Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

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.

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian

Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian cover
Shadiya is a prized courtesan of the Silver Rose, one of dozens of elegant Sisters who serve the men–though never the women–of the land of Anderholm. Fiercer-tempered than any of her compatriots, Shadiya makes what would be reckoned by many in her position as a mistake; rather than allowing herself to be raped, she kills the nobleman who comes to assault her, catapulting the house of the Silver Rose into politics from which it had long been carefully kept safe. The resulting narrative is full of interwoven designs and intrigues, with Shadiya unwillingly at the center of attention for forces that are more than her match in terms of knowledge and strength. Ancient scholars, abandoned quasi-gods, mortal treachery and plain old misogyny all conspire to throw her off balance–but she’s no layabout, and she’s not afraid to make choices boldly. I appreciated how even though she was not the one with power, other than the power of persuasion and an extreme physical coordination, still she was no shrinking violet. Juggling her need to survive, her longing for her secret and forbidden female lover, and her hopes for the future of her courtesan sisterhood, she must navigate the desires and heavy-handed jealousies of men.
Shadiya goes from one difficult situation to the next, always doing her best to survive it, but increasingly endangered. She takes as lover a fellow courtesan, and the relationship between them is easy and believable, down to the little arguments that they get into now and again. Every choice she makes tangles her further in the web of problems, and it becomes difficult to see how she could possibly escape.
I went into this book trying to keep an open mind. Ever since Kushiel’s Dart was published fifteen years or so ago, there have been more and more fantasy novels with sharp-witted courtesans as their main characters, to the point that tropes of the genre are starting to define themselves, but the subgenre can be a lot of fun in the right hands.. So by the time I was fifty pages or so in, I thought I had this one pegged. Clever, preternaturally physically skilled medieval-European-style courtesan attracts the attention of rich, powerful man, must fight off the jealousy of older women to net him, becomes something greater (and no longer a sex worker: a one-dimensional fantasy novel baseline much like “pauper” or “orphan thief,” something to extricate oneself from), only this time, With Lesbians!
And then, defying my expectations, just when the tension and malice from all sides seemed to be at its peak, the book transformed into an old-fashioned dungeon romp, complete with pitfalls and random-encounter-style monsters. I was delighted. No  longer having to worry about angry machinations from the book’s female antagonist, I found that I was really enjoying the read. The interplay between the characters was quick and believable, and while there wasn’t exactly anything groundbreaking in that section of the book it was still snappy and well-paced. It was the sort of thing you might see in a really good D&D session, familiar but warming in its familiarity. I liked the various uses of magic and illusion, I was hopeful that this was going to continue to be like a classic adventure fantasy (only this time, with queer girls!) and I caught myself thinking that I’d definitely be picking up the sequel, if things continued this way.
And then in another hard turn, the book became ultra-violent within the last short handful of pages, and any joy I had in the narrative was extinguished like a candle. I mentally crossed off pretty much every single female friend I’d been about to recommend the novel to, though I might still recommend it to a male friend or two, with warnings.
This book honestly feels like two disparate novels. There’s the palace intrigue, with violence and stolen gifts and hidden swords and razor smiles, and there’s the bouncy dungeon crawl. Taken separately, I might have been able to enjoy either of them for what it was; the misogynistic world where women are abused without recourse, but where Shadiya could somehow rise above her situation and change things, or the quick-paced but character driven role-playing game novel. But the jarring tone changes from one aspect of the book to the other made it so that when the casual brutality arrived, it was so shocking that it left a terrible taste in my brain. The book ends on a cliffhanger, more or less immediately after this new violence.
Things I really liked: the sex scenes are pretty good, whether f/f or f/m. They’re plentiful, for what that’s worth, but they’re also not the ponderous sort frequently common to would-be literary fantasy; like the dungeon scenes, they’re just fun. I liked that the female characters, of which there are several, are different personalities from each other, with all the ways that they can mesh or grate against one another. I liked that there is clearly no shortage of history and backstory behind the narrative, and the world was so layered that I’m sure I’d love to sit in a pub with the author and listen to her expound on the Things That Were, a few centuries back in the timeline.
Things that I didn’t like:  This is definitely a nitpick, but the naming conventions are a bit distracting. There are names like Deresi and Shadiya, which sound sufficiently fantastic, and then there are names like Aaron and Benjamin. The names which stood out as easily recognizable were Jewish names, and I couldn’t decide if that meant the author was exoticizing the Jewish mythological tradition. Shadiya might be an Arabic name, but the setting is decidedly European. And then there are the names that seem to come from words I’d know, like Sybaris for the captain of the guard for the Silver Rose, and Mienhard, a cruel-faced male antagonist who shows up in the beginning to assault the protagonist.
More damningly, I didn’t approve of the way that the female antagonist, herself merely a pawn to masculine anger and manipulation, was so afraid of aging rather than enjoying the power that can be found in experience. I thought it was a bit unrealistic that she was no longer able to wrap men around her little finger, as there are always going to be young cockerels who want to be taught the ways of the world by a mature woman. And then, finally, I loathed the brutal and frankly gratuitous offscreen gang rape, torture, and probable murder of a childlike character who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a scene horrifically out of place for the tone of the rest of the novel.
Final rating: Two of five stars. Would have been four without the rape.

Alexa reviews Into the Mystic Volume 3 by NineStar Press

Her ghost had once told Clotho that no proper ghost story has a happy ending, because ghosts don’t end. 

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for fantasy, paranormal and fairytales, so of course I had to pick up an anthology that has nine F/F stories with paranormal elements. While the stories had the paranormal and the sapphic main characters in common, there was a great variety in paranormal creatures, writing style, and my feelings towards them as well.

Some of the stories were truly creative gems with unexpected and rarely seen ideas: the opening story, It Started Before Noon by Ava Kelly is in itself about ideas that are made into stories. The main character is a muse who grows story inspiration in a garden like flowers, but she just can’t get the romance buds right. I loved the little details, like how the different types of stories (comedy, angst, etc.) had different flowers and needed different kinds of care. Swoon by Artemis Savory had siren-like creatures acting like pirates whom I would have loved to learn more about. I loved the myth surrounding these sisters, but I still had so many questions – I would love to read a full length novel with them.

Other stories took more often used concepts or species, but still had the kind of magic that makes them an easy 5-star read. Home by K. Parr centers a wolf pack made up entirely of women, and a college student who is accepted into the pack (and the family) after getting close to the pack’s Alpha. I loved that this story had an older love interest, and I loved the description of the pack dynamics as well. The Hunt by M. Hollis is about a young vampire forever stuck as a teenager who has been adopted by a lesbian vampire couple. On her first hunt, she meets a human girl, and she finds herself wanting to meet her again. I felt like this story ended a little too soon, I would have loved to read more. And By Candlelight by Ziggy Schutz was one of my favourite stories in the anthology: I admit that I still don’t really understand the logic of it, and yet the two main characters and their relationship was so endearing that it absolutely stole my heart.

Vampires and werewolves seemed to be a popular choice for this anthology, and yet each story had some kind of unique spin on it. My Cup of O Pos by L. J. Hamlin has a disabled vampire with Ehlers-Danlos syndmore (ownvoices!) who goes out on a date with the cute human nurse from the ER who treats her with respect and compassion. This story also takes place in a world where vampires are common knowledge and there are laws about what they can and cannot do, and it uses this fictional/fantasy marginalisation to address real-life marginalisations and their intersections as well. Dance With Me by Michelle Frost is a romance between a werewolf and a vampire that left me with many burning questions about the backgrounds of the characters, wishing that there was a longer story to read.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stories that caught me off guard and I didn’t end up enjoying them much. I am used to most non-YA lesfic I read having at least some kind of sexual content (My Cup Of O Pos has sex scenes as well, and yet I felt like I got to know the characters), but Heart’s Thaw by Bru Baker and Fire and Brine by Lis Valentine were both mostly erotica with very little plot or characterisation. While I liked the original idea in Heart’s Thaw and the twist in Fire and Brine, I felt like I barely got to know anything about the characters, other than the sex scene that takes up half of such a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and I found some true gems in it, but I do wish that the blurb or tags made the sexual content of books clearer. It was especially off-putting because most of the stories didn’t have any sex at all, so having two stories that were purely erotica just didn’t seem to fit in well with the others.

Rating: 4 stars

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.

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.

Mary Springer reviews Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara

Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara cover

Trigger Warning: the book contains scenes of suicide, rape, and assault and this review will discuss them.

This review contains spoilers.

Katherine was married to the King of the Northern Kingdom when she was thirteen. Seventeen years later, she plans to kill herself, but she is saved by a beautiful young woman. Soon she finds out this beautiful woman, only seven years younger than her, is her stepdaughter, Eirwen, also known as Snow White. What follows is a tumultuous love story and retelling of a classic fairy tale with a unique twist.

I have had a difficult time gathering my thoughts on this book. To be clear, I did enjoy reading this. However, there are several elements that I’m having a hard time reconciling with my enjoyment. Katherine married King Ferdinand when she was thirteen, a mere child. When we first are introduced to her as an adult it is through a graphic scene in which she has painful sex with Ferdinand. He is angry with her for not getting him a child after so many years of marriage. Katherine, believing him to be a good man and her to be a bad wife for not getting pregnant, then decides to kill herself in the garden. This is where she meets Eirwen. Later on, Ferdinand tells her to get a hobby, specifically hunting, and there she meets Phillip. Phillip decides he is in love with her and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, this leads to him sexually assaulting her.

Another hard part about reading this is how the two men were supported and even enabled by those around them, men and women. Ferdinand blames Katherine for all his misdeeds, which is what causes her to be known as the Evil Queen. He has effectively isolated her from any support, including her own ladies-in-waiting who gossip about her behind her back. This is what leads to Phillips being so able to hurt Katherine, because she has no friends, no support system. This did feel believable and realistically explained the fairy tale aspect of Katherine being known as evil.

One of my biggest feelings of unease going into the book (before the assault scenes) is that this is a love story between a stepmother and stepdaughter. However, this book reassures the reader in that regard. Katherine and Eirwen are only seven years apart in age and Katherine only sees Eirwen once, on her wedding day to Ferdinand, before the beginning of the book. They are technically family by law, but do not grow up together and they do not act and are not treated as a mother and daughter. For the majority of the story, Katherine is thirty and Eirwen is twenty-two or twenty-three.

The romance felt real. From the moment Katherine meets Eirwen she is captivated by her and struggles with understanding how she, a woman, could be attracted to another woman. Eirwen has the same inner conflict. Not only did both characters feel complex but their romance developed in a believable manner.

The world building was well done. It wasn’t too complex because it didn’t need to be and I enjoyed being able to simply immerse myself in the characters. In this version, the dwarves are miners who have become hunched over or “dwarfed” from working in the mines. They are not good people in this edition, but it follows the book’s theme of patriarchy and misogyny, so I was fine with this change.

There were some choices the characters that felt too sudden. There were moments when characters would reveal motivations that I felt were not previously set up. For example, without giving too much away, Eirwen thinks about part of her plan for revenge against Ferdinand and how Katherine is involved. Her logic felt out of place because it seemed like it hadn’t been set up or foreshadowed. Later in the novel, Katherine tells Eirwen one of the things that attracted her to her in response to Eirwen’s plan for revenge. This reason for attraction felt odd because it seemed like it had been mentioned before at all.

The ending felt somewhat unsatisfying. There was so much violence perpetuated against Katherine and Eirwen that I was disappointed to see how those injustices were dealt with. However, considering the world and characters the author has built, the ending does make sense. Like I said, I’m not sure how to reconcile many elements of this book. However, I wasn’t totally disappointed in the ending and I am happy with where the characters end up.

Having said all of this and voiced many gripes I have with this story, I would recommend reading it. This book was engaging, interesting, and in many ways enjoyable. The story of Snow White is originally so intent on pitting women against each other over conventional standards of beauty and it was great to see a version in which both women get to have more character and agency. If you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings with a twist that the women actually love each other, I recommend picking up Snow White and Her Queen by Anna Ferrara.

Susan reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After is an all-ages graphic novel by Katie O’Neill about two princesses joining forces to rescue people and save the kingdom from an angry sorceress, and it’s really cute.

Sadie and Amira are very different styles of princess; Sadie is a traditionally feminine princess with an adorable pudgy dragon, who’s been locked in a tower by a wicked queen, and Amira is an action princess with very cool hair and a cookie-loving unicorn. It’s fun to see their different styles work together for solving problems, and I enjoyed seeing them work together to solve problems like dancing ogres and grumpy princes and wicked queens, and rescue each other!

They also solve problems without violence, and by gathering friends and supportive acquaintances! I don’t know if it’s supposed to be commentary on stereotypically feminine methods of resolving conflict or the tropes of magical girls and princess stories – but also I want stories that have all of the tropes of magical girls and princess stories, but with queer leads, so it worked for me. Plus: the drama is based on sibling relationships, rather than wicked mothers or stepmothers, and that’s a very welcome change. (Especially for me; complicated sibling relationships are my kryptonite.)

The art is very cute (and impressively different from her other all-ages graphic novel, The Tea-Dragon Society). Sometimes it’s maybe a little too simple, but it does work for the story being told, and the last page makes up for it.

It’s a light and fluffy story that reads very quickly, but it feels like a fairytale, and to be honest: that’s all I wanted. If you’re in the mood for a fluffy queer fairytale, this is a good place to start.

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.

Nichole B-Larson reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst is the princess story my childhood desperately needed. Coulthurst’s characters are relatable, grow well, and their queerness isn’t the center of the plot–all aspects which make them inspiring. Mare is the strong, “tomboy” princess of my dreams. She shirks the traditional role of a princess within society and within her family, but not at the expense of her nation. She’s as uncomfortable in formal dress–ditching heels as soon as she leaves the banquet hall–as she is confident in her skills in horsemanship, and actively rebels against all the forces in her life saying “be this way!” Of course, I think this is something we’ve seen a lot of, especially in YA and children’s literature, but Coulthurst doesn’t ignore that Mare’s role in the kingdom is not limited to fancy dresses and balls–a princess is an integral part of the political aspects of running a country. Mare, however, isn’t one to settle on making an advantageous political marriage. Instead she’s sneaking into pubs and paying spies for information, working on the ground to better equip her country with the knowledge it needs to succeed, to outwit its enemies, to understand its people. Mare is a strong, badass princess and Coulthurst writes her beautifully.

Denna, on the other hand, strikes a different cord. She is who I related to most–a servant to duty, torn between who she is and who she is supposed to be, and always feeling like her voice is not worthy because of her age and her gender. Denna, coming from her own kingdom and playing the dutiful princess by marrying for political connection, is shy, demure, everything a princess ought to be in the traditional sense. Because Coulthurst writes from her perspective, however, we get to see that this is, for the most part, a facade. Denna, plagued with a magical gift in a country who outlaws magic, is fighting for herself and her future in the ways she knows best, but she is also struggling with closing off those parts of herself that society will not accept. It’s a theme that hearkens to many LGBT readers’ experiences before coming out and I think Coulthurst does a beautiful job of including this without the LGBT portion of the story being the most important part of the story. Denna, and Mare, grow as characters in ways which makes their LGBT status feel secondary – a refreshing way to understand this as part of who they are but not the definition of who they are, which I really appreciated.

Aside from these two, the story delves into some very heavy themes – political alliance, espionage, religious tension, and the power of all these things to alter the decisions of people in power. There’s rebellion and questions about the significance of tradition and belief that had me a bit on the edge of my seat. Coulthurst does a beautiful job of creating a world I would really sink into and characters that made me root for them, were relatable in ways which made me wish my 12/13 year old self had had this kind of validation, but there were parts of the plot which felt a bit old hat. Still, 4 out of 5 stars for sure. I’d definitely recommend it to YA fans and I am anxiously awaiting the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, which should be coming out next year.

Nichole B-Larson is a library associate at a small Mississippi university. She holds an MLIS, a BA in History, and usually knitting needles. She enjoys all kinds of crafty things, any kind of gummy candy, and travelling with her wife and their two rottenly spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @kneecoaleye_ <