Cult Leader, Zealot, or Savior?: The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

the cover of The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

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Misery Nomaki (she/they) wields the power to manipulate holystone, an ability only saints or those void-touched have. She believes she is void mad, while the angel that guides her, Ruin, tells her she is the next Messiah. But regardless of what is the truth, Misery only knows they want to get out of their small town and search for freedom. The powers that be have other plans for them though. As she continues to use her wits to find a way out of her predicament, Misery is led down a path that may reveal the truth about her true identity as Messiah.

Yang’s world-building is overwhelming for the first few chapters. The story drops you right in the middle of the action with jargon that, while it stems from English, makes zero sense if you don’t already know this world. And presumably, you don’t know this world, because it’s the first in what may be meant to be a series. Once you pick up the lingo, though, things start to roll.

A theocratic government rules Misery’s world, but it is at war with the Heretics, those who believe in science over religion. Misery couldn’t care less about either school of thought. Having grown up poor in the forgotten outskirts of the empire trapped by the Faith, no matter what, she wants a place in the world for herself. But every move they make brings them closer to their destiny.

Part of Yang’s world-building includes the normalization of sharing one’s pronouns. It’s part of everyone’s profile when a character downloads the information constantly coming in through a chip in their brains. If someone’s pronouns are not known, it simply states unknown. None of this is made a big deal and neopronouns are quite common. This gender fluidity leads to a standard of queer relationships.

When the throne wants to come after Misery, Lady Lee Alodia Lightning, the empire’s princess, takes it upon herself to capture them. Their relationship starts with contention, to say the least, as Lady Lee wants to kill Misery. But as the story unfolds, their paths come closer together, leading to a romantic relationship. However, there isn’t enough time spent on the page showing just how this comes to happen. Their dynamic never breaches the surface, so it’s hard to believe them coming together.

The story takes an interesting trajectory, as Misery’s character arc doesn’t follow a typical hero’s journey. At least, not the one readers may expect. As she dives further into her lie of being a Messiah, events and signs point to it being true. They become a zealot, making it hard as a reader to continue having compassion for them. I didn’t come to hate Misery, but she started to make me uncomfortable.

The end leaves readers with more questions than answers. It certainly made me intrigued and wanting another book to continue the story.

Check Out This Intricate and Fast-Paced Sapphic Fantasy: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover

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After I finished devouring this year’s stunning fantasy murder mystery The Tainted Cup over the course of about three days, I knew that I had to dive into Robert Jackson Bennett’s back catalog immediately. Foundryside happened to be the one my library had the shortest hold list on, and I was delighted to find out that not only was it as well crafted, but it was also queer. In Foundryside, Bennett combines intricate world-building, nonstop action, and surprise sapphic feelings into a thrilling first book of a fantasy trilogy that I can’t wait to finish.

We open in the slums of Tevanne, where Sancia works as a highly skilled thief with a hidden power to read objects she touches to earn a living. Despite being so highly skilled, Sancia lives in a ramshackle, poorly-furnished room by herself. I was immediately interested in Sancia because she was so highly skilled but also, unusually for a thief character, she wasn’t too cocky. She didn’t take unnecessary risks because she simply wanted to save enough money to escape her Tragic Backstory that gave her the unique sensing ability. Not even the accepted magic users in universe can do what she does, and what she would really like is to turn it off. Bennett has created an entire intricately-crafted society around his unique magic system, called scriving. Scriving uses symbols and their relationships with each other to cast a new state of reality on objects. For, example one could scriv a wall to believe it’s a strong as the day it was built or a door to only open if it meets the correct key. It’s a system that can be dangerous: scriv with gravity in the wrong way and suddenly a body turns into paste. With such a system, Tevanne has come to be ruled by a series of Merchant Houses, each with its own proprietary scrivings. No government can be allowed to exist that could puncture the Merchant Houses’ sovereignty, and so if you are not attached to the Houses and live in their campos, there is only slums and scraps for you, which is where Sancia operates. I found the implications of scriving—limited only by ones imagination and logic—to be fascinating and compelling, and it made for a series of Mad Max-esque heist and action scenes, as various characters had tools, weapons, and abilities that were essentially welding together from unpredictable elements, which I found very fun.

When Sancia is hired to steal an artifact from a safe, she is dropped into the midst of a vast conspiracy that will change Tevanne forever, if it survives. What I enjoyed about this story was the dramatic flip: after her semi-successful theft, Sancia runs up against Gregor, a Merchant House man with a burning desire to actually bring justice to Tevanne, and it’s a typical cop/thief dynamic. However, circumstances force them to flee back to Gregor’s campo together, and Sancia comes to meet Orso, the campo’s head scriver, and Berenice, his ultra-competent and practical assistant. Suddenly, we’re in a split in the Merchant Houses, trying to expose who wants to steal power and illegal scrivings for themselves. Sancia, being an outsider, at first doesn’t want to work with any of them—any more than they trust her as someone from the slums instead of the campos—but they have to if they want to both stay alive and prevent magical catastrophe. It was such an interesting dynamic for a band of protagonists, and Berenice’s immediate interest in Sancia was even more welcome.

Berenice, unlike the men with more obvious status, never dithered and quickly established herself as out to get things done. When she meets Sancia and is attracted to her both looks and talent, she expresses her interest with a kiss and then makes it clear that the next move is Sancia’s. Sancia, traumatized and operating on the edges of society, has not had a lot of opportunities to think of love or sexuality in relation to herself, but is pleased with this development. Being the first book of a trilogy, there isn’t a ton of time devoted to their budding relationship, but it does provide absolutely critical and adorable motivation to Sancia at a pivotal action point.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a well-crafted and intricate fantasy book with a rules-based magic system and girlfriends instead of a straight romance, you can do worse than Foundryside. I found it to be an engaging and speedy read, and I put the second book on hold right away.

A Witchy Parent Trap: Emma and the Love Spell by Meredith Ireland

Emma and the Love Spell cover

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Emma has plans for the perfect summer, and they all involve her best friend (and crush!) Avangeline by her side. However, Avangeline reveals that her parents are getting a divorce, and her mom plans to take her with her to New Orleans! Emma decides that she will do whatever it takes to keep Avangeline here with her in Samsonville—even if it means using her secret witchy powers that she doesn’t have control over. As Emma works on honing her craft and tries to get Avangeline’s parents together through both magical and non-magical means, she learns that being different may be the most powerful thing of all.

I adored reading Emma and the Love Spell. For a deceptively simple premise, it packs a powerful punch. Emma is not only dealing with typical middle-school trials, like her best friend having to move away, but also layers that with feelings of isolation due to being the only non-white person in Samsonville and also a witch. She struggles with having to hide so many parts of herself and it is heartbreaking to read her sadness and anger at having to do so. The ending (spoiler alert) makes it all the sweeter when Emma is able to not only gain control over her powers, but also can share them with Avangeline. 

Even with these serious subthemes, Emma and the Love Spell is kept light and easy most of the time. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I read about Emma’s attempts to “parent trap” Avangeline’s parents, or her many opinions on Shrek Forever After. (Siri, remind me to rewatch it later.) Emma’s friendship with Avangeline is sweet and true, making the reader reminiscent of when they were a young person, excited to spend summer with their best friend. Add to that the sarcastic Persimmon the telepathic cat and the wise Oliver the talking parrot, and you have a hilarious crew ready for any supernatural hijinks!

Readlikes for Emma and the Love Spell include Summer at Squee by Andrea Wang, When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega.

If you enjoy retellings of The Parent Trap, Eva Ibbotson, and emotional climaxes, you can order your copy of Emma and the Love Spell through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

A Book and Herb Review: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

the cover of Basil and Oregano

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Basil and Oregano is a sweet, safe, very cute and inclusive graphic novel about two girls who fall in love while competing to become top student at their magical cooking school. While chock-full of softness and cuteness, the story also includes serious themes that keep the stakes high. I never exactly worried while reading the book—I knew things would turn out well—but I often wondered, because how would they?

Each main of the main girls faces challenges during the story. Basil has attended the same school for years, but must become top student in at least two quarter-finals to keep the scholarship that lets her follow her dream, knowing her dads can’t afford tuition. Oregano is a new student whose famous magic-using chef mom expects only the best. Luckily, between their budding relationship, excellent friends, and adorable plant-puppy, the girls have a strong support network.

The Aesthetics

Biggest warning: do not read this book at the start of a shift when your lunchbreak isn’t until four hours from now, because you will be looking at drool-worthy food!

I don’t have the strongest visual literacy, and often the deeper meanings of artwork are lost on me. Luckily, this graphic novel mixes a literal setting with amplified elements to tell even a reader like me the important pieces of the story. The food, as mentioned above, looks delicious. The familiars—a mix of magical and realistic, like a puppy growing a leaf of a cowlick or a kitten with dragon wings—are beyond adorable. In some ways, the art style cranks up to eleven. But it also stays safe. Even when danger looms, something stylistic assures you: it’ll be okay in the end.

The Relationship

“Relationship” is a better descriptor than “romance,” because this isn’t exclusively a romance. This is a story about two competitors with mutual crushes who become friends and how that develops into something more. It’s sweet and gentle. Anyone who does any sort of cooking knows basil and oregano get along, and these two are no exception! They work well together. They help each other through different challenges, such as family stress and educational burnout.

I appreciated the lack of relationship drama. The girls sometimes worry about each other, but resolve matters with communication and kindness. It was just what I like in a story.

At the same time, other relationships shine throughout the story. Basil and her besties, Villy and Addy, are friends and competitors at once. Her dads love her, even if they can be so embarrassing sometimes. Teachers at the magiculinary school are tough, but not without compassion for their students.

The Conflict

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that its conflicts are resolved too tidily. That might sound both silly and expected—haven’t I been going on about how sweet and cute and gentle this book is? Well, yes, I have. But to me, the mean girl crosses a line that is just not addressed when she eavesdrops and blackmails Oregano. Oregano’s mom is cruel, and it’s sort of shrugged off with a hug. This may be more of a flaw in myself as a reader. In a way, the book does challenge me to consider that: everything has worked out well, so why can’t I be happy with that? But I do wish some of the themes that challenge characters throughout the book were less simply concluded.

That’s my perspective, though. Maybe you want to read a fluffy book with a fluffy ending. Either way, I strongly recommend Basil and Oregano. Is it perfect by the standards of a nitpicky reader? No. Is it still a five-star read? Definitely!

The Herbs

Since I brought it up, both are delightful! Basil has a lovelier taste and oregano is easier to grow.

An Emotional Demon Hunter Romance: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

The Fall That Saved Us cover

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Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us centers around Cassiel, a former demon hunter who has left her abusive family behind in favor of a quiet life in a little bookshop she now runs. When a succubus named Avitue shows up one day, the two fall into a dangerous albeit passionate love affair that threatens both of their places in the world.

Despite such high stakes, this is a deeply personal book. In fact, when I think about this book, the word that jumps to mind is affectionate. This book had so much affection for its characters and their journeys, and it made it so easy for me to share that affection. While this book felt really heavy at the beginning, due to all of the religious trauma Cassiel was working through (and boy does this book do religious trauma really well!), by the end I was left feeling lighter. The relationships certainly helped with that, but even more so was the book’s emphasis on being kind, both to yourself and to others.

As for the relationships, I don’t only mean the romantic relationship between Cassiel and Avitue, though of course that is the main one. Cassiel’s friendship with her neighbor Ana, a witch who runs a nearby cafe and who gently but firmly encourages Cassiel to open up about her past when she’s ready, was a particular light. Likewise, the more complicated relationship with Zuriel, the sister who stayed behind, will likely resonate with many readers who come from difficult family situations.

Something I really appreciated with Cassiel and Avitue’s romance was the honesty. With a setup like this one, I find I expect a lot of secrecy and drama of the “how can I trust you!” variety. To my delight, however, Avitue was clear almost from the beginning about who she was, why she was here, and what each of them was risking by being together. This allowed the focus to remain on the actual building of a relationship, and it also made room for much more interesting conversations about how people deserve to be treated and what kind of future there is for a mostly-mortal and an immortal demon.

The only criticism I had was the pacing felt a bit off at the beginning, almost like things were being skipped over or time was moving weirdly or something I could never quite put my finger on. However, I didn’t notice that as an issue in the second half. While some might say the final conflict wrapped up rather quickly, that’s a feature for me rather than a bug, and honestly, I do think that choice ultimately served the book better as a whole. This is very much a character-driven book, and a drawn-out battle would almost feel like a detraction from a story that should center on Cassiel’s internal journey.

I am certainly planning on checking out Tamara Jerée’s next book, and if they ever wrote another book in this world (maybe about Zuriel and/or Ana), I would read it without hesitation. Though I would suggest  taking care if one struggles with religious themes, I heartily recommend Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us.

The Magic of Community: Brooms by Jasmine Walls and Teo DuVall

cover of Brooms

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Brooms is a YA graphic novel created by Jasmine Walls (writer) and Teo DuVall (illustrator) and published in 2023 by Levine Querido. It is set in an alternate 1930s Mississippi where magic flows all around, but is heavily restricted. Only certain people are allowed to learn certain types of magic to be used only in certain situations, with offenders punished by having their magical abilities locked away. Native American children showing magical abilities are rounded up and sent to government schools where they can learn “proper magic”. 

Despite the law’s best efforts, there’s one type of magical activity that continues to thrive: underground broom racing. Every weekend, teams of thrill seekers meetup to see who can take home the prize money for being the best. One such team is the Night Storms. Led by their captain Billie Mae, the team includes her best friend Loretta, Cheng Kwan, Mattie, and Emma. Together, they hope to make enough money to make their dreams come true.     

The greatest strength of Brooms is its worldbuilding. The setting of a magical 1930s Mississippi feels unique as it’s not a setting that has often been explored. By emphasizing history accuracy, Jasmine Walls shines a light on the queer communities that existed at that time but have long been ignored. The diversity of characters is also phenomenal. Mattie and Emma are mixed Black and Choctaw. Luella, their cousin who introduces them to the rest of the team, is mixed Choctaw and Mexican. Cheng Kwan is transgender and Chinese American. Emma is Deaf and speaks Indian Sign Language. Billy Mae and Loretta are Black and suffer from chronic illness and disability. Billie Mae and Luella are in a relationship with one another. Other broom racing teams include characters who are nonbinary, amputees, or come from other cultural backgrounds. Through this diversity, Jasmine Walls succeeds in showcasing people who have long been underrepresented in the media, including fantasy media. It gives every queer, BIPOC, and disabled reader the chance to see themselves as a part of the magical community of Brooms

Brooms also does a great job of developing its main characters and their relationships. The main cast is fairly large, consisting of the five racers and Luella. Through a combination of the main story and flashbacks, we get to see how this small chosen family came to be and how they continue to support each other. Luella and Billie Mae also get these really sweet moments together that show how deep their love for each other is. This made for characters and relationships that felt fully fleshed out. I was able to feel a strong connection with each and every one of them. It also made it harder for me to put the book down. I just had to know how their stories ended! 

I appreciate how Jasmine Walls was able to convey an overall hopeful tone while also clearly conveying the danger the characters are facing. Throughout the novel we are shown the very imminent threat that the girls and their community are under without ever slipping into a darker tone. We see racism and oppression, but never in its full brutality. These scenes are balanced with ones that show that, despite that oppression, the characters’ spirits never falter. They continue to support each other and their community in the face of overwhelming bigotry. To me, this feels like the perfect balance to aim for in a YA graphic novel. The people most likely reading this book may be dealing with real bigotry in their daily lives; they don’t always need to see it in their books too. They need hope and, in that regard, Brooms succeeds in giving them that. 

I found the story’s focus on the power of community incredibly resonant. Brooms isn’t a story about a group of people coming together to overthrow racist and bigoted power structures. Instead, it’s a story of how finding and building a supportive community can help people survive and thrive in spite of the dangers that surround them. It shows the reader that there is hope in community as long as its members stick together and look out for each other. It’s a message that we need more than ever. 

Brooms is also a really pretty graphic novel. The contrast between the earthy tones of the daytime scenes and the vibrant colors of the magical night races give these events a wondrous quality. It provides a nice contrast between a world that shuns non-White magic and one in which everyone is welcome and loved. The broom races also have this dynamic quality in their rendering that helps convey a sense of speed and danger, making for a thrilling read.

In the end, I enjoyed my time with Brooms. It is a well written and beautifully illustrated story that showcases the power of hope and strength of community. Through its historical setting and diverse cast, it highlights the simple fact that queer communities have always existed and will continue to exist into the future. It’s a message that every queer person, no matter their age, needs to hear.

Credit Card Debt, Climate Change, and Magical Girls: A Magical Girl Retires by Park Seolyeon

A Magical Girl Retires cover

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I am sure you are all familiar with magical girl stories like Sailor Moon, but have you ever heard of a magical girl with credit card debt? In Park Seolyeon’s A Magical Girl Retires (translated by Anton Hur), our unnamed protagonist is 29, has lost her job during the pandemic, and is now drowning in credit card debt, with no way out that she can see. She decides to jump off Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, but is interrupted by a girl all dressed in white—Ah Roa, the magical girl of clairvoyance. Ah Roa explains to her that in this world where magical girls join a trade union and protect others, the protagonist may be the most important magical girl of all time. But as they work together to unlock her powers, the protagonist’s problems don’t go away: she still struggles with low self-esteem, has her debt, and doesn’t know how to battle the most terrifying threat the magical girls will ever face: global climate change.

A Magical Girl Retires is a fantastic original story that pays homage to the fandom of Sailor Moon while blending the realism of today’s society. The protagonist may be unnamed, but the way that Park outlines her various woes and thought processes makes her anything but a stranger. The conflicts of being in credit card debt and struggling to find a job that will pay the bills is an all-too common one, especially post-pandemic, and I admire the author for not only taking on that challenge, but thriving in showing how it can seem almost impossible to get out of it without losing all hope. At the same, the protagonist maintains a sort of wonder about the task of becoming a magical girl and unlocking her powers, which makes it a joy to read this book. 

Of course, I have to mention the sapphic subplot of A Magical Girl Retires! Ah Roa, the previously mentioned magical girl of clairvoyance, deems the protagonist as being the most important person for her to have ever found, and while the two never establish an official romantic relationship, the vibes are still here. The protagonist wonders what Ah Roa is doing and what she thought of her, and Ah Roa does at one point mention how she never wants to leave the protagonist. 

A Magical Girl Retires is translated by Anton Hur from the original Korean and clocks in at a short 176 pages. I did listen to it through the e-audiobook narrated by Shannon Tyo, and it was an enchanting experience. I have seen mention of the illustrations in various reviews and while I haven’t seen them myself, if they are anything like the narration style of Tyo or the lyrical prose of Park, then I am sure they are lovely. If you are the type of reader to enjoy endnotes, then you will love Hur’s endnote on why he translated the work and the joy he found in doing so. Trigger warnings include domestic violence, idealization of suicide, financial trauma, terrorism, and murder. 

If you enjoy urban fantasy, magical girl transformation sequences, and finding your way in this unpredictable world, you can order your copy of A Magical Girl Retires through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

A Thrilling Elemental Fantasy Debut: The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbair

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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Nehal has practically everything that a woman could ask for: wealth, a prestigious name, an engagement to one of the most eligible men in Alamaxa. What she doesn’t have, though, is the right to join the Weaving Academy on her own and learn how to control her waterweaving—not without the permission of a male guardian or a husband.

Giorgina doesn’t have any privileges of the wealthy. Her impoverished family relies on her income to stay afloat, so she can’t afford to rock the boat by joining the Daughters of Izdihar too publicly in their fight for the right to vote, nor can she afford the tuition to learn how to control her earthweaving. Her heart is further broken when she learns that her love is being forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat named Nehal.

These two women live worlds apart, but soon they find that their fight for the right to determine their own futures will throw them together.

I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it came out about a year ago, but after a slew of sapphic fantasies I found myself putting it off. Now, at least, I get to read it with the second book already out (no spoilers, but you’re definitely going to want to have access to the second one shortly after finishing this book). I do regret taking my sweet time because this book was such a fun, fast-paced adventure.

I heard The Daughters of Izdihar described as a sapphic, Egyptian-inspired version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The similarities with Avatar the Last Airbender are obvious with magic powers tied to the elements, but I think that is where the comparisons end. Elsbair expands upon the ways in which weaving is a metaphor for how entrenched institutions impose on marginalized groups, how it’s a way to weaponize the group against itself by creating a sense of “other” framed as dangerous. In one scene, the women working to get the right to vote consider casting out the weavers in their cause in a way that echoes how women’s rights groups have continually excluded other marginalized identities for the sake of being more “acceptable” or “tolerable”. Weaving is a skill that only the privileged classes are able to afford training, an example of how money can justify outliers and reclassify people who deviate from the norm as merely eccentric rather than dangerous.

If you’re mostly looking for an adventure story, there’s plenty of that too. I was surprised at how fast-paced the book was. At times I felt like we were speeding along in scenes that I’d prefer to linger, especially as Nehal learns more about her abilities and what the Daughters of Izdihar do. It also means, though, that there’s never a dull moment. It’s also a duology, so I remain hopeful that the characters I wanted to see more from will feature prominently in the next one. It’s a wonderful debut and I’m looking forward to whatever Elsbair puts out next.

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

Stories About Brave Women Who Don’t Take Shit from Anyone: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

the cover of One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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We all have our preferred coping methods. Mine is returning to comforting favorites: books that changed me, those old familiar stories that still move me, no matter the intervening years. 

These last seven years, Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero has been waiting quietly for me to pick it up again. The book itself is oversized, a choice I like to think foreshadows its impact, but let me tell you more about its insides first.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a collection of stories set within a love story about two women defying a patriarchal empire. The art is sketchy but striking, with a limited color palette of red, gold, and teal, enhancing black, white, and gray. The prose conveys the same style—simple and striking—with the added zing of snark, allowing the story itself to shine. 

The prologue opens with a world creation myth. Early Earth was perfect, but this soon changes due to a God’s meddling. This God, Birdman, fanatically desires worship and adoration. “See these humans Kiddo has created… Happily breeding. Left, right and centre. NO MORE! I shall give them ME. They will learn to fear me, they will learn to do my bidding… They will worship me.” 

Properly furnished with this context, we arrive at the city of Migdal Bavel in the midst of a fireside conversation between Manfred and Jerome. Here, devotees of Birdman hold sway and women are seen as little more than amusing possessions, forbidden from learning to read and write.

We learn of Manfred’s difficulties with women. Alas, after he killed his first wife for being assaulted, he’s unable to find a woman who meets his highly specific criteria: “Beautiful. Clever enough to have a conversation, not clever enough to disagree with [him]. Obedient. Chaste. Good at mending socks. NOT ambitious. Marriage to [him] must be the height of her ambition. Interested in [his] passions. Falconry, battlements, maps, etcetera. But not as good as [him] at those things.” Hearing this, his friend Jerome points out that his wife, Cherry, is all of those things. And so he sets a ludicrous wager. He will give Manfred one hundred nights to attempt to seduce his wife Cherry, who is so incredibly chaste that even he has not “taken her virtue.” 

Years before this shameful fireside chat between Manfred and Jerome, Cherry fell in love with her maid, Hero. They shared a single wonderful summer together before Cherry was forced into marrying Jerome. Now, faced with a similar seemingly inescapable situation, they come up with a bold plan. They will distract Manfred with an enchanting story every evening for the next one hundred nights, in the grand tradition of One Thousand and One Nights

The graphic novel unspools from there, Hero telling story after story to a rapt Manfred and an anxious Cherry. We learn mysterious and tantalizing tidbits about Migdal Bavel and Hero. Some stories are familiar but end in a new way, such as the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Others are wholly new, like the story of the Secret League of Storytellers, a group of women who resolve to tell “…all the stories that are never told…And above all, stories about brave women who don’t take shit from anyone.” The guards are enthralled too, and soon the entire city of Migdal Bavel whispers about Hero’s stories. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) When Jerome returns home on the one hundredth night and Cherry’s virtue remains intact, Manfred screams witchcraft, and the women are taken to the tallest tower… You can imagine the end that awaits them there. I refuse to spoil it for you, but know that I cried in queer despair and joy.

There is so much to love in Greenberg’s graphic novel. There are beautiful repetitions and throughlines, like women not being sorry, not even one bit, like brave women who don’t take shit from anyone, and recurring devices like a magic pebble. These stories unfurl, less in a linear progression and more in a self-referential spiral, all adding up to inform the gorgeous ending. 

I’ve carried the bold and unrepentant spirit of The One Hundred Nights of Hero’s love story with me since the first time I read it in 2017, and I hope you choose to do the same.

Warnings: misogyny, nudity; mentioned but not depicted: sexual assault, violence