Sam reviews Gideon the Ninth & Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the NInth

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For Pride this month, I’m going to treat myself a little bit—I would like to talk about Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, the first half of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir (the half that’s been released, at time of writing). Now, if you like to read books about lesbians and also spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably been told to read these books already. They’ve gotten very popular over the last two years, and for good reason! But the ubiquity of Gideon the Ninth recommendations amongst queer women online is almost a meme at this point, and there are perfectly good reviews for both these books up on the Lesbrary already.

And yet, like everyone else I know who has read the Locked Tomb, I can’t stop thinking about it. But it’s not the goth-Catholic space necromancy worldbuilding, or the twists and turns of Muir’s buckwild mystery ride, or even the shockingly good humor peppered with actual internet memes that has its hooks in me. It’s something I don’t see a lot of people talking about, actually. It’s the fact that clearly, and yet so surprisingly, series deuteragonists Gideon and Harrow are written to be butch and femme.

Okay, granted, many people have called Gideon butch in the last two years, usually in regards to her being a strong, crass, bullheaded woman who is extremely and unapologetically into other women. And don’t get me wrong, this alone is worth celebrating—I read a lot of lesbian books, especially lesbian science fiction and fantasy books, and it is still painfully rare to see a lesbian protagonist that is undeniably masculine. But that isn’t all Gideon is. Gideon Nav is thoughtful and observant in her own way, and she has a surprisingly strong sense of justice for the society she grew up in. She also has a deep well of compassion and pity hidden beneath her anger and sarcasm. She wears irreverence and irony like armor to protect this emotional vulnerability, but cannot stop herself from leaping to the aid of others when they need help.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Despite her objections to playing Harrow’s knight, Gideon slips into the role of protector and confidante naturally and quickly. No matter how much Gideon claims to hate the Reverend Daughter, her mind is constantly considering Harrow’s emotional state, her well-being, and her safety. And as they grow closer, Gideon starts taking her armor off. No one else gets to see the softness of Gideon’s heart—no one but Harrow.

On Harrow’s part, there’s a lot more to the vicious, uptight necromancer than meets the eye. This is my more contentious point by far, a realization that felt obvious to me but I rarely hear mentioned. Harrow is aptly named for what she has had to endure in life; she is a scarred, starving rat of a girl, deeply traumatized and burdened with unbearable expectations, dreadful ambitions, and untreated mental illness. She isn’t exactly the classic image of a femme lesbian.

And yet, there is so much about her that complements and contrasts with Gideon. Where Gideon is bold, brash, and courageous, Harrow is careful, resilient, and tenacious. Like Gideon, Harrow has a steady moral compass that points slightly off from what her parents, her peers, even her God says is right. Harrow, too, wears armor—not of dumb jokes and a fuck-you attitude, but of protocol, of social cues and cultural symbols, of robes and veils and make-up masks. But beneath it, just like Gideon, Harrow cares, more than she dares let on. The depth and intensity for how much she feels for Gideon, for her house, for even a sacred corpse is shocking when it finally comes out. She’s been forced to bare her steel all her life, but there is a vulnerability in her that only Gideon has the lived context to understand.

This is reinforced in the second book (slight spoilers ahead), when we get to see what a Harrow without Gideon would look like. She feels lost at sea, missing a vital piece of herself through which her resilience and determination slowly drains away. I know many people are into the perhaps-romantic tension between Harrow and Ianthe, but to me the main narrative purpose of that story thread was to showcase exactly why Harrow needs Gideon. Gideon and Harrow make each other better people, whereas Ianthe would make Harrow a far worse version of herself. And when it’s finally time for Harrow to admit her feelings for Gideon, it’s the heretical skeleton-raising goth space witch who has the softest, most tender and romantic passages in the series.

All in all, Gideon and Harrow are different in the most complementary ways, covering for the other’s shortcomings while encouraging each other’s strengths. They’ve both been through terrible experiences, but are also uniquely equipped to help each other process and move past them. In a horrific, hostile universe that seems corrupted to its very core, their love feels like the one light strong enough to defy it. And you can’t convince me that’s not butch and femme.

Content Warnings: violence, gore, character death (including murder and suicide), unstable/unreliable subjectivity. If you want to know more about the rest of the Locked Tomb’s content, I recommend you look up our other reviews of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.

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.

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.

Nat reviews the Pirates of Aletharia by Britney Jackson

the cover of Pirates of Aletharia

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Get ready to don your trusty tricorns for a high seas adventure full to the brim with pirates, betrayal, forbidden magic, and the plotting of sweet revenge. Pirates of Aletharia is so much fun I can’t wait to read it again. An equal parts cocktail of fluff and angst — a search for redemption while enjoying a few nights of too much overproof rum. 

Emilia Drakon is in the midst of escaping the gallows of her public execution in the land of Illopia when we meet her. This daring escape and our introduction to the Villain (yes with a capital V) of the story here is key, but note that this incident takes place in chapter one rather than as a prologue. The meat of the narrative starts several months later, making the transition feel abrupt, and even making the first chapter feel a bit rushed. But aside from a bit of rough seas at the start, the book hits its stride quickly. Just be prepared to stay up late reading it, is what I’m saying.

While the book has dragons, magic, and swashbuckling aplenty, the banter between the broken but lovable main characters are where the author knocks it out of the park. They say if you write excellent characters the reader will follow them anywhere, and this is a great example. While there is a fair amount of action, much of the book is character development, heavy on the repartee. At some point I looked up and thought, it’s been like a hundred pages, where even is this boat going? And then I realized, I honestly didn’t care about where the compass was pointed or how it was even getting there. All the important stuff was unfolding between Captain Maria Welles and Emilia Drakon. 

Though sometimes silly and often indulgent, the author will treat you to chapter after chapter of verbal foreplay and I am totally here for that. One minute we’re snarling and sneering and hating each other, the next we’re leaning close and murmuring with our bodies pressed nearly together and our cheeks warm for no particular reason at all. There are sword fights and a bit of stabbing amongst friends, and of course the threat of mutiny (because pirates). You can also expect lots of enthusiastic consent, and perhaps even a lesson in knot tying. Ahem. You know, like one does on ships. There’s even a Villain monologuing scene near the book’s end, and who doesn’t love that

The side characters were fantastic as well and quite integral to the story. Judith, the ship’s Cook and  the captain’s best, if not only, friend is not only gay as the day is long (and a big fan of the rum no one else will touch) but she’s extremely important for the reader getting to know the real Captain Welles. She also features quite heavily in Emilia’s portrayal, making her a very well rounded and valuable secondary player.

Pirates of Aletharia is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I can’t wait for the sequel just so I have an excuse to read the first one again! 

Trigger Warnings: violence, offscreen torture

Nat reviews D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins

the cover of D'Vaughn and Kriss Plan a Wedding

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One of my favorite romance tropes is the fake relationship – I just can’t resist it. So there was little doubt that watching D’Vaughn and Kris plan a fake wedding would be absolutely delightful. 

The story is centered around a reality show called Instant I Do and told through the first person perspectives and solo camera interviews of D’Vaughn and Kris. The premise of the show is to convince your closest friends and family that you’re getting married to the person you’re paired with — in six weeks. Framing the book in the context of the show means we also experience our main characters in a sort of vacuum, removed from their everyday lives and jobs while they focus on their goal. 

Curvy, femme and very closeted D’Vaughn is hoping to diversify the cast of this season of the show with her presence as a queer, Black, full figured contestant. Her main motivation for going on the show is to come out to her family, which she’s never been able to bring herself to do. She just needs to convince her conservative, judemental mom that she’s about to get gay married! Bold move, D’Vaughn.

Kris is a social media influencer, a stud who’s got a rep for being a bit of a player. She’s looking to find true love and a real connection, and thinks going on this show will help her do just that. She’s been out to her big, boisterous Afro-Latinx family for ages, but the trick will be convincing them she’s serious about settling down, and with someone they’ve never met or even heard of. 

As a couple, D’Vaughn and Kris are adorable, and I love the support Kris gives to D’Vaughn as she comes out to her family even though they’ve just met. I really enjoyed the narrative expressed in the Jitter Cam sections, giving us a bit of an extra perspective on what the characters were thinking and feeling. The story has great pacing, and you experience things in the moment, a bit like it would be if you were watching the show. 

The only real problems for me came from consistency issues surrounding the technical reality show aspects that I think should have been caught by an editor. Obviously in Romancelandia we are opening our minds and hearts to things that prooobably would not happen in real life. That’s why those little world building details are so crucial. Mentions of the mics and cameras that clarify some issues are provided later in the story, but would have better been served at the beginning of the book. At some points it kind of felt like the author was figuring things out as she went along, but didn’t go back to shore up any leaks that may have been caused in the story. I even had to go back a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. These were the sort of details that kept pulling me out of the book. 

So while I can get behind our characters falling in love in six weeks, I’m totally chafing about not being able to tell when they were on film or being recorded vs when they were alone having private moments. I personally don’t have much experience watching reality shows, so I don’t know if that helped or hurt my perspective on how that was shown to us on the page. My writer’s brain understands how these problems developed, but a fresh set of editing eyes could have caught these little inconsistencies. 

Despite those few hiccups, this is a fun romance with lovable characters and definitely worth a read! 

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.

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Tiger's Daughter

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The Year of the Tiger begins in less than a week, which is a convenient excuse for me to review The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. Not that I need one; this book is both extremely good, and seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. But before I dive in, I need to make one thing very clear:

This book is really intense.

The Tiger’s Daughter belongs to a subcategory of adult fantasy fiction that is not afraid to go hard in its depictions of human-on-human violence. Some of its descriptions are incredibly visceral. That said, it’s not as bad (nor nearly as frequent) as books like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War or George Martin’s A Game of Thrones; thankfully, The Tiger’s Daughter never strays into pointless grotesqueness. Rivera’s descriptions of violence aren’t shy, but they don’t overstay their welcome either. Most of all, any brutality therein feels like it was put there with purpose, and with a measure of care for the reader. But that’s just my take, and your mileage may vary.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter immensely. The level of craft in the writing honestly makes me surprised that it’s K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel. It’s written as a letter from one character to another, with a few framing chapters scattered throughout. The epistolary format can be hard to get right, and Rivera does a good job with it. The pacing might be a little slow at first, but the second person narration and occasional asides from the (diegetic) author of the text works surprisingly well. The fantasy setting is rich and engaging, and the story somehow manages to feel both personal and epic in scope.

The letter in question recounts the early life of Barsalai Shefali, daughter to the leader of a nomadic steppe people called the Qorin. Equally important is O-Shizuka, heir to the powerful empire of Hokkaro. Though their two kingdoms were recently at war, Shefali and Shizuka grow up together by way of an unlikely friendship between their mothers. They are also, unequivocally and without explanation, soulmates. This single truth runs through and underscores everything in the entire book. It is the gravitational constant that holds the story together, and I loved it. Their romance walks the line between the humble humanity of two girls in love, and the world-shaking weight of a relationship that simply must be, and it balances there well.

Also, at the risk of going on too long, I want to note that The Tiger’s Daughter has the best inclusion of a trans character in a fantasy novel that I have ever seen. Not only is the character herself handled comfortably and respectfully, but we’re also told exactly how many mares she owns. I don’t think the author ever explains why this matters (the reason being that pregnant mare’s urine is a rich source of human-usable estrogens—a medical technology known to several real-world steppe cultures for centuries), but of course Shefali understands. Through that understanding, it becomes clear to the reader that several other characters we’ve met have been trans women as well. The entire sequence both cements the existence of trans people in the setting, but also grounds and naturalizes that existence.

I first read The Tiger’s Daughter towards the end of 2020, and the global events of the last few years definitely influenced my experience. It’s the first of a trilogy, and we’ll get to the sequels starting next month—but even as a stand alone novel, if my earlier disclaimer didn’t put you off, I think now would be a good time to read it. Because if you’ve ever gone through a cruel and harrowing few years with a partner, and come out the other side with a love even stronger than when you began; if you’ve ever had a relationship interrupted by distance, where the absence of your lover felt like a hole in the world itself; or if you’ve ever had a love that felt like it began before the stars were formed, that pulls like gravity despite the whole world trying to keep you apart—then The Tiger’s Daughter might be for you.

Content Warnings: gore, hallucinations, eye injuries, mouth/face injuries, sex (lesbian)

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.

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

the cover of Huntress

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

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.

Sam reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content warnings: mouth/tooth injuries

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

Landice interviews Anna Burke about her book Spindrift

Spindrift by Anna Burke

Anna Burke is not just one of my favorite lesfic authors—she’s one of my all time favorite authors, period. I love her dystopian lesbian pirate debut novel so much that I’ve convinced 6+ different friends to read it, essentially turning my Sapphic Bookstagram group chat into the unofficial Compass Rose fan club, and I credit Burke’s 2019 Goldie Award winning book, Thorn (an F/F Beauty & the Beast re-imagining), with reigniting my long dormant love for reading.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Burke about her newest book, Spindrift. A contemporary romance, Spindrift is definitely a departure from her previous work, but I found it to be equally delightful!

Landice: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, Anna! Would you like to introduce yourself to readers not yet familiar with you or your work?

Anna Burke: Sure! I am predominately a speculative fiction writer. My first book, Compass Rose, is a dystopian high-seas lesbian pirate novel, and my next two books, Thorn and Nottingham, are retold fairytales (Beauty and the Beast and the legend of Robin Hood, respectively). But most people know me as Artemis’s dog mom.

Landice: That’s certainly how I know you! [laughs] But, speaking of dogs, Spindrift is a romance between two dog moms, which I loved. I mean, there’s a lot more to Emilia and Morgan than their dogs, but Nell and Kraken do play an important part in the novel! Is Kraken (a German Shepherd) based off of your own pup? These are the sort of hard-hitting questions Lesbrary readers are here for, obviously.

Anna: Kraken is absolutely based on my GSD, and another dog, who will appear in later books, is inspired by my Cocker Spaniel. I couldn’t resist! I love writing animals into my work–and not just because I love animals, though that admittedly might have a lot to do with it. From a craft perspective, how characters interact with their pets can reveal a great deal about them, and they can also serve as a humanizing influence on characters who might otherwise be irredeemable. And, let’s face it—us queers love our pets.

Landice: Very true! Emilia is definitely a bit of an ice queen at first—or, we can tell that’s how she wants to be seen, at least, because she’s still very fragile and sort of cagey post-breakdown. But her interactions with Nell and with other animals in the first part of the novel really help us glimpse past the emotional walls she puts up! And as someone who also struggles with anxiety and other mental illnesses, I really appreciated the care you took in writing Emilia’s own mental health issues. What, if any, were some of the challenges you faced in writing that aspect of the novel?

Anna: This is a great question. Mental health is a topic that is close to my heart, and is something that I–as well as most of the people I know—struggle with. Not only is it a major issue in the veterinary profession, but it also is something that the queer community faces disproportionately. I’m queer and married to a veterinarian (laughs). By far the biggest challenge I faced in writing Emilia’s character was figuring out how to faithfully portray her struggles while also conveying a sense of hope. She’s faced some tough shit, and will continue to deal with that, but she’s also learning how to live with it, and that’s where I wanted to put the focus of the novel. Sometimes surviving is the bravest thing we can do. Emilia is brave, and because I write fiction, her reward is new friends, old love, lots of dogs, and, well… a few boat scenes, let’s just say.

Landice: And what excellent boat scenes they are! The steamier sections of Spindrift are stellar, some of the best I’ve read in a long time, but honestly, the mental health aspects were what really stood out to me. You know that meme that’s gone around lately, “Sure sex is great, but…”? Spindrift reminds me of that. “Sure, sex is great, but have you ever read a romance novel that also has phenomenal mental health rep?” [laughs]

Anna: Omg, that’s amazing. And then there’s Morgan, who is in total denial about her own issues… As a reader (and a writer and a human), I really do think that the deeper the emotional connection, the better the sex/the bigger the payoff. For these characters, an emotional connection isn’t possible without navigating the emotional depths they’ve both sunk to, which also offers such good potential for conflict. And, you know. Some good flannel ripping.

Landice: Flannel ripper! Oh, my god. That is the best possible way to describe this novel, honestly. Why aren’t flannel rippers a thing in the lesfic community, yet? Can we make them a thing? Anyway, I know you’re currently working on the second Seal Cove romance, Night Tide. What are the biggest differences, you’ve found, between writing both speculative fiction and contemporary romance?

Anna: I feel like #flannelripper has to already be a thing, but it clearly needs to be a BIGGER thing. Let’s make it happen. Honestly, I love hopping genres. It’s like solving different puzzles, and it lets me explore different storylines and settings. It also keeps me from getting stuck—I work on multiple projects simultaneously, and working in different genres often gets me out of writer’s block.

It’s funny—I thought there would be larger differences. I did enjoy not having to create entire worlds and societies, and there was less research involved (though again, being married to a vet made the veterinary research component easy). But characterization and world-building are the same regardless of genre. [laughs] Probably the biggest difference is that I wanted the characters in these stories to be happy. Anyone who follows me on social media knows this is a big departure from the norm!

Landice: It’s a nice change from your other books, I must say. I love the others, but they definitely hurt. [laughs] I’d love to have you back once Sea Wolf (Compass Rose sequel) is out in the world, that’d be a very different conversation. But to wrap up, how would you describe Spindrift to a potential reader in a couple sentences or so? Aside from #FlannelRipper, what’s your elevator pitch?

Anna: [laughs] Okay. Butch bottom falls for femme top/flex, plus dogs.

Landice: Yeah, I’d say that pretty much sums things up! [laughs] Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Spindrift’s official release date is August 25th, but you can snag your copy now, exclusively through the Bywater Books website!

Spindrift Description:

Can a hot summer fling mend the hearts of two broken women?

Morgan Donovan had everything she ever wanted: a dream job as a large animal veterinarian, awesome friends, and a loving and supportive fiancée. But it all comes crashing down when her fiancée dumps her after realizing that Morgan’s job will always come first. And, while Morgan still has the job and friends, her heart is broken into a million tiny pieces.

Emilia Russo is a burned-out shelter vet. When the unexpected death of her father triggers a mental breakdown that hastens the end of her relationship, she retreats to his house in Seal Cove, Maine. She plans on spending the summer renovating it while she figures out how to pull the pieces of her life back together. But when she runs into Morgan at the dock where her father’s sailboat is moored, her plans for a quiet summer of healing and reflection sink like a stone—the attraction is immediate and obvious, and Emilia finds herself slipping seamlessly into Morgan’s world.

Each woman knows this fling will end when Emilia returns to Boston at the end of the summer, but they’re unprepared for the intensity and depth of their attraction. And, as the gales of fall begin to drive leaves like spindrift upon Seal Cove, Morgan and Emilia must each come to terms with how much they’re willing to give up to stay together.

Content Warnings: past suicidality, death of a parent (off page), mentions of animal euthanasia

Anna Burke with her dog!Anna Burke was the inaugural recipient of the Sandra Moran Scholarship from the GCLS Writing Academy and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. Her queer feminist novel, Thorn, was named 2019 LGBTQ+ book of the year by Foreword Reviews. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can usually be found drinking tea or playing with her dogs.

You can find her as annaburkeauthor on Patreon, Instagram, Twitter, or on her website, annahburke.com.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Landice reviews Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

“I care about you, Alex. […] Part of me says you’re too good to be true, but the greater part of me says that if I give you a chance, you’ll be worth it.”

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten is a fun new lesfic novel with sci-fi elements, available now from Regal Crest!

Normally I begin a review with my thoughts, but there’s so much to unpack in Remember Me, Synthetica that I decided to lead with the synopsis, for context.

Synopsis:

What happens when a woman loses her memory but gains a conscience?

Dr. Alexandra Turing is a roboticist whose intellect is unrivaled in the field of artificial intelligence. While science has always come easy, Alexandra struggles to understand emotional cues and responses. Driven by the legacy of her late great-uncle, she dedicates her life to the Synthetica project at her father’s company, Organic Advancement Solutions (OAS).

Her life is rebooted when she wakes from a coma six months after being struck by a car. Traumatic brain injury altered Alex’s senses, her memory, and her personality. Despite the changes, she feels reborn as she navigates her way back into her old life. Part of her new journey includes dating the alluring Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Emily St. John.

Emily is enamored with the hyper-intelligent scientist, but there are things about Alex and OAS that don’t add up. With Emily’s prompting, Alex undergoes testing that leaves her with more questions than answers. What she discovers changes more than her life, it will change the world around her.

Even with context, where to begin? Synthetica is unique in that it truly toes the line between romance and genre fiction without ever fully leaning in to one of the other. Yes, the adorable butch/femme relationship between Alex and Emily–which I couldn’t help but root for from the moment they met–gets a lot of “screentime,” but we also spend a lot of time learning about the various scientific ventures at OAS.

It’s obvious Aten put a lot of time and effort into her research into the more academic/scientific aspects of the novel, which I can definitely appreciate. Not all of the technology referenced or explained in Remember Me, Synthetica exists yet, but I couldn’t identify what exists vs. what Aten came up with herself if you paid me, which shows how seamlessly she managed to weave the science fiction elements into the story. At times the story did feel a bit weighted down by jargon, but I think the use of scientific terms was important for Alex’s characterization.

That being said, I would still be more apt to shelve Synthetica as a f/f romance than as a science fiction novel, if I had to choose between the two. I’ve begun describing Synthetica and other books in the same vein (like The Lily & The Crown by Roslyn Sinclair, which I also loved!) as “lesbian fiction novels with sci-fi themes/elements” because it feels more accurate.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that I had a lot of mixed feelings about Synthetica at first. It was definitely fun to read, but I found myself annoyed by some things that I thought were strange stylistic choices on the author’s part. At about 70% in, I began to panic. I’ve enjoyed much of Aten’s past work, and it felt like Synthetica was lacking her usual spark. My worry completely evaporated not long after, when she served up a plot twist of truly epic proportions! I won’t go into detail, because this is a book I wouldn’t dare spoil for potential readers, but I will say that once the plot twist hit, all of the things I’d disliked about the novel made complete sense, and no longer bothered me.

All of that is to say, if you pick up Synthetica, keep an open mind, and read it through to the end! Everything will make sense in time, and honestly, this book had the best ‘pay off’ of any novel I’ve read in a very long time. If you enjoy romance novels that are plot driven and thought provoking, Remember Me, Synthetica might be the book for you!

Remember Me, Synthetica At A Glance:

Genre: Lesbian Romance, Sci-fi/Speculative

Themes/Tropes: Butch/Femme, Opposites Attract, Second Chances

Sapphic Rep: Butch Lesbian MC, Bisexual Femme Love Interest

Own Voices? Yes

Content Warnings (CW): Head trauma/amnesia/other medical trauma, gaslighting

ARC Note: A huge thank you to Regal Crest and K. Aten for sending me an advance copy to review! All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.