Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Mars reviews Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi 

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi cover

Happy Pride Month, Lesbrarians! I am swooping in from the ether to volunteer this review of Aminah Mae Safi’s much anticipated Tell Me How You Really Feel on this most auspicious month. It’s a charming read, a very well-executed story, and has been on my pre-order list for months.

Safi starts us off with a fact that stands as an overarching conflict of the book: Cheerleader Sana Khan is perfect, and there is no one who finds that more infuriating than her classmate Rachel Recht.

Rachel is a perfectionist filmmaking scholarship student on the fast-track out of her elite private school in Los Angeles to NYU’s film program, where she is going to share her vision with the world. (Accolades will follow, of course.)

Sana is an annoyingly good student on her way to Princeton, where she’ll set herself up perfectly to go on to med school and make her whole family proud (or at least that’s what she’s telling people).

Told alternatingly from Sana and Rachel’s perspectives, Tell Me How You Really Feel recounts the end of the girls’ high school experience, as they both march towards deadlines over which they have no control. For Rachel, it means she has one month to pull together a disaster film project which could jeopardize her hard-won spot at college. Rachel has had her mind made up about Sana, her self-assigned mortal enemy, since an embarrassing incident in freshman year, but after a chance accident means she’s forced to rely on her enemy for help, the film student realizes there is more to the picture than she’s been seeing. For Sana, it means possibly giving up her dream fellowship abroad that she’s secretly applied to in lieu of accepting her spot at Princeton. If she doesn’t get the fellowship by the time she loses her spot at the Ivy league, her carefully constructed house of cards will come crashing down.

This is the sweetest enemies-to-more story I’ve read in a long while, and Rachel and Sana are complicated protagonists whose growth from beginning to end had me both entertained and anticipatory. Rachel and Sana are opposites in so many ways; Rachel spews profanity, has a mean glare, and works at a diner on the other side of the tracks to make ends meet; Sana locks away her discontent with a smile, and has lived a life committed to smoothing over a complicated familial relationship between the high standards of her grandparents and the irreverent independence of her mother. Ultimately, however, they are bound by a shared hunger for more than life wants to give them, and an ambition that leaves them each taking more risks than they ever realized they could.

There are apparently some serious references to Gilmore Girls (referenced very early on in the Dedication, actually) but they all go over my head because I’ve never watched the show. If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, this will apparently be a delightful shout out. If you aren’t, I promise you this is still a lovely read that is worth your time and you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Danika reviews Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]

Mary Springer reviews Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Malice, known as Mary Alice to her family, is a trained hunter for paranormal creatures. Ruri is the beta werewolf of her pack, has been around for a couple of centuries, and is not a werewolf to be trifled with. Both their lives are shaken when Ruri’s pack is taken over by a violent, loner Alpha and Malice’s sister Cassidy is caught in the crossfire. She and Ruri are thrown together by forces of fate, and while they should hate each other, they can’t help be drawn to one another.

This was a great book! I love werewolves, so I was already on board, but this went beyond my expectations. I really appreciate some good, old fashioned angst, and this not only served the angst but also offered up seconds.

I love the characters! Malice was wonderfully stoic, putting on the airs of a cold and brutal hunter, while having this secret need for intimacy she won’t even admit to herself. Ruri was also great, a tough and formidable werewolf (or wolven as the characters in the book choose to be called) with a soft inside. There were also the other werewolves, hunters, and some intense vampires, as well as Cassidy. She takes a big role in the book and it was also interesting to see her character develop and change alongside Malice and Ruri.

The romance was perfect. Malice and Ruri have such great chemistry, but beyond that I was able to get a sense that these are two people who need each other and work well with one another. They’re both just as similar as they are different. I enjoyed watching their relationship slowly grow through the novel.

My one gripe about this was how the romance was resolved. It felt a bit rushed in the end and I was hoping for just a little more angst, conversation, and action. But I was still satisfied with where things ended up.

The overall plot about the violent Alpha and the world building as a whole really came alive for me. With some paranormal romances, I can get a bit bored with the villain and exposition, but MacTague did a great job creating a plot and world that drew me in. I would love to see more books set in this world even if they didn’t include these specific characters (but I’d really, really love to see more of these characters).

In the end, I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a great paranormal romance. This also works really well in the enemies-to-lovers subgenre, which I’m always a fan of.

Whitney D.R. reviews Fetch by B.L. Wilson

I wanted to read Fetch for two reasons: Black lesbians and my most beloved enemies-to-lovers romance trope. I don’t know what it is about two people who initially can’t stand each other realizing they’re in love (despite their better judgement), but it really turns my crank. Fetch also contains another of my favorite tropes and that’s opposites attract.

Amber is a no-nonsense femme with money and power and connections. Morgan is motorcycle-riding artist on the more stud side of the spectrum, working as a doorperson at Amber’s building. So there’s the ‘haves and have nots’ and ‘type A vs. type B’ personalities. On paper at least. I found that they were two sides of the same coin; two women who both liked to push and pull and wouldn’t back down from a real fight.  

I did find it odd that until the very end, the women addressed each other by their last names. They did have pet names for each other, but the last name thing was irritatingly consistent and I wish they had been more personal with that regard. And I recognize that these women had lived and loved before meeting each other (and some even during their interactions) but I didn’t particularly want to read Morgan have sex on-page with another woman (even if it was in the past/a flashback). Call me a romance traditionalist, I guess.

I really liked their sexual chemistry.  Despite her snotty attitude, I think Amber was more of a pussycat and Morgan saw right through it and pressed all the right buttons. Amber, as afraid of loving again as she was, really needed Morgan’s dominant side. I loved that Morgan brought out Amber’s docility. Also, this my very first time reading the word ‘punanny’ in a romance book and I was taken aback at first, then tickled pink. I’m so used to seeing other go-to raunchy euphemisms for vagina, that it was kind of refreshing.

One thing I had trouble with was the time and setting.  I wondered throughout reading why the author decided to use the events of 9-11 in a romance. Morgan and Amber have both experienced grave losses in the their lives, so I guess it could be argued the two women connected the theme of losing loved ones but on a grander scale. But it just didn’t fit or make sense to me because it felt more like a thing that just happened instead of a life-changing event that affected not just New Yorkers, but everyone in America. Though, obviously, New Yorkers felt it more keenly.

The pace of the novel was weird to me. I could never tell what time or day it was. For instance, when the women were in an office building together and the towers first got hit, it was roughly 9am, but the power went out and it was pitch black. At 9am? Did the office building not have windows? Then after, when Amber went to Morgan’s apartment it was still day and they were talking about breakfast and then all of a sudden it was night and Amber slept over.  When I reached the 40% mark in the book, only a day or two has truly gone by when it felt like a week or two in the book. And the flashbacks didn’t help.

Honestly, I felt like I was skimming more than I was actually reading. Not to say that this book wasn’t well-written, but maybe I wasn’t reading this at the right time. Characters had depth and dimension, but Fetch wasn’t for me as much as I wanted to love it. But I love the chemistry between Morgan and Amber and anyone that loves the same romance trope as I do may like this a lot.

2.5 stars