Guest Reviewer Marieke reviews Summer of Salt by Katrine Leno

[this review contains plot spoilers and discussion of rape]

The first half of this novel reads like a landscape painting and the second half reads like a murder mystery featuring an emotional climax, with a sweet but slightly underdeveloped romance sprinkled throughout. In a town on a small nondescript island, magic and salt are always in the air. Georgina Fernweh is the twin sister to Mary, and she’s the only living Fernweh whose magic has apparently not yet manifested itself. This, combined with the fact she’ll leave the island for the very first time when she turns 18 in late August, means her summer is set for the perfect coming-of-age tale.

The first half of the book mostly concerns itself with worldbuilding and character introductions. While the absence of a strict plot makes for slower pacing, it’s done gorgeously and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the life of Georgie. We get to follow the relationships and quirky behaviours of Georgie and Mary (who could not be more polar opposites), their mother, and the cook (the Fernwehs run a B&B) as they prepare for the tourist season. We meet some minor local characters, some of whom endear themselves immediately (best friend and proud aro/ace Vira) and some of whom leave a bad taste in the mouth (side-eyes Nice Guy™ Peter).

Over the course of the book a sweet romance blossoms between Georgie and Prue (one of the tourists), with some adorable hiccups: while Georgie is out (alternately using ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ to describe herself), she still needs to figure out if Prue is interested in women. Prue explains she’s only known she’s not straight for about a year and she doesn’t use a label for herself, but she’s definitely attracted to men and women. In a lovely montage of Georgie coming out to those she cares about individually, all of them accept her, but she also realises that she doesn’t know what Prue’s life off the island is like. This is the clearest indication that Prue is unfortunately underdeveloped as the main romantic interest.

At the midway point there’s a very stark shift in tone [minor spoilers moving forward] as the island discovers the murdered body of their main attraction, 300-year-old bird Arabella. Suddenly rain won’t stop pouring down, to the point that the weather becomes a character of its own. Mary is acting strangely, and most everybody suspects her of killing Arabella. Georgie teams up with Prue’s brother to prove Mary’s innocence, which makes for a budding friendship. While this half is more action-driven, it never loses the magical tone or the family focus which form the heart of the story. As the murder mystery format dictates, there is a final unveiling, and it is not a pleasant one. I’ll leave you to discover the details in the book, but [major spoiler] Peter raped Mary. [end major spoiler]. Leno treats this topic with great care. It was painful to see Mary turn completely into herself and disappear, so her choice to eventually share what happened to her becomes all the more poignant. As a result, the reader is presented with a bittersweet ending in Mary’s resolution and an open-ended conclusion for Georgie and Prue.

I wish we could have explored the various minor characters a bit more, especially Prue and Vira and the ways they care about Georgie and the island. Still, this does not take away the fact that The Summer of Salt is a lovely book with an oddball murder mystery, vibrant background characters, so many different types of female connections, a great boy & girl friendship, wlw and lesbian and aroace representation, organic integration of magic, and gorgeous worldbuilding.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover

The night I was born, the attending nurse turned to my mother with a weird expression on her face. She noted that I had long delicate fingernails, and already a head of black hair; that a trail of fine baby hairs ran down my spine. “In the old days, you know, they’d have said she was a werewolf.” she told my mother. Mom, exhausted, laughed it off. It became a family story to tell later on–born on Halloween night, and a werewolf to boot! “In the old days,” Mom would laugh, “they’d have drowned you.”

It didn’t become a bitter story until she disowned me for being queer. “Why can’t you just choose to be straight?” she said. “I did. Why do you feel like you have to stand out like this?” In the old days, they would have drowned me. Now I had to find a way to keep my head above the waves.

In Hal Schrieve’s YA novel Out of Salem, everyone is treading water with a secret to keep. High school freshman Z’s just found out that they’re nonbinary–just in time to get into a car wreck with their entire family from which only they emerged, battered and freshly undead. Their classmate Aysel is Muslim, in 1990’s rural Oregon where anything but Christianity is a sure way to be ostracized–and she’s a werewolf, unregistered, which could easily be a death sentence if she gets caught. Their friend Tommy is constantly being accused of being either gay or an actual fairy, and while neither of those things is true, it doesn’t matter to his abusers. Even seeming just a little bit out of the norm is enough to put a target on his back.

And things aren’t about to get any less complicated for any of them when a local doctor is found dead. The police say he was murdered by a werewolf, throwing the town into an uproar of vigilantism and abuse against the other which is easily recognizable in today’s political climate. Every metaphysical minority is living in fear. The teenagers don’t feel that they have any reliable adults to turn to, or that if they tried, they’d only endanger them, so they have to handle things on their own.

I’m writing this review very narrowly, because I feel like this book was just that good. I don’t want to spoil any part of it. It’s urban fantasy of just-a-minute-ago, the Nineties as they almost were, but it’s also YA for people who weren’t born yet in the year it takes place; it balances teenage passion neatly against the now-slightly-foreign world of our past, only slightly sideslipped into the fantastic. Before cell phones, before the panopticon of stoplight cameras, but in a world that was not less dangerous to people who stand out. There’s a constant sense of being just a moment ahead of being caught, of barely outrunning the real monsters, and one can only keep running at that speed for so long before one’s energy gives out and something has to break.

I appreciated that the characters aren’t without teenage flaws. They’re all going through real, heartrending troubles in their daily lives, but also they make some choices out of inexperience that you’d believe a fourteen-year-old might make if they felt their back was against the wall. They reach for what small happiness they can find, they trust or mistrust, and none of it feels stilted or contrived. It all just feels like survival.

I was taken a bit aback at the first use of the word “transsexual,” as it’s not a term I’ve seen in sympathetic literature for a long time now. But it was the word used in the Nineties, and so it is the term used in the book. But of course the author isn’t unaware of that:

“Z, Aysel told me you were calling yourself like, genderqueer or something these days, right?” Z was a little taken aback by the conversation. “I guess,” they said. “Yeah.” They tightened their hold on Elaine’s shoulders. “The words change a lot,” Elaine said. “Doesn’t really matter.”

What matters more than the terminology, quoth the story, is the soul behind it, and these kids are figuring things out one mistake and injury and accidental insult at a time.

I was consistently balancing between amused at the bluntness and impressed at the deftness when it came to the use of metaphor in the story. Z’s a zombie, and they’re trans; more than once I’ve heard a trans friend tell me that their friends and family keep treating them like they’d died when they came out, and some other thing was shambling around in their skin. Aysel’s lycanthropy is treated a lot like I’ve experienced queerness being handled by the religious right, as something monstrous, something that needs to be caged or electrically shocked out of a person before they can be allowed in society. It was all on-the-nose enough that I got a bit of a tension ache between my shoulderblades. I so badly wanted the protagonists to find a way to freedom and safety, but what does that look like when the entire world is arrayed against you? And which of those needs do you choose, if everyone is telling you that you have to choose one or the other?

Even while all of society is insisting that the protagonists must be like them or die, even while most of the characters don’t see any way out but to run, the narrative suggests quietly that there’s another option. That there’s another demand for the characters to make. That building a community can build safety; that refusing to back down can protect someone else; that maybe you can transform the world into something new, something that has room for you in it, if only you are brave.

Final rating, a very rare-for-me five out of five stars.

Content Warning: Discussion of graphic injury to animated dead body (painless, but explicit); homophobia (from the bullies); physical abuse (same); mild mention of anti-Muslim bigotry; fat-shaming (bullies, again, these guys are *winners*), electroshock aversion “therapy,” racism, police violence (repeatedly), off-screen but explicit police murder of civilians.

Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

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.

Alexa reviews Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Outrun the Wind has been on my list of most anticipated releases ever since I saw that magical cover, and learned that it is a Greek mythology love story between two complicated young women. I love reading stories based on Greek mythology, but most of the ones I’ve read recently were modern retellings, so I was glad to read a more classical one.

This book did not disappoint. Outrun the Wind pulled me in from the beginning with the writing style, the story and the characters. The warrior-turned-princess, and the huntress with the prophetic gifts. And, of course, the gods, who somehow managed to be even bigger jerks than I expected. I wasn’t familiar with Atalanta’s myth before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this book at all – while it has elements from the canon myths, it also adds several new characters and fills Atalanta’s life with people.

I loved that this story was about two young women who were both hurt by men, but they managed to stay strong, get revenge, and heal together. Of course, nothing comes easily – their relationship develops gradually from animosity to love, so if you’re into that kind of thing, you might love this book.

One thing that was really strange to me is Artemis’s behaviour at the very beginning of the book, that Atalanta herself points out. You would think that a maiden goddess who renounced men and has a group of female warriors helping her would respect female warriors more and wouldn’t see them as subordinate to their male companions. I had minor issues with Apollo’s character as well, but those are more subjective (and possibly due to me still being under the effect of The Trials of Apollo) – however, this bit with Artemis just simply didn’t make much sense to me. I also would have loved to see more gods or Greek mythical figures maybe.

All in all, I thought this book was great for a debut novel, and while it could have used some more polishing, I definitely recommend it to anyone who likes Greek myths, or just fantasy with sapphic characters. (Also, I squeed when the title of the book was mentioned.)

tw: attempted sexual assault

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Danika reviews Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino cover“A new magic has entered the realm of the Sidh–and its name is rock n’ roll!”
Gossamer Axe front cover blurb

I will admit that I picked this up primarily because of the cover. A woman in high fantasy/ancient Celt robes, hair billowing behind her, playing an electric guitar? Add in the cover blurb (and the promise of queer content), and I was on board. Because I bought it mostly for cover appeal–I collect lesbian pulp, so I clearly have a weakness for ridiculous covers–I didn’t rush to start reading it. Instead, I waited for a time when I felt like reading something fun and a little bit silly. Unbeknownst to me, Gossamer Axe takes its rock n’ roll Celtic fantasy premise very seriously.

Christa is a woman who grew up in ancient Ireland. She was an expert harpist, but when she attempted to learn from the Sidh–a fairy-like magical race–she and her lover got kidnapped into their unchanging realm as punishment for her hubris. Christa escaped, but she wasn’t powerful enough to bring her lover with her. Now, she bides her time in modern (80s) America, trying to improve her musical/magical prowess enough to rescue her. She finds possibility in an unlikely place, trading her harp for an electric guitar, and forming a girl band to collectively stage a final battle.

While  still think the premise sounds kitschy–Ancient Celt harpist rescues her girlfriend from a timeless dimension using the power of rock and roll!–the book is not light or silly. It deals with heavy subject matter. A lot of it. Child rape/incest, someone dying of AIDS, homophobia, racism (including slurs), misogyny, abuse–to name a few.

But it’s also about chosen family, healing, and rebirth. Christa is bi, and where/when she grew up, two women falling in love was a little unusual, but unremarkable. Only the Christians disapprove of their relationship. Although she is living in 80s America now, she carries with her the confidence and power she learned in her youth. While all the women in the novel deal with misogyny, Christa acts as a source of strength for them. A note, though: the girl band mentioned on the back cover of the novel doesn’t get together until more than 100 pages into the book. It is a bit of a slow build. They do form of the heart of the book, though. They are very different people, but they become a kind of family.

I especially appreciated the friendship between Christa and Monica, which does not begin from a very promising place. There’s a sort of unquestioning sisterhood formed here that I love, and that seems rooted in its 80s feminist context. Christa shares her beliefs with her friends, and even if they aren’t converts, they draw strength from it. Christa believes that all women are priestesses, and she uses her rituals to remind them of their own capabilities.

Despite the dark subjects covered, at its core, Gossamer Axe is about persistence and healing. Although the characters go through incredibly difficult things, they are able to survive it, and to re-emerge as new people. This was not the book I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. If you can handle the subject matter (and are okay with this being very 80s), I recommend it. I will be checking out more from this author (silly cover or no).

Marthese reviews The Fletcher by K. Aten

The Fletcher by K Aten

‘’I have lived my life by the lead and the arrow and I respect the trees and the animals they shelter’’

I’ve been meaning to start another fantasy series and it seems like The Arrow of Artemis is going to be it. Set in a fantasy classical (Greek) world, this series follows Kyri on her journey as an Amazon! In the first heartbreaking chapter, we see Kyri leave her home and her sick father –with his blessings – to join Shana an Amazon she had rescued, in her home nation of Telequire, with some detours.

Kyri is a Fletcher, like her father and his father before him. Her arrows shoot true and had it not been for her leaving, she would have become a master Fletcher. But sexist laws in her region and her saving Shana lead her to leave to make a future and a new home.  Shana, her new Amazon-sister is always by her side, encouraging her. She makes friends and family along two Amazon nations.

Kyri is a great Fletcher and a great archer. She has lived all her life surrounded by trees and knows to read nature, which leads her to partake in many extraordinary feats … including acquiring a feline companion. Despite all this and all the people telling her how great she is and that surely Artemis is leading her, she doesn’t believe in herself. She pushes herself to be better, greater, stronger – so that she gets her Amazon feather and mask, fulfilling her promise to herself and her father.

There were some great characters in this short book (just under 200 pages). I loved the banter between many characters especially Kyri and Shana and Kyri-Shana-Coryn. I also loved that the author did not pair up Kyri with the first female (Shana) or even her first dalliance but rather allowed for Kyri to focus on herself and develop different bonds of family and friendship.

I loved Shana but now I am used to liking more secondary characters. Apart from the thieves and guards, there wasn’t a single character that I did not like in this book. Most characters, even the hard-headed ones were relatable. As Kyri and Shana reach the Telequire nation there was a slight shift between page-time with Kyri and Shana to page-time with Kyri and Ori, who is Kyri’s love interest and very important to the nation.

At first, the introduction sounded too simple and some of the language sounded too English but as I got into it, it was a truly classical experience of candle marks and rabbit furs. I also learned new things that were used in the ancient world and new survival tips thanks to this book.

This book is slow-burn, which I enjoyed. As someone on the ace spectrum I can never understand characters that get together so soon after meeting. Kyri is about to turn twenty and has no sexual experience. In the book there were Amazons that followed Artemis’ steps and it was not shameful.

Be aware that there is a lot of animal hunting in this book. I’m vegetarian but while it was sometimes graphic, I didn’t mind because it was for survival. There’s also killing in this book, but more for self-defence or protection of others. There was a great explanation about the ethics of killing people who hurt others; the killing was not done without conscious.

The Fletcher is very much the story of how Kyri got her Amazon feather and mask, but also it is the story of how she started to believe in herself and gained confidence. Kyri wanted to make it by herself and she does but her friends are there to help. The lack of a couple allowed Kyri to grow by herself first.

I recommend this book to historical fiction and fantasy lovers and those that especially love Amazons. I’d definitely keep up with this series.

Whitney D.R. reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After cover

Princess Princess Ever After is a cute middle-grade story about two princesses who evade their royal duties, but find something greater along the way.

I have to admit, I was nervous to read this based on the cover.  I’m always leary when one of the main characters is of color and masculine-presenting (Amira), while the other main character is white and traditionally feminine looking (Sadie).  While this story involves two princesses, I thought Amira would more ‘princely’ and constantly having to save Sadie. In media, very rarely do we get to see a woman/girl of color be a damsel in distress, always having to save her white counterparts from various dangers (usually of their own making).

I needn’t have worried.  While Sadie did need to be rescued initially, she definitely held her own once she was free of her confinement.  Sadie and Amira aren’t pigeonholed into any particular (gender) roles. They show both vulnerability and toughness.  Sadie had to learn to stand up for and believe in herself and not let her magic be taken or downplayed by others. Amira realized she still had a lot to learn about herself and the world.  But together, these two princesses made a heck of team battling making battling and then making friends with different fantastical creatures and saving Sadie’s kingdom from her evil witch of a sister.

I will say that I wish there had been more about Amira’s kingdom and her background in general.  She seemed to have been from an Egyptian or South Asian-styled place with a family, but left it all behind.  That’s all readers really see and it was a bit disappointing.

There also wasn’t a lot of obvious romance between Sadie and Amira (mostly blushing and meaningful looks at each other), which isn’t surprising considering the age this book is directed to. And they spend so much time away from each other before they get their happy ending, though I understand it was so both princess could better themselves and, in Sadie’s case, her kingdom.  But readers do get a lovely wedding and happily ever after that was almost like a Disney movie.

All in all, Princess Princess Ever After was cute with great art and story.  I just wish there was a sequel or more pages that depicted Sadie and Amira’s time apart before reuniting after what seemed like years.  Middle school me would have love to have read this at that age.

3.5 stars

Quinn Jean reviews The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson cover

[Please note: this novel contains occasional depictions of violence and this review mentions these in the first and final paragraphs]

Like its eponymous heroine, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza defies categorisation. Hutchinson’s novel never doubts the reader’s intelligence and jumps right into the centre of events at the start. Elena Mendoza is introduced as a sixteen-year-old bisexual Latina woman working at a Starbucks in a small town in Florida, who witnesses a teenage boy shoot her long-time crush and abruptly learns she has the power to heal people. The crush is a blue-haired artist called Freddie who unwittingly becomes part of Elena’s journey along with Elena’s best friend Fadil, a kind and thoughtful Muslim boy. Everyone who is exposed to the mystery of Elena’s healing ability offers her opinions on how to solve the puzzle and who to help with her power, while Elena is most concerned with keeping her loved ones safe and not hurting anybody, while also trying to figure out if Freddie maybe likes her too now. A side note to all these extreme events taking place early in the story is that Elena was the product of a virgin birth when her mother was a teenager, with science proving Elena was a statistical anomaly and was conceived through parthenogenesis. Elena has been bullied and stigmatised her entire life as a result of her famous history, which all leads her to question whether these otherworldly occurrences are miracles, science, coincidence, or something else entirely.

A novel with plot points this complex even just at the beginning of the narrative is bound to deal with countless themes, and Elena Mendoza does not disappoint there. The book trusts the reader to have the patience and focus to follow the various characters and story points and at various times Elena’s first-person narrations discusses the significance of religion, science, and ethics in the matters at hand. A big part of Elena’s growing bond with Freddie is the two of them debating and exploring different understandings of why Elena can heal and when and whether she should be healing people. There are times when the book comes off a bit patronizing, with Elena’s self-righteous rants about how to be a good person and treat other people fairly, but this could arguably just be intended as the character’s perspective rather than the author’s.

And despite the Big Idea monologues sometimes verging on being sanctimonious, for the most part Elena is a compelling, likeable and relatable main character who more than deserves her own young adult novel to lead. Elena herself points out that if her powers are God-given, she is an unexpected vessel as a queer woman of colour; the same is unfortunately true of YA protagonists. Similarly, the religious, big-hearted and open-minded Fadil is a wonderful foil to Elena’s sometimes pessimistic, doubtful and misanthropic tendencies. Their loving interfaith, interracial friendship as it is portrayed in the novel is as refreshing as it is rare.

Elena’s bisexuality and interest in Freddie is an important and key element of the story, without reducing either character to the role of pursuer or love-interest. The often prickly and inconsistent interactions the two girls have as a result of extreme circumstances are not romantic in any traditional sense. The way Freddie and Elena are forced to confront their preconceived ideas of the other and listen to uncomfortable truths explodes old notions of how intimacy and love are formed, and the novel and their bond are both better for it.

This novel is not exclusively young adult, or fantasy, or a queer love story, or a meditation on how to be a good person. It is all of those things and a lot more, all crammed into a relatively small amount of pages. Do note that the novel contains brief references to domestic violence and racism as well as the aforementioned gun violence. Ultimately aside from the odd preachy moment, the book is an excellent piece of writing, exploring important themes through engaging with very likeable and relatable characters.

Megan G reviews Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember

Unicorn Tracks by Julia Ember cover

Located deep in the heart of Nazwimbe is a safari unlike any other. Tourists and researchers come from all around the world in hopes of catching a mere glance at the incredible creatures who roam nearby. The Harving’s, a father-daughter team hailing from Echalend, have come specifically in search of the mystical white unicorn, a creature they have spent their life studying. They are assigned to Mnemba, a sixteen-year-old tour guide who knows the safari like the back of her hand, and who has come to work for the safari after a tragedy drove her from her home. For Mr. Harving, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. For Kara Harving, this is her final chance at adventure before being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. For Mnemba, this is simply business. As their time together progresses, however, it becomes clear that this tour will be none of the above.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Unicorn Tracks was the world building. Nazwimbe is an incredible country, and it’s amazing how much Ember conveys about its customs and beliefs in this short novel. I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of information given, as it is weaved so seamlessly into the story. Not only do we learn about the culture of this fictional country and its different towns, we also meet an array of incredible creatures, all of which are mythical in our world, but roam free in the plains of Nazwimbe. Often I felt as though I could see the creatures directly before me based on Ember’s words. It was as though I was on the safari alongside Mnemba and the Harving’s.

It takes a bit of time for the plot to get moving, but once it does it pulls you in. It’s unique, and exciting, and does an incredible job of showing the character of our protagonists without ever making it feel like too much. Once things get started they advance at a steady pace, bringing you to a satisfying conclusion in a way that feels natural. Again, I felt as though I was living this adventure alongside our heroines.

In the romance, Ember tackles some heavy issues, though for the most part I feel she does so well. Mnemba and Kara come from different worlds, and their clashing cultures cause tension occasionally. They learn to work together, though, both in their adventuring, and in their private lives. Although the story takes place over a short period of time, their romance unfolds sweetly. It does feel a bit fast, and yet it also feels natural that they would feel such strong affection for each other after everything they’ve gone through.

As I mentioned, this book does deal with heavy subject matter. Warnings include rape, physical assault and violence, sexual harassment, slavery, and animal cruelty. While these issues are dealt with well for the most part, there is one moment where [spoiler alert] Kara and Mnemba are becoming intimate and Kara comes across as quite insensitive to Mnemba’s traumatic past. This moment of insensitivity is never fully dealt with, and feels odd, as she has been previously quite supportive [end spoilers].

Overall, Unicorn Tracks is a delightful novel set in a fantastic world, with a sweet romance, and an intriguing plot. If you think you will be able to handle some of the heavier issues dealt with within the story, then I highly recommend it.

Marthese reviews Wish Our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips

Wish Our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips cover

”If nothing is right, then you have the freedom to change anything”

This week is pride week in Malta, and I’m going to share a very queer read that I enjoyed a lot. The book has a diversity of queer characters. It’s not just sapphic but has two boys (well, youth) that are fond of each other. Sometimes it’s good to get in touch with the diverse identities in our communities. It’s YA, and there is sapphic and ace (asexual) representation!

Wish our Hearts Away by E.J. Phillips is about a group of 4 teenagers–Lily, Girija, Michael and Sam–living in rural Australia. The story is told from Lily’s and Sam’s point of view, but Michael and Girija are protagonists as well. All four of them are confused and insecure, which does not help when they find a place–which they name the Grove–that grants wishes. Strange things start to happen after Lily and Michael’s Uncle Ben is discovered dead.

Lily and Michael are siblings; Sam is Michael’s best friend, but is also very close to Lily; and Girija is Lily’s best friend/crush. Lily feels lonely even surrounded by people. She finds another family in her late uncle’s old theater group, but having two families is difficult and leads to more confusion. Girija is scared of disappointing her family. Sam does not speak about being in an abusive household. Michael does not speak about what he feels and what he knows. These characters were complex and realistic and have conflicting wished which are keeping them back. It was interesting to see the dynamic of the four in the group. There are two couples, but also a childhood trio of friends. Michael and Girija are the ones people take notice of (even though they may not want it), but the story is told from Sam’s and Lily’s perspective. They all have their story and their secrets.

As supporting characters there were many family members–from unknowingly supporting and loving to neglectful and toxic to abusive and hindering to scared. There was also found family–between the four and within the theater group. The parents themselves have character development in the story. At times, I was angry with them because they were so realistically parents. It was also great to see the parents referred to by name, rather that X’s parents. Parents have identities too.

All the story elements are connected (in the words of Dirk Gently: everything is connected). The plot development was gradual and with interesting plot twists, most things I didn’t guess from before. One thing which stuck out a bit was that Girija didn’t feel so involved in the mystery. Her wishes were not being granted, or granted problematically like the others, but things were not happening to her like they were the other three. In a way she did move later, so I could justify it.

This book is indeed very queer with sapphic and ace (gay) representation! It was an emotional roller, coaster but in a way, the Grove is representative of growth and the difficulty of growing up, especially while different. This was not a coming out story, it was more of a sorting out with fantastic fantasy elements.

I wanted to see more about these characters. I love them. Michael and Sam had a connection and defended it even though they hadn’t necessarily spoken about it and the connection was different from what people usually expect. Lily and Girija needed to find themselves and be confident in who they are. The story was more about the individuals than the couples but the group was there was each other. The protagonists were wishing their hearts away, but this book had mine.