fortune

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I don’t know why I put off The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo for so long despite all of the good reviews. Maybe it was the short length, novellas sometimes being an awkward pace. Or maybe it was the fact that all too often I mistake “high fantasy” for “too much exposition” with all of those battles and complex magic systems that just aren’t my cup of tea. Either way, it was my loss. This slim book is packed to the brim with court intrigue and politics of war, sure, but it does so by quietly unpacking the stories of characters traditionally kept to the sidelines. Nghi Vo’s work is always filled with such depth and lyrical writing, but this series in particular has quickly become one of my all-time favorites because of the way in which it insists on telling a different sort of fantasy story.

The book follows Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey who is traveling with their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant to record history, in this case the story of the recently deceased empress In-yo. Through a constellation of lost objects and the words of the empress’s former servant, Vo shows the outlines of a life in what it leaves behind. The story unfolds delicately through this collection of remnants. The book feels like a refutation of traditional history-making, Chih’s character almost fading into the background as they focus on listening and learning how to read the subtext. So much is left to interpretation, to tone, to understanding secret codes and double meanings. This is reflected, too, in the way the book refuses to overly-explain its setting, leaving the reader to tease apart the worldbuilding like a puzzle.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve been recommending to everyone. With its short length you’ll only be giving up an hour or two, so I encourage you to give it a shot even if you aren’t typically a fan of high fantasy. With the fourth book just recently out (Mammoths at the Gate) and a fifth on its way in May (The Brides of High Hall), it’s nice timing to catch up on the books now. Each novella is meant to serve as a standalone entry point so you can’t go wrong with any of them—or really any of Vo’s works—but it’s worth starting with this one.

Trigger warnings: death, misogyny, war, suicide, murder

An Enemies-to-Lovers Space Opera for the Ages: No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black

the cover of No Shelter But The Stars

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No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black was published on January 23, 2024 and follows Kyran Loyal, the last in her line of family royals for a planet that has been lost to her people for years, and Davia Sifane, a woman from an empire Kyran was raised to rebel against. When a battle takes place and everyone around them perishes, they are left to fend for themselves on a desolate moon. With no one to rely on but each other, they have to decide if they can put aside their feelings about their pasts and work together to survive for an indefinite period of time in an unforgiving environment. 

Virginia wrote a gorgeous novel that captures the things that make us all human. At its core, it is a story that explores all the things that connect us, no matter our backgrounds. Through Kyran and Davia she presents raw emotions–pain, grief, frustration, anger, fear, and gay panic over a pretty woman, despite the fact she’s your mortal enemy. At their base, these are the things that transcend all others. She has created an environment where these two characters have no other choice but to feel all of those things. There are no distractions. Her exploration of what happens when there is nothing else left but two human beings, and what that looks like when everything else is stripped away, is truly breathtaking. 

There are too many things I loved about this book to put in this review, but one of my favorites is her use of language and language being more than a means of communication. These two women literally speak different languages, and yet they have to find some way to communicate. And they do. What I loved about Virginia’s decision here is that it is clear Kyran is guarded and protective of her language. In many ways, it is all she has left of her people and of her loved ones. So even as she starts to open up, she still refuses to share that part of herself with Davia. Davia, on the other hand, is not as protective of her language (which made sense to me in the context of how she grew up), and Kyran actively tries to learn it. I loved this aspect of Kyran and Davia’s relationship development because it created such an intimate way to bond. And I happen to think there is something inherently romantic and beautiful about learning another language for someone. I love how language and teaching one another is a thread throughout the story, with one of my favorite moments coming in towards the end.  

Kyran and Davia come from very different backgrounds. Kyran has never really had stability, and has been searching for a home for most of her life. That instability is owed to Davia’s home–one of privilege and wealth. It is hard to imagine that these two would have anything in common, but again, Virginia is so good at finding that commonality between two very different characters, and showing you that these two share much more than a desolate moon on the outskirts of a galaxy. Despite coming from vastly different worlds these are two women that were tasked with carrying on a legacy and duties neither really wanted. Because of that, there is a complicated and beautiful exploration of competing emotions about becoming stranded. Of course there is sadness and anger about their losses, but additionally there is relief and a sense of freedom that comes from being somewhere where nothing is expected of them. Those loss of expectations, and feeling relief about that, also comes with guilt. Virginia presents these dueling emotions so well, and were among my favorite parts. 

This story was both gorgeous and haunting. I rarely get literal goosebumps from books, but I did several times while reading Kyran and Davia’s story. Their evolution from enemies, to tentative allies, to maybe friends, to eventual lovers was so immaculately crafted that I was often left breathless. These two are enemies by birth, and not by choice. Each grew up with an idea of the other, and yet I found their evolution to be believable. The characters are so rich, you can tell there was an immense amount of planning and thought that went into every detail of their arc, both individually and together. And it is why it works so well. 

The thing is, when you read such a well crafted story, it also has the power to leave you feeling so many emotions. Virginia had me crying with just two words. Two words that said and held so much, and that is a testament to everything she had written prior to that point. The ending to this story felt so perfect to me. I read it and felt in awe with how someone could write a conclusion that seemed so fitting and perfect, but that I still never saw coming. That, to me, is the sign of an incredible author. Virginia Black’s words moved me in a way that makes me so thankful there are sapphic authors out there writing incredible stories like No Shelter But The Stars. I am in awe of how Virginia created a story that had such moments of softness–in direct contrast to the harsh reality these two women were living. She is an amazing storyteller and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

While I could go on, I’ll just say I cannot recommend this book enough. You will not regret it.

An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

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Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Dazzling Debut: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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I first learned about Sabrina Imbler (they/them) last year when my girlfriend and I traveled to Seattle to watch the UConn Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet 16. Whenever I travel, I like to visit a local bookstore, which is how we ended up in the gorgeous Elliott Bay Book Company, a woman and queer owned business located in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When I asked one of the booksellers what LGBT books she recommended, she enthusiastically suggested Imbler’s gay volcano chapbook Dyke (geology) and a signed copy (Imbler’s name flanked by two cute goldfish) of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Two gorgeous books by a queer person of color? I was elated.

Imbler is a writer and science journalist with a gift for storytelling. How Far the Light Reaches is organized into ten essays wherein Imbler masterfully weaves facts about sea creatures and phenomena with meditations on survival, identity, body image, family, relationships, and community. While the essays stand alone and can theoretically be read out of order, they have a clear throughline. As a reader who began How Far the Light Reaches with limited knowledge of marine biology, I was shocked by how many facts I retained from each essay. Imbler’s essays are crafted with care and intentionality. They don’t just state facts about each sea creature, they reflect on their essence, treating each with reverence.

In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” Imbler introduced readers to Graneledone boreopacifica and highlighted one of the most renowned of these purple octopuses: a mother who starved herself for 53 months (four and a half years) while she focused on the task of brooding her eggs. Imbler interspersed reflections on their mother’s sacrifices and on how Imbler learned to find their own body desirable through reveling in queer bodies.

In “Pure Life,” Imbler marveled at deep sea dwellers—vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs—which survive by using chemosynthesis for energy in the absence of sunlight.  Imbler likened hydrothermal vents in the ocean to queer spaces and communities—both representing oases providing rest, nourishment, and safety: “Life always finds a place to begin anew, and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

In “Hybrids,” Imbler juxtaposed their biracial identity (half Chinese, half White) with a hybrid butterflyfish, the offspring of two different species. Imbler examined how The Question: “What are you?” is itself an act of taxonomy. They also reflected on the irony of their frustration with The Question, but also their endless curiosity about other mixed people.

In a word, How Far the Light Reaches is spectacular. The more I reflect upon it, the more I love it. I read it over the course of a few days, but Imbler’s writing is so thought-provoking, you may want to savor the book over time. I really hope Imbler will write another book, but in the meantime, you can check them out at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they cover creatures.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, lack of consent, rape, body mutilation, racism, body image, disordered eating, and animal death/harm.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Haunted by the Past: She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

the cover of she is a haunting

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Horror is a very broad genre, and, I am inclined to say, a particularly personal one, seeing as what scares one person may not scare another, or, on the other hand, it might scare them too much. I myself love a good haunted house, but psychological horror freaks me out in concept alone, to the point that I won’t touch a book when I see it labeled that way. Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting, I am pleased to report, is my favorite kind of horror, that particular style where it’s kind of about the ghosts, but it’s not really about the ghosts. Or rather, it is, but it’s about what the ghosts represent more than the don’t-look-behind-you scariness.

That’s not to say this book isn’t scary, of course. I personally do not tend to get scared while reading books, so I am not the best judge, but I thought the book did a good job creating a creepy atmosphere and some really unsettling images (all those bugs *shudder*). The scariest thing in this book, though, is not the ghosts themselves but the very real horrors of colonialism, as well as the impacts of it that linger through to today. While this book is aimed at teenagers, it does not shy away from those atrocities, but nor does it dwell on them, exactly.

Beyond those horrors, however, this is also the story of Jade, a closeted seventeen-year-old wrestling with a complicated family dynamic and her relationship to Vietnam as a Vietnamese American who is visiting the country for the first time. As a protagonist, I adored Jade. I thought she felt very authentically seventeen, which is to say that while she was occasionally frustrating, she was trying her best. 

I also thought all of the relationships in the book were well-drawn. Her romance with “bad girl” Florence was endearing, and their interactions made me giggle a few times. The more complex dynamics with the parents worked equally well for me, and in fact I found her mom to be a standout character for me by the end.

Regarding the ending, I will say there were one or two elements that felt on the edge of overly dramatic, but I thought the book did enough well that I didn’t really mind. Emotions were running high, after all, and real life can be overly dramatic too. Regardless, I felt the book ended on a high and, frankly, down-to-earth note that left me satisfied.

I look forward to more horror from Trang Thanh Tran, and reading more horror in general this year, because this book reminded me that it is a genre I enjoy when it is done in the particular way I most vibe with, as this one was. If you are looking for a creepy haunted house that’s grounded in both the past and the present and the ways they affect each other, I highly recommend She is a Haunting.

A Sweet Middle Grade Coming-of-Age: Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World cover

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Ivy Aberdeen’s life was already chaotic between her newborn twin brothers, her older sister’s odd behavior, and Ivy struggling with her own confusing feelings for girls that she can’t quite name. But then her family home is swept away by a tornado and Ivy’s world is completely upended without a home and without her trusted notebook filled with her secret drawings of girls holding hands.

That is, until the drawings from her lost notebook begin to show up in her locker, along with a note telling her she should talk to someone. Ivy doesn’t know what that note means, because obviously she’s fine. Ivy has to figure out who has her notebook and get it back, and maybe along the way she’ll figure out what those feelings even mean.

This is such a sweet middle grade story. I never knew that Ashley Herring Blake, author of the Delilah Green Doesn’t Care romances, wrote books for younger audiences! It has a lot of her charm and a love of quirky small towns, but there’s something about the formula that I find clicks even more when it comes to middle grade. Of course, I might be biased because I adore middle grade, perhaps because the explosion of LGBTQ+ middle grades are the very sorts of books that I wish I had access to when I was a kid. Luckily, they exist now, and the list is ever-growing!

Ivy is a character that feels so real as she struggles with her simultaneous love of and frustration with her family, her sometimes annoyance with her best friend, and the way she makes mistakes and oversteps and miscommunicates. All of this is written with such compassion for how hard it can be to figure out your place in the world. I also want to say that for a book that features deep grief in the wake of a natural disaster, it has such charm and humor in places that it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.  

So oftentimes a coming-of-age focuses on romance as the way for a person to figure themselves out. That certainly exists—it’s partially about Ivy’s struggle with her feelings for the new girl in class, after all—but it’s also about how families evolve and grow, how you can find community in unexpected places. It’s a lovely testament to the bravery and power in being true to yourself and I would highly recommend as a heartwarming read for a bit of hope.

Trigger warnings: natural disasters, childhood illness, grief, references to homophobia

How to Un-Princess: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

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When I first picked up the fantasy novella Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir in 2020, I knew that I’d be coming back to it for more. Because I’m more of a science fiction person, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought it; I knew I liked Muir’s writing, and the premise sounded fun, so I took a chance. Given that this story has been read more than once, I’d say it paid off.

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower follows Princess Floralinda as she tries to escape the tower a witch has trapped her in. She starts out the book as storybook princess as a princess can get. She dutifully watches for princes to come and save her from her fate, she obediently remains confined to her room, and she doesn’t make any attempts to free herself at first. A diamond-scaled dragon guards the bottommost level of the tower, and Floralinda waits and listens as each and every prince is gobbled up until the princes and their horses stop coming.

Now, in a different fairy tale kind of story, the princess might continue to mope about, doing nothing to try and free herself from her tower prison. A prince might finally come and save her…or she might end up like the princess who came before Floralinda, flinging herself out the window. Floralinda, however, starts shucking off the role of princess in order to become something bigger than that, beginning by leaving her room to check out the thirty-ninth floor. This story, while at first appearing to be a fairy tale, is actually a story about change. Floralinda changes throughout the book, so much so that other characters make mention of it. I found myself on this read trying to tally up every time Floralinda grew, little by little, into something that no longer resembled a princess. The Floralinda who ends this short book is not the same as the Floralinda who starts it, and I was constantly cheering her on because of it.

Her fairy companion changes alongside her. The secondary main character, Cobweb, is a fairy who gets blown into Floralinda’s tower during a storm and is forced to stay until the next full moon comes, due to the storm having ripped one of their wings off. The biggest change in this character comes when Cobweb chooses to become a girl because Floralinda asks them to do so. At first, Cobweb is referred to using “it” or “they” pronouns, but Floralinda presents them with the choice to either be a boy or a girl because it’s easier for her to wrap her head around it. Cobweb doesn’t want to be a girl; she expresses more than once that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But she chooses to become one, at least for a little while, joining Floralinda in her metamorphosis. Both of these characters grow tremendously from where they start, and it’s so much fun as a reader to watch these changes unfold, especially as a queer reader who understands the idea of choosing how to present in front of other people. Cobweb is an almost refreshing take on a character who is nonbinary or genderqueer, and was also a big surprise to me on my first read because I did not expect to encounter a character like Cobweb in this short of a piece.

Because it is a novella, Princess Floralinda has a lot to cover in its short length. The world is expansive, the monstrous threats that wait for Floralinda and Cobweb on every level of the tower are both intriguing and confusing, and it could have become a much longer work if Muir had not reigned it in. While the pacing does feel off at times—we spend the first half of the novella stuck on the first two floors, then run through three floors in one short chapter later on—I found myself being okay with it because of the way the pacing reflects Floralinda’s character development. Floralinda rolls through the story like a boulder down a hill. Once she receives the initial push towards change, she loses bits and pieces of her princess-hood at an exponential rate. Muir keeps the focus of the story on Floralinda’s journey to un-becoming a princess, leaving some of the world around her unexplored in order to maintain that focus. If you’re looking for a story that gives you tons of lore on the universe and that doesn’t move at breakneck speed, this maybe isn’t the novella for you.

The romance between Floralinda and Cobweb was handled in such a good way too. At the point in their relationship that Floralinda realizes she is in love with Cobweb, she betrays her in a very specific way in order to keep her close. Reading them navigating that relationship after Floralinda’s betrayal was so riveting and interesting to me as someone who reads a lot of enemies to lovers. While I won’t go so far as to say that Floralinda and Cobweb are enemies, their dynamic after this scene mirrors that sort of romance and fleshes out both characters in ways that they could not have been fleshed out without exploring these feelings. If it was hard to see Floralinda as a complicated, well-rounded character before, from this point on, Floralinda is no longer a princess archetype and is instead a character capable of much more than was first expected of her. When I say that she changes, I mean that she changes. Through her relationship with Cobweb, her life experience grows, her ability to defend herself grows, and she finds herself transforming in ways she would not have on her own. Their growing relationship is not something Muir shoehorned into the narrative or put there just to have it in the story; their relationship to each other is the basis for both of their metamorphoses, and it is as important to the novella as the tower itself is.

Something else worth noting is the way the story is written. The narrator has fun telling this story. There are so many lines that had me laughing, not because they were necessarily funny, but because they were so specific and aware of the story that was being told. The narrator knows that this is supposed to be a princess story, but it’s like Floralinda is steering it off a pre-determined course. Floralinda finds her way out of the fairy tale destined for her, and the narrator tells the story to us with a bit of an attitude about it. Having read Tamsyn’s Locked Tomb series, it was refreshing to get a taste of her playful prose again in this novella. Her narrators usually hold some sway over the way lines are delivered to the reader, and I enjoyed having more of that in this story.

All in all, this novella is probably one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the role of princess get turned on its head.

Trigger warnings for: death (both human and creature) and some gore to go along with it. Floralinda also gets an infection in her hands that is described in detail, so be mindful if reading about infected wounds makes you squeamish.

A Return to Dragons: Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay

the cover of Magdalene Nox

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Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay, was published on November 21, 2023, and takes the reader into the world of Three Dragons Academy for Girls. It is a story thirty years in the making, and gives us a peek into the mind of the new Headmistress of the all-girls academy, Magdalene Nox. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in this series, The Headmistress, I recommend starting there, though this can absolutely be read as a standalone.

In the prologue, readers meet Magdalene Nox on the very day she was kicked out of Three Dragons Academy as a student, thirty years ago. It is clear that being removed from the school is an incredibly painful experience for her, though Magdalene tries to hide that fact with stoicism. Even as a teenager, Magdalene is a force. And as often happens with women who do not bend to the systems and structures put into place by powerful men, the establishment does what they can to snuff out her spark. Unfortunately for them, Magdalene is not easily deterred. 

The next thirty years lead to Magdalene’s vengeful return to Dragons, to burn it just like it burned her.  She has gone from school to school and built her reputation for being ruthless and smart. She is courted and pursued. Everything she has been working towards comes to fruition when she’s presented with the offer of new Headmistress of Three Dragons. What she finds there both surprises her and takes her on a journey she never expected. 

When Milena announced she was releasing Magdalene Nox, the Headmistress from Magdalene’s point of view, I was both elated and nervous. Could this story told from another point of view be as incredible as the first? Is it even possible to recreate a story that is just as gorgeous as its predecessor? Well friends, in case you were wondering, the answer is not only is it possible, but it turns out it can be done even better. This story manages to feel fresh while staying true to the original novel. There are scenes that parallel chapters of the Headmistress, but are told from Magdalene’s perspective and offer insight into the woman we have previously only experienced through Sam’s eyes. It provides a depth to someone that holds her cards very close to her chest. 

Milena’s style of writing always takes my breath away. I think she is one of the best when it comes to crafting imagery and creating metaphors that are so apt you can’t help but think about them for days and weeks after. She paints a picture with her words that is so vivid you feel like you have been transported there and can visualize it perfectly. Aside from her technical strengths, there is a poetic nature to her prose and you can’t help but get lost in it. The pull Magdalene feels toward Sam is written so well, you feel it right to your core. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intimate scenes in this novel are perfection, and Milena writes them with a care that ranks amongst the best of authors out there. The way she writes tension and love, yearning and longing—often within a single page—is something to behold. 

This book expands on characters we have met previously, and introduces one of my favorites: Candace, Magdalene’s mother. Mother-daughter relationships can often be complicated, and this is a prime example of that. Candace is brash, fierce, and loves her daughter. How Candace shows that love is arguably flawed, though I’m not sure even she would say any different. Their interactions shed light on the woman that “raised” Magdalene, allowing us further insight into everything that makes Magdalene, Magdalene. Though flawed as a mother, I loved Candace as a character. 

We also get to see more of Magdalene’s interactions with her ex-husband, Timothy. Milena managed to put boyish charm, regret, and longing into everything he does. Those scenes were laced with pain, but I imagine that was the point.

I think one of the great privileges to come with this book was a front row seat to Magdalene Nox falling in love, and re-falling in love. Getting to experience that, to witness her internal feelings evolve and progress feels like being let in on a secret that is to be guarded closely. We don’t often get to see things from the perspective of a character like her, and all it showed was how well Milena knows her characters. There was nothing that felt inconsistent with what we know of her from the Headmistress, but rather builds and adds in such a way that makes total sense. To experience that love, the pain and betrayal, and the conviction of her, was a joy. (It also meant we got to see more of a ginger cat, and those scenes were a delight.)

Milena herself has said that this book was a want, not a need. This story didn’t need to be told—The Headmistress could have stood alone. But, the thing about this novel being about “want” is that it shows. There is a passion and a care that is obvious throughout. I think it’s clear when an author loves a character and a story as much as their readers, and this is one of those books. Milena not only did Magdalene’s story justice, she elevated it in a way that only an author who has worked on their craft and reflected on their previous work can. This was a book born of love. A love for her characters and a love for those readers who also cherish them. I cannot recommend this beautifully written book enough.