Vic reviews The Wicked Remain (The Grimrose Girls #2) by Laura Pohl

the cover of The Wicked Remain

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Wicked Remain by Laura Pohl is the follow-up to last year’s The Grimrose Girls and exactly the conclusion this duology deserved, which is to say it was clever, full of hope, with a clear love of stories and rage at their prescribed endings. While I will try to avoid spoiling either book, The Wicked Remain continues right where the first one left off, with the girls now having to deal with the consequences of everything they did and everything they learned at the end of the last book. Along with grappling with the stakes of their relationships, new and old, romantic and familial, they also must try to save themselves (and every other girl at Grimrose) from the tragedies that await them.

When I read the first book in this duology, I knew that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t actually realize how much I liked it until I realized six months had gone by since I read it and I was still thinking about it. Book two was even better. Now, I will say I often enjoy the second book more simply because I already know I like the world and the characters, so now I’m along for the ride. It’s the difference between making new friends and spending time with your old friends. However, I also think in this case book two works better because while the first book was driven by a mystery that I didn’t find terribly shocking in its conclusion, the second book is driven by “how do we fix this?” On a personal note, I always find myself more invested in those stories than in mysteries, but I do believe character arcs are where Pohl excels, much more than in shocking mysteries. In setting up The Wicked Remain as she did, she was able to really lean into her strengths.

Everything that I loved about the first book was present in this book, but, as I said, even better. I loved reading about all of these characters again, and I loved how themselves they were all allowed to be. While the first book had to spend time on setup, this book was able to jump right in, which also meant it could dive deeper. Yuki’s descent into darkness contrasted with her desire to be loved and fear that she won’t be made for a particularly fascinating journey, and one that I can’t think of too many similar examples of, though I’m sure they must exist.  

And the relationships! The relationships introduced in the first book were explored more in depth here, and in interesting ways that I didn’t always expect (I’m looking at you, Nani and Svenja), but always loved. I am always here for gay princesses, which this duology more than delivers on, but that is not even all that I am talking about here. The friendships, both old and new, are the heart of this book, and they were just as fascinating, from the still-slightly-awkward newness of Nani’s inclusion in the group to the “I would kill and die for you” intensity of Yuki and Ella’s friendship. Even the complexities of the relationship between Ella and her stepsisters are given their due, and I loved this book all the more for it.

While this is a series about fairy tales, it takes everything so seriously, in the sense that nothing is treated as worthless. Everything matters. Everyone matters.  I won’t say much about the ending, but I thought it was the perfect end to the series. If these books had existed when I was sixteen, I would have been absolutely obsessed with them, and I know that for a fact because even now, as an adult with bookshelves full of the sapphic fantasies I craved in high school, The Grimrose Girls duology is still a favorite.

Danika reviews The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

the cover of The Book Eaters

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This dark fairy tale dances on the line between fantasy and horror. It follows Devon, a book eater, who is part of one of the aristocratic houses of book eaters (think vampires, but they eat books instead of drinking blood). She is one of very few women book eaters, which means she is primarily valued for her ability to get pregnant. (We only are introduced to cis book eaters.) She’s raised on a strict diet of fairy tales and is expected to be married to two successive houses, producing an heir for each and then leaving the child with them.

When we meet her, though, she’s on the run with a mind eater child. Instead of being born with a craving for ink, Cai craves human minds. She should have left him to be controlled by the house, weaponized and dehumanized, but she refuses. She’ll stop at nothing to keep Cai safe–including finding people for him to feed on, leaving them either dead or robbed of their memories and senses. Her only hope is to find the secretive house creating a drug that stops mind eaters from having to feed on minds to stay alive.

This book rotates between current day and how Devon ended up here, starting from her childhood. Despite having a rough idea of Devon’s past before getting those chapters, I was just as absorbed in her backstory as in the present day perspective.

From the premise, I thought of this as a horror novel, but despite the bloodiness and, well, the idea of a mother hunting and sacrificing people to her mind eating son, it reads more as a fantasy to me — a fantasy novel with teeth.

This is a fascinating look into the horrors we can do for love, especially maternal love. At several points, Devon reiterates that love isn’t necessarily a good thing. Her love for her son has left a trail of bodies in its wake. And to be clear, Cai isn’t just a monster. He is a sweet, intelligent boy who doesn’t want to feed on people. Despite her love for him, though, Devon knows her life would be better without him. Maybe the world would be, too. She’s daydreamed about his death even while stopping at nothing to keep him alive. Maybe that’s the horror, more than the deaths.

This narrative is also concerned with the gendered ways people are raised, and the limited set of expectations and imagination we have because of them. Book eaters are said to be without imagination; they can’t actually write any stories themselves. They can only conceive of what’s been fed to them, and with Devon and the other book eater women, those stories are carefully selected to encourage them to be passive and obedient.

Because this is the Lesbrary, of course Devon is sapphic, and she also has a minor romantic subplot with another woman. This is a small part of the book, but it was interesting.

I will say that this felt a little distanced, like watching the story unfold from above instead of being right in the thick of it. I’m not sure how to describe that or why it gave me that impression, but I know lots of readers balk at that sort of story. For me, it matched the generally thoughtful and even philosophical tone of the story, but your miles may vary.

This was a thought-provoking and unsettling read that is perfect for fall.

Content warnings: body horror, gore, violence, domestic abuse, and violence against children

Danika reviews The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

the cover of The Drowned Woods

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

“She had never been brave–but she’d always been angry. It would have to be enough.

I picked up this Welsh dark fantasy heist novel because I was promised two things: a corgi and bisexuality. I’m happy to say that it delivered on both. And now I need more corgis in fantasy novels.

Surprisingly, it’s the corgi who makes an appearance first; Mer’s bisexuality isn’t mentioned in the text until about 100 pages in. This book is separated into three sections and has three point of view characters. Mer is a water diviner, and she’s long been on the run from the prince. She once was a weapon of his, and after her escape, she can’t stay anywhere for long. Then, a solution appears: her old handler, who was simultaneously a father figure and her captor, has left the prince (cutting off his own finger to be free of his signet) and has a plan to overthrow him. There’s a magical well that is the source of the prince’s power, and with Mer’s magic, she can stop it—along with a team of other people with specific skills. Thus begins the heist.

Their team will need muscle/an assassin, and that’s where they find Fane, the second POV character–who is also the one with a corgi. Fane made a deal with the fae as a young man to get revenge on the people who killed his family. As these deals often go, though, it turned out to be more of a curse. Now, he constantly fears accidentally killing the people around him, and he’s determined not to use his deadly power for his own gain.

Then (spoilers?), about 100 pages in, Mer’s ex-girlfriend Ifanna joins the team. She’s a thief, the daughter of two women who run the thieves’ guild. Her and Mer’s relationship ended when she turned her in to the prince’s guard. Unsurprisingly, though there’s a bit of a romantic subplot with Fane and Mer, I felt like she had more chemistry with Ifanna–or, to be more precise, I just didn’t buy the romance between Mer and Fane, even before Ifanna shows up. Sidenote: I believe this is a queernorm world, because no one comments on Mer’s bisexuality or Ifanna’s two moms.

I definitely think this will appeal to fans of Six of Crows and other heist novels, though this story is really concentrated on these three characters, not the rest of the team. I liked the twists and felt like it was well-paced, between building the team/planning and the actual heist aspect, which includes a tense sequence through caves that will soon be flooded by the incoming tide.

The mildest of spoilers, but important information for many: the dog is okay! In fact, I really feel like this book was written with the pet-lovers in mind. The corgi is just a fun, adorable companion during this fairly dark fantasy story, and he ducks out when things get dicey. (More unimportant spoilers:) Mer is mentioned feeding an abandoned dog in the first chapter. At the end, after all of the epic events that have taken place, this dog has not been forgotten. He’s rescued. This trope always gets me.

Speaking of spoilers (actual, for real spoilers, highlight to read): One weird note is that the text on the cover is actually a giant spoiler. It’s literally the twist in the climax of the story. So that’s a puzzling decision. Also, my only real complaint, other than not really buying Thane and Mer as a couple, is that Ifanna just drops off in the epilogue. Even if they didn’t end up as a throuple (always an option, authors!), I thought they’d at least stay in touch. (end of spoilers)

Though fantasy heist novels are not usually the first subgenre I gravitate towards, I really enjoyed this. The dark fairy tale tone felt like a perfect fall read, and who can resist a bisexual fantasy novel with a corgi prancing through it? Not I.

Danika reviews Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales by Melanie Gillman

the cover of Other Ever Afters

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Melanie Gillman is one of my favourite artists. I even support them on Patreon–which I highly recommend, because you get to read their travel diary comics and sometimes you get little zine-style comics in the mail. You might remember their YA graphic novels, As the Crow Flies and Stage Dreams, which are both queer and excellent. This collection of queer fairy tale comics is aimed a middle grade audience, but it will appeal to readers of any age.

I always love Gillman’s intricate pencil crayon illustrations, and this collection is no different. Despite having a cohesive style throughout, each face is distinctive and recognizable, and I appreciate how much the women’s facial features vary (no Pixar faces here). Each page is a joy to look at, and there are so many panels I’d love framed and hanging in my room.

As it says on the tin, these are queer fairy tales, and despite being original, they really capture the timeless feel of a fairy tale that’s been around for many generations. The cadence also reminds me of classic fairy tales, with some stories using repetition just as oral storytellers do.

Of course, these aren’t classic fairy tales, and they all feature queer characters, most of whom are sapphic. A ranger who falls for a girl sneaking around in the woods she protects. A princess who tries to convince the beautiful goose girl to marry her. A giantess who isn’t the monster the villagers make her out to be.

I appreciate that Gillman always knows the precise moment to end each story. I often wished there was just one panel more, but I knew I was wrong; it had to end exactly there.

I’ve been running the Lesbrary for more than a decade now, so let me be indulgent and say that I’m so glad books like this exist now. Not long ago, there were no middle grade queer books, and it’s only in the last handful of years that it’s expanded. Now, kids can read these beautiful queer fairy tales! It’s also feminist, with characters dismantling unjust power structures, and an ending that made me want to punch the air in triumph–while these stories stand on their own, there are a few that cross over.

I had some of these in zine format (they were 24-Hour Comics Day comics from previous years), but I’m very happy to have the whole collection and to read the ones I haven’t encountered before. Buy this for a kid in your life and then buy it for yourself. I love this collection.

Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

Briar-Girls cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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.

Kayla Bell reviews The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist by Ceinwen Langley

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist by Ceinwen Langley cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you think about it, “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale that can really apply to the queer experience. Being shunned by society, finding love that the people around you view as monstrous, and forming your own life outside of the norm is something that most LGBT people can relate to. In The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist, Ceinwen Langley makes this metaphor literal and does it extremely well. If you’re looking for a great new indie read, this book is for you.

In 18th-century France, the titular amateur naturalist, a young woman named Celeste, is torn between saving her family by marrying a man she knows she will never love or following her dream and passion of observing the world’s creatures to expand scientific knowledge. However, as she sets off on her adventure, she realizes that she cannot make it on her own. After seeking shelter in what appears to be an abandoned castle, she discovers a previously unknown creature. Befriending and studying this beast could be her last hope of survival.

One thing that this book does really well is establish characters and motivations. Celeste, her family, and everyone in her French village feel like truly well-rounded, unique individuals. I have a soft spot for nerdy protagonists, and Celeste’s love of science and animals really warmed my heart. The conflict she felt between marrying a man and securing social acceptance but not being happy and not marrying a man but being a social outcast was very authentic. Even the supporting characters felt well-rounded, which is notable because it would have been very easy for Langley to slip into lazy, one-dimensional villains.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the pacing. Setting up Celeste’s backstory and family was really important, but in my opinion, it took up too much of the book. Because this is such a short novel, I think the pacing might have been better if Celeste set out on her adventure earlier on in the story. In general, I also wish the story was longer. The ending definitely set up a sequel, which I would love to see, but I also could have done with more story in this installment.

Longer length would have also given the story more time to build on another aspect I thought it did really well: actually take into account the historical context of the time. Most fairy tales and, by extension, fairy tale retellings, seem to exist out of time. This book does not do that. The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist tackles head-on the rampant sexism of 18th-century France, and the very real impacts that would have on a female character. Seeing Celeste and her family and friends struggle to find joy and individuality in a society that tried to force them into being heterosexual wives and mothers was heartbreaking and compelling at the same time. More books should follow in these footsteps and actually grapple with what it would have been like for a spirited female protagonist to exist in a past that tried so hard to limit them. I truly commend Ceinwen Langley for doing so.

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist was published on September 1st, 2021. Grab your copy if you want the sapphic, feminist fairy tale of your dreams. Thank you to the author and Netgalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

Malice by Heather Walter coverAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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!

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

Danika reviews The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey DragerThis is a story about storytelling, which means I was immediately invested. The Archive of Alternate Endings explores the story of Hansel and Gretel, as it plays out in the returns of Halley’s comet throughout time. From the first chapter, I was delighted by the skill at play here. Two stories, which concern different people in different time periods, wind around each other and play off one another. The first chapter felt complete in itself, a bittersweet story set during the AIDS crisis while also being about the Grimm brothers. I wasn’t sure how this would play out in novel format, but the next chapter lived up to it, following different people and times, but with enough threads that I felt sure they would twine together by the end of the book.

It turns out that Archive attempts to do many things: it’s not enough to be about storytelling as demonstrated in the tellings of Hansel and Gretel over the ages while being framed by Halley’s comet. Until very recently, something this experimental wouldn’t also be queer. At least, it wouldn’t be queer the way this book is, introducing multiple gay men protagonists in the first chapter and lesbian protagonists in the second. Only a few years ago, you might see a novel like this end up queer—they might slip that in later in the book—but it wouldn’t be right away. That would be seen as limiting your audience even further. I’m relieved to finally be in a place where books like this are published, where they aren’t limited.

As I mentioned, this attempts to be a lot of things. Each story has a pair of siblings: stand ins for Hansel and Gretel. This isn’t just a book about stories, it’s also concerned with the relationships between siblings. I ended up liking those first two chapters best, because as this story spirals, it seems to lose cohesion: it’s about not just storytelling and Hansel and Gretel and Halley’s comet and sibling relationships, but also the end of the world, the AIDS crisis, spider webs, and even mouths become recurring themes.

So many characters don’t have names, just relationships with each other, and it was only near the end that I started to understand how they fit together: I felt like I had to take notes to realize how characters like “the illustrator” and “Halley’s niece” were related. It seemed like I’d have to immediately start the book over again to have any chance of really getting it. When I read the notes at the end, I learned that this was originally several short stories published separately and reworked into a novel. For me, they don’t really cohere. I love the concept, but I didn’t feel like it was pulled it off. I lost interest as it continued. There are definite moments of brilliance, and so much potential, but I think I would have enjoyed this better if I had just read the first two short stories, or maybe if it had been packaged as a collection of related short stories instead of being advertised as a novel.

Of course, this is a demanding, ambitious book, and I fully admit that it might have just gone over my head. This may be one I have to come back to and spend more time with to fully appreciate.