Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

the cover of Stone and Steel

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

Briar-Girls cover

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This is a YA fantasy book about Lena, a girl who kills everyone she touches. Her parents have been keeping her hidden, moving around a lot whenever things get dicey–Until one day, her mother leaves and never comes back. The witch who cursed Lena is still looking for her, so her father has strict rules to keep her safe. It’s not much of a life. She has no friends and rarely leaves their house.

In their latest move, her father is hired to be the Watcher of a forest called the Silence. People keep getting pulled in by the woods, and if they return, they’re changed, endlessly singing the same song. Her father’s job is to keep people out of the Silence, but when Lena sneaks away one night to take a peek, she finds someone running out of the woods instead.

Miranda is injured and being chased, so Lena and her father take her in. But Miranda is from Gather, a magical city, and she promises that a cure to Lena’s curse could be found there. Miranda will take her there, if Lena agrees to help her find and awake the sleeping princess who is prophesied to bring down their tyrannical government. Lena agrees, escaping her father’s house despite his protestations, and she’s pulled into a world that’s beyond anything she imagined.

Before Miranda, Lena didn’t know magic existed, apart from her curse. Now, she sees apparitions in the woods that try to lead her astray. She stumbles into a complex network of magical allegiances and enemies, Never sure who to trust. Everyone she meets seems to tell her that the other person is a liar and a traitor.

Lena also finds a new understanding of her curse. In this world of blood magic, with enemies chasing her and her life on the line, Killing people with a touch can have its advantages, And Lena begins to grapple with her own power, especially when she’s promised much, much more.

There’s also a romance subplot here, and a classic bisexual love triangle. At first, Lena felt like a helpless character being pulled from one situation to the next. Who she trusted felt arbitrary, and often was just the last person she spoke to. But this fit into the fairy tale aspects of the story: being in dark, magical woods, being lost, and not knowing which magical being to trust.

As she gets used to this world, though, we start to see a different side of Lena, one who is angry and wants to wield power. She’s resentful of the life she’s had and of feeling guilty all the time for her curse. So it’s a bit of a revenge story, and a story about righteous anger.

This really pulled me in, and ends on an epic battle that brings all these disparate story elements and characters together. If you like dark fairy tale reimaginings, definitely give this one a try.

I do want to give a content warning for cutting: this world using blood magic, so it comes up a lot.

Cath reviews Perfect Rhythm by Jae

the cover of perfect rhythm

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Leontyne “Leo” Blake, stage name Jenna, has it all. She’s a world-famous pop star just wrapping up a world tour. Everybody knows her songs, her name (well, sort of). She’s even out as a lesbian and still enjoying her popularity.

Then, just as she walks off stage at a concert, her mom calls and asks her to come home. Her dad has had a stroke. Leo immediately finds herself flying back to the small Missouri town of Fair Oaks that she tried so desperately to leave behind.

Holly Drummond has lived in Fair Oaks for basically her entire life, barring when she was in college. She loves the small-town feel, and she’s glad she was able to return to Fair Oaks as a nurse to support the people she’d grown up around. In fact, she’s now a home health nurse for Gil Blake–Leo’s father. She’s also out as a lesbian in some circles around town, but that isn’t the whole story. Holly is asexual, and while she is definitely romantically attracted to women, there’s no sexual component for her.

When Leo comes home, she and Holly get off on the wrong foot–Leo’s been gone for a long time and never wanted to return, and Holly finds her irritating and self-centered. But they end up spending a lot of time in each other’s back pockets, because Fair Oaks is small to begin with and now Holly is staying at Leo’s family’s house a few nights a week to help Gil and Sharon (Leo’s mom). Leo finds Holly physically attractive, despite their friction, but assumes Holly must be straight when Holly doesn’t seem to return the interest.

The story unfolds at a decent pace at first, not feeling too rushed but also not lagging. Leo and Holly spend a lot of time irritated at one another until they start to realize that they’ve based their views about each other on assumptions that aren’t true. Once they’re able to clear the air a little, they realize they enjoy spending time together, and eventually start to realize they’re developing romantic feelings for one another. But it’s complicated, because Leo is supposed to return to New York, and Holly doesn’t know how to tell her that she’s asexual.

As an ace person myself, I was really excited to read a romance novel with an ace protagonist. I liked Holly’s character a lot, and Leo started to grow on me pretty quickly as she struggled with how to integrate herself back into her hometown and try to repair her relationship with her parents. The romance was very cute and sweet, and I really appreciated that there was a depiction of strained familial relationships that showed you can love somebody dearly and still do things that hurt them, and that it’s possible to try and mend those relationships but it can be difficult.

However, the pacing really started to feel off to me about halfway through the novel. The romance seems to progress both rather quickly and rather slowly, and there are time jumps that had me confused about how much time had passed. Overall, it seems like most of the book takes place over a span of less than two months, which is really very fast for how slow-burn the romance felt at first. I think this is what brought me down to a three-star rating for this book, because when I would start new chapters I would frequently feel like I had missed a portion of the story and go back and check that something hadn’t gone wrong with my kindle.

Still, I really loved the scenes with Holly’s online friends, and the inclusion of a queerplatonic relationship that was every bit as important as romantic relationships around it. The fact that both Leo and Holly were comfortable in their identities was also really refreshing, and it was highlighted by their interactions with a mutual friend of theirs who is not comfortable with her queerness.

A part of the book I’m really uncertain about is that it does include a sex scene. This is entirely consensual, and both Leo and Holly are very communicative about what they want and are in control of what happens to their bodies. The entire scene is presented as a sensual rather than sexual experience for Holly, and I am definitely glad to see the distinction presented, and that some of what Holly experiences as sensual reads as sexual to others and she is adamant that it isn’t for her. But as an ace person, sex scenes with ace characters can be really fraught. This scene might be really validating to some ace people, but it felt somewhat alienating to me.

Overall, I did like the story, and would recommend it for people wanting to read a romance with an asexual wlw character. But the pacing especially, plus the alienation I felt from the sex scene, leave me with a 3-star rating.

Content warnings: stroke, death

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

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Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.

Maggie reviews The Hellion’s Waltz by Olivia Waite

The Hellion's Waltz cover

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The Hellion’s Waltz is the third installment of Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series, and where the first two involved astronomy, printing, and beekeeping, this one revolves around music, weaving, and crime. With the re-surfacing of the hit tv show Leverage, I was quite excited to read a crime romance, and this series hadn’t let me down yet.

Maddie Crewe and the local weaver’s guild are planning a con on a businessman whose unsavory practices are taking advantage of the local weavers and pushing them out of business or into dangerous factories. With their ability to legally organize coming down the pipeline, Maddie and her friends need one good score to properly fund their guild and give their future organizing some teeth. Meanwhile, Sophie Roseingrave’s family has just arrived in town after being forced from London when a con artist’s scheme ruined their reputations and forced their family shop to close.  When she accidentally brushes up against the opening stages of Maddie’s con, she’s torn between her instant attraction to the other woman and her instinctive revulsion towards a scam, no matter how well-intentioned.

As usual with this series, the characters are charming to read.  I loved that they were both talented women in their own fields – Maddie as a weaver and Sophie as both a musician and piano tuner. I loved that neither had any sort of queer awakening during this; being attracted to a woman and acting on that desire wasn’t news or a shock to either of them. They’re both quite taken with each other and are willing to act on their attraction. It’s still refreshing to me to read historical romances where both characters are confident and confidently queer, and I adore it.

Also, who doesn’t love a good crime crew when they’re out to take down a heinous rich guy? And crime to fund a union is especially delicious. The con itself is a little complicated and far-fetched to seem entirely plausible, but it’s fun, and its hilarious hijinks are a good contrast to Sophie’s memories of getting taken in by a dastardly con man who but their piano-making business out of order. Maddie and the weavers are not out to harm families, but rather to protect them. The confidence they have to stand up for themselves helps Sophie to face her lingering trauma after her family’s own experiences and take up music again.

In conclusion, The Hellion’s Waltz is a fun little romp through crime, protecting a community of craftspeople, and letting yourself have good things. It’s fun, not especially deep, and the queerness is established rather than a plot point. It was a very diverting and fun read, and I recommend it if you are looking for a nice f/f historical romance that’s on the light side.

Maggie reviews The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

The Forever Sea cover

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The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson is a very interesting new fantasy book that features pirates, the high seas, magical fires, girlfriends, exciting world-building, and pitched battles–over a lack of water. The seas the characters sail over, fight on, and struggle with are grass, not water, and the ships sail over them through the use of magical hearth fires that keep the ships from plunging into the deeps. Kindred, a novice hearth fire tender, is struggling to find her place with her first crew after she departed from her grandmother’s ship to make her own way. But Kindred learned her way around the sea and a hearth fire from her grandmother, and her unorthodox ways and interests clash against the more utilitarian crew she signs up with. Returning from a voyage to learn about her grandmother’s death destabilizes her even more. But back-stabbing politicians, pirates, and conflict with her own crew doesn’t leave her much time to search for answers, and Kindred is torn between the life she should want to protect and the answers calling to her from the hearth fires and the depths of the grass sea.

The real pull of this book is the fascinating conceit–an endless grass sea–and the world built up around it. Personally, at times I would wish for fewer action sequences and more details about how the sea even works. There’s the grasses themselves, flowers, creatures, natural phenomena like fires, and, perhaps, unnatural phenomenon. The hearth fires too are fascinating–they could almost be another set of characters, with how they control the environment on the ships. From dew harvesting to floating cities to the creatures of the deep, the world of The Forever Sea is intriguing and noteworthy. If you like either pirate books or fascinating other worlds, this is a good combination for you. The feel is very nautical but also very uncanny. It’s a rich setting, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

I also appreciated Kindred’s almost schoolgirl-esque crush on a fellow crewmate–Ragged Sarah. Sarah, the crew lookout and bird caller, has a hidden past, but she’s sweet and she likes Kindred. In an otherwise uncanny and action-filled book, the sweetness of their feelings for each other is a nice contrast, and it gives Kindred something good to balance out all the difficult decisions that they face. The romance isn’t the main story of the book, but it’s nonetheless an important part of the events, and I found myself rooting for them to not be torn apart in difficult circumstances.

There’s been a lot of amazing queer science fiction and fantasy come out over the past couple of years, and since the romance isn’t this main focus of the plot, this one didn’t make a lot of the queer SF/F lists, but I think it’s a worthwhile addition to a to-read list. Interesting world-building is something I learned to value even more after my environment narrowed to my apartment last year, and sailing The Forever Sea is a good way to while away a few afternoons.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Shannon reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us, the 2019 release from author Kit Frick, is the story of two teenaged girls, both desperate to hold onto their secrets and their dreams, even if it means teaming up to take down their mutual enemy. It’s fast-paced and twisty, but not without its faults.

Amanda Kelly has known she would marry Carter Shaw for pretty much as long as she can remember. It’s one of those things that’s simply part of who she is. No one has ever asked her if it’s what she wants, and though a piece of Amanda struggles with the expectations her parents have placed on her, she’s pretty sure she loves Carter and is ready to get married as soon as they’re both done with school. Sure, Carter’s not perfect. He’s cheated on her a time or two, but Amanda’s sure they can get past his indiscretions. After all, isn’t that what true love is all about?

Rosalie Bell wants nothing more than to keep her head down until she turns eighteen. Once she’s a legal adult, she can leave her ultra-conservative parents behind and finally fully embrace her identity as a lesbian. As it is, she has a secret girlfriend and a fake relationship with the super popular Carter Shaw, the kind of boy her parents have always wanted her to spend time with. Carter’s  nice enough, but Rosalie just isn’t into him that way, but she knows she has to keep pretending to be straight if she wants to have a chance at living life on her own terms.

Amanda and Rosalie don’t really know each other, although each is all too aware of the other’s existence. Amanda wishes Rosalie would relinquish whatever hold she seems to have on Carter, and Rosalie feels a mixture of guilt and envy whenever she thinks of Amanda. But when both girls start receiving disturbing text messages from a blocked number, they realize someone out there knows each of their secrets and is ready to make them known to the world if Amanda and Rosalie don’t follow instructions. Now, these two must team up if they hope to come out of this unscathed, but how can they hope to work together with so much unspoken angst between them?

Rosalie’s character is the best thing about this book. I could feel her inner conflict whenever the story was told from her perspective. She doesn’t enjoy using Carter as her fake boyfriend, but her parents’ religious beliefs pose a real danger to her if she admits she’s attracted to girls. It’s a tough situation, one I don’t see in many books these days, and I applaud the author for bringing it to life on the page in a way that feels so relatable and authentic.

Amanda turned out to be a harder character for me to like. She’s super privileged, and while this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, her thoughts and beliefs were sometimes hard for me to swallow. There’s a sense of entitlement about her that drove me nuts at times. Her life definitely isn’t perfect, but her problems felt insignificant when compared to the things Rosalie is constantly going through. I wanted her to wake up and take a good look at reality rather than just whining about how hard things were for her.

There is quite a bit of homophobic rhetoric here, most of which comes from Rosalie’s parents and their religious leaders. While this gave me a deeper understanding of the peril Rosalie would be in if those around her discovered her sexual orientation, it could prove difficult for some readers to deal with.

All Eyes On Us is the first novel I’ve read by Kit Frick, and although I didn’t love everything about it, I’m intrigued enough to check out more of the author’s work. She definitely knows how to create a compulsively readable thriller, and I’m always on the lookout for those, especially when they feature characters who are bisexual or lesbian.

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

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I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape