Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

Briar-Girls cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Misadventures of an Amateur Naturalist by Ceinwen Langley cover

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Yên is a rural scholar, who offers herself up to a dragon in her mother’s place to repay her village’s debts; Vu Côn is the dragon in question, trying to fix the world that the Vanisher’s destroyed and then abandoned. Together they live in the dangerous Escher-style nightmare that is the Vanishers’ palace, trying to raise Vu Côn’s teenage children and change the nightmare that the Vanishers left this world in.

The world-building is really cool; In the Vanishers’ Palace is set on a world that was modified beyond the inhabitants’ understanding by the Vanishers, who abandoned it when they grew bored – and people are actively trying to fix it. The scale of the problems are huge, and compounded by people like the leaders of Yên’s village, who are power-hungry monsters, but people are still trying, and that is something I need right now. And for all that the story is fantasy, it has science fiction elements woven in really well – yes, Vu Côn’s palace has impossible geometry, nonsensical architecture, and death lurking in every corner, but it also has a library that can just generate books, and a distinctly scifi room for Vu Côn’s patients. Plus, the magic of In The Vanishers’ Palace is language based, and the story gives Yên space to explore what is known about magic and the ways that common understanding isn’t always right made me happy!

The story itself takes the basic premise of Beauty and the Beast and focuses on it as a story of agency and independence. Vu Côn’s arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have valuable knowledge and opinions of their own, and her romance with Yên is explicitly about them negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person starts as a prisoner/employee of the other. Vu Côn’s children are specifically trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what role they can have in this world. And Yên is explicitly finding a role for herself after the danger of her village, where those not deemed “useful” and in danger from the village leaders. I enjoy the ways that motherhood, familial duty, and folklore are also woven into this story as integral threads as well, it really worked!

In conclusion: In The Vanishers’ Palace is the queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t know I needed, and it’s excellent. Definitely recommended.

[This review is based on an ARC from the author.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Ren reviews We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore cover

TW: self harm, violence against women, sexual assault

‘Beautiful’ does not even begin to encompass the captive, rhythmic style Ariel Gore possesses. I found it difficult to read quickly despite it being a relatively short work; every few pages there would be a line simple in structure but devastating in truth. I would be left raw, and was often forced to take a few minutes of sitting quietly before I could pick it up again. Reading this book was not always comfortable, but it was always very real. Her revelations discomfit, the view of an unkind world is gutting, and I am so glad to have found and read it. This will not be the last time.

It begins with Ariel at age 19, delivering Maia in a hospital in Italy. The following chapters delve into her confusion and uncertainty as she returns home for the first time in a long time, and she slowly finds her footing in a world that is not good to her. It becomes an anthem for all that is endured silently for the betterment of privileged fragile men. Reading this book, I was angry, and I was heartbroken.

Poor little male violence
You can climb my hair.

The book is made of rage. And writing when you have rage is important (as is reading about rage when it’s so similar to your own) because more often than not, that rage is turned inward. Because suffering as one’s own island is what women have been groomed to do. There are endless layers and contrasts to Ariel’s explorations as she grows from teen to young adult, and she pulls no punches in her descriptions of suffering (and betrayal after betrayal). Nothing is easy. There is prejudice and rigidity even in the broader spaces in which she tries to make a home.

Ariel goes to college, baby in tow. She studies the witch trials extensively. Outlines the trends in accusing poor, unmarried women of witchcraft and executing them. Paints a picture of women who mattered so little, the only way to find their stories is by the court records of their trials.

Very few people in power really care about other people’s sexuality. They care about money. But shaming sexuality is easier because that realm is so vulnerable. And of course if you control sexuality, that’s power that can be transmuted into more money.… my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.

Different is dangerous. Different needs to be leashed.

College teaches Ariel lessons in taking up space. She makes a few key friends. Finds some cute girls to make out with. Her Women’s Studies professor encourages her to explore feminism, and Ariel’s automatic rejection is, ‘feminists just get abortions’. I was taken aback, but equally appreciative of Gore’s ability to be honest about her growth. Because we aren’t born good feminists, and it is hard to accept a label often thrown like an accusation when you are too young to know it should be worn like a badge of honour.

She gains confidence in her desire to be a writer because here, at this women’s college, people do not laugh at her dreams. But she also learns that the people in her new home carry their own flaws. Her intro to (White Girl) Feminism gives her creative freedom and embraces her talent, but it does not account for poverty. It advocates for queer rights, but does not care for butch representation. Ariel’s employer stages a gay wedding between two femme white girls (one hetero, the other with no interest in marriage) – rejecting a butch couple actually looking to get married – because the butch couple are too gay for the kind of press this ‘feminist magazine’ is hoping to garner.

Ariel learns that feminists can be terrible too, when they are not willing to change. When their idea of Feminism is the only Feminism.

Also, honourable mention goes to Ariel’s crush on her Women’s Studies professor. Been there, Girl.

We Were Witches reads like a novel and you want it to be a novel, because in a novel, when the writing is this good, the ending always satisfies. But when my Kindle told me I was 70% through and things were still getting worse, I wanted to cry.

Ariel gives birth to a daughter, and the doctor mutilates her without thought.

The only alive the doctor knows is crying.

She goes home to a mother who will not let her forget the ‘shame’ of being a teenage mother. She takes Maia and branches out on her own and tries to finish college, only she needs welfare assistance to do so. And the woman she tries to befriend throws her to the wolves (the wolf being the woman’s asshole husband who shouts welfare/single mother-shaming abuses at Ariel, then escalates to threats, prompting her to pack her things and leave the city). She moves to a new college. A queer friendly, women’s college.

It does not get better.

Her ex-boyfriend punches through the glass window in her door to break inside. She phones the police. The police show up and Lance charms them, painting Ariel as hysterical. She tries to file a restraining order. But ‘children need their fathers’ and suddenly the choices are share custody with Lance, or have Maia taken away.

As the book progresses, a very clear picture begins to take shape. Here, we explore the pieces:

The police refusing to believe Ariel and Lance aren’t married. Refusing to believe that Lance broke down the door and was ready to hurt her.

Passing as straight for the courts because queer mothers have their children taken away from them.

Ariel’s friend raped – at 14, by a police officer – and told her rapist has visitation rights.

A childhood friend of Ariel’s, raped during her first year of college: her push against the college for laws of consent to be clear and mandatory are made into jokes on the radio.

The witch trials have not ended. And this is as bleak a reality as it is an important one to remember. Fighting when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted – because you’re fighting your fight and the fight of queer/poor/unmarried/underrepresented people before you, even preceding the witch trials, and you were brought into this world fighting – is important. The alternative is death. This book is about intersectional feminism, motherhood, male privilege, violence, the burden of emotional labour, and the one hundred other aggressions dealt with daily to varying degrees by anyone who is not a cis-white male. Everyone needs it.

One final note, and then I promise I will stop hyping it up. I’m a sucker for reimagined fairy tales; there are some brief retellings throughout the book, but the Rapunzel retelling wrecked me. I won’t spoil it, but it wrecked me. Do not read this book until you are in a place where you are okay feeling every feeling. But please read this book.

Marthese reviews Gretel and “Dragon Essence” by Niamh Murphy

”She had trusted two strangers in her house, offering them food and shelter. It was nonsense not to trust her.” – Gretel: A Fairytale Retold

With GDPR the copious amounts of author newsletters were at best purgatory. The ‘please subscribe to us’ emails were really great to weed out authors that I am not so interested in reading anymore. One author’s newsletter that I kept was Niamh Murphy’s. This author sends a lot of freebies and previews, is interested in fantasy and historical fiction (she’s actually a historian!) and sends advice and tips on where and what to read. I particularly liked her newsletter of Sapphic Fairytale Retellings! Anyone subscribed to her newsletter has received the short stories I will review below!

Despite knowing of this author, I hadn’t read any of her stories before last week, but now I’m intrigued. I started by reading “Dragon Essence: A Prequel to the Dark Age Trilogy.“This was, and and still is currently, free with a newsletter subscription! I have never read a prequel before the actual series, but this particular prequel was good at introducing the world and making the readers invested in seeing more from from it. The prequel is very short and can be read during a lunch break.

The plot surrounds Andra, a Captain of the Dragon Ward. Andra’s lover, Olwen is a mage set on getting a hold on a dragon egg – which Andra is bound to protect. Olwen gets killed, and the way to bring her back to life may see Andra breaking all sorts of oaths. This was a refreshing read, though very morally dubious. Why I could understand why the characters were acting in a certain way, I didn’t feel it was 100% okay. Be forewarned, there is violence on mythical creatures and violence of the human kind. The story contained also a preview of the first book Dragon Whisper. I love queer fantasy, especially with dragons and I’m interested to see how the wizards vs druids and the humans vs dragons elements will play out. I also do not know many queer fantasy books/historical fiction books with druids.

After I finished “Dragon Essence” I felt like reading the series…only it is not yet out. So I read Gretel: A Fairytale Retold, which as you probably guessed is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel: one of my favourite childhood stories! Gretel isn’t that long and is a bit fast paced, but then again, so was the original story. Hans and Gretel are introduced while running away from wolves and fortunately they are saved by a woman who offers them lodging until Hans heals. Gretel and Hans are away from home and have been looking for work. Maeve, the woman who saved them, lives in a cottage in a fort – all on her own. Gretel and Maeve grow closer in a really sweet way (and sexy way too as it involved a first-time sex scene in the woods!), but Hans is ever suspicious of the ‘witch’. Gretel has always had Hans and Hans had always had her back…until both those things are not true anymore. This story has a happy ending for the couple! It also has one of the best concluding lines from a character that I’ve ever seen.

While short, I think this story was great. It is a fast-paced story but there was no ‘love-at-first-sight’. It also featured a realistic fracturing of a family bond and growing romantic bond. I found Maeve to be an interesting character because she’s kind and feminine but still strong, physically and mentally. I absolutely hated Hans. Perhaps if it was longer, we could have seen a nice side of him. The writing was simple but effective and emphatic. This novella is currently free!

Overall, this is an author I would look into more. Niamh Murphy also has a youtube channel where she talks about books. I enjoyed discovering this author especially because of the fantasy and  retellings with a dash of history. I look forward to discovering new authors of those genres.