Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Kayla Bell reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

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What a better way to start the new year than with a beautiful, evocative graphic novel that puts the relationship between two women, their family, and their society at the front and center of the narrative? Jessi Zabarsky’s new graphic novel, Coming Back, is all that and more. 

Preet and Valissa are partners that live in a magical society. Preet has magic and is a talented healer. Valissa doesn’t share Preet’s skill at magic but serves as a librarian, the keeper of their society’s histories and stories. After tragedy strikes the community, Valissa takes it upon herself to venture beyond the borders of their town and try to make things right. But she must take this long journey alone. Will Valissa and Preet’s love survive this trial, and what will they both learn during their time apart? 

One thing I loved about Coming Back, that so many graphic novels I’ve read don’t do, is how it often lets the art speak for itself. It’s the ultimate version of show, don’t tell: presenting the pictures and letting the readers formulate their own telling of the story. In addition to sparking the readers’ imaginations and allowing us to build a deeper bond to the story, it also allows us to appreciate the beautiful artwork. Coming Back’s minimalist, muted color palette and friendly art style worked really well for me, and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy it fully. 

The only problem with the lack of telling in the story is that sometimes the plot can be a little bit hard to follow. For me, that was doubly true because the plot definitely didn’t go in the direction I was expecting. Personally, I would have appreciated a little bit more worldbuilding or exposition to fully understand the story. I think that would have made the ending of the story land better, as well. 

Despite this, one of my favorite parts of the story was the worldbuilding we did get. Like I said before, Valissa is the keeper of their community’s histories. As a society where shapeshifting and magical rituals are commonplace, these stories are as interesting as you can imagine. In addition to being beautifully constructed and illustrated, they also serve as the lynchpin for the story. Coming Back’s main theme is tradition: what it means, what it becomes over time, and when it might be time to change it. While the story was relatively short, I think it did a great job of addressing these questions. 

I thought that the characters were a strong suit of this graphic novel. Each character is very unique and individual. Preet and Valissa are no exception. Each of their personalities and flaws were the heart of the narrative. I loved seeing two complex women navigate their relationship with each other and life’s challenges. The fact that both characters were able to grow and develop so much in such a short amount of time was a real achievement. 

Coming Back is an excellent, female-centered graphic novel that explores how people relate to each other, their family, and their history. It has an interesting, inviting art style and well-crafted characters. It releases on the 18th of this month. Thank you to the publisher for providing an advanced copy to review.

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Anke reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Content warnings: Horror, graphic violence, character death, attempted murder and murder, body horror, gore, PTSD/trauma, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

If Gideon the Ninth seemed confusing, you will look back and call yourself a sweet summer child, as the meme goes, after finishing its sequel, Harrow. As the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, published in August 2020, I was fully expecting to look at the Lesbrary’s archive and find it reviewed already—and didn’t. 

And to be quite honest and speaking with the utmost love for my fellow Lesbrarians and Harrow itself, I can’t blame you, because this is the most confusing, frustrating and downright amazing book I’ve ever read. 

A dear friend, who encouraged me to liveblog at them while I was reading, was subjected to paragraphs of “AAAAH!!!”, “wHAT?!”, “I feel like I’m having a stroke reading this”, “like a nosebleed in literary form”, “this book is the personification of emotional whiplash” and “what is going on???“, interspersed with memes, quotes and prose segments from the book that made me feel out of my mind, as well as wild theorizing about the story’s mysteries. I’m sorry, Elvie, I love you and cherish you and thank you for making me read this and letting me yell my confusion at you. In short, dear readers here: If you’re planning to tackle Harrow, find someone who’s already read it and ask them to let you yell your confusion at them. It will make the experience immeasurably better for both of you.

This is really just an attempt to emphasize the wild ride you will embark on opening this book, but honestly? Nothing I can say in this review can possibly prepare you for what Harrow the Ninth is going to throw at you in its 512 pages. It can be summarized, roughly, but that won’t do the story justice. 

The first part of the novel is told in two interchanging POVs. One is a second-person narration describing Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s ascent to lyctorhood that she achieved at the end of Gideon. This POV details her life in the Mithraeum and her interactions not just with her fellow Lyctors: Ianthe Tridentarius for one, in addition to the original remaining Lyctors Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus, as well the Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime and God of the Nine Houses, John. 

They embark on an absurd (and absurdly funny), emotionally charged gothic workplace comedy slash slice of life montage counting down to the ominous event of the Emperor’s Murder in the chapter headings. It tackles worldbuilding, training, some friendly amputation, heavily implied necrophilia, cannibalism, soup-making and multiple assassination attempts, among other things. Some of these are one and the same. Readers also learn about the two primary antagonistic forces that John-God and his merry band of Lyctors face: A group of anti-necromancy fundamentalists called Blood of Eden as well as the so-called Resurrection Beasts, results of an ancient and extremely powerful feat of John’s necromancy. 

And among all that, there is no sign of Gideon. These chapters reveal plenty about Lyctorhood and the particular fusion that Lyctors undergo with their Cavalier. Harrow, interestingly, while remaining a necromantic prodigy, fails to perform in this regard. This also is the continuing thread that runs from this to the second POV the story is told in—the other part of the book, told in third person, re-narrates Gideon and the trials at Canaan House, but with decisive changes: Characters are dying in different orders and ways than previously, and there is a monster sleeping at the heart of the house. And above all, to the reader if not to Harrow, Gideon’s continued absence hangs like her two-hander. In her stead, readers find Ortus Nigenad, another Ninth House member, who is busier composing a verse epic about a Ninth House hero than being a Cavalier, which proves to be both a curse and eventually even a blessing. 

Confusing? Yes, and this isn’t even half of it. I don’t want to cover the rest, because revealing the big plot twists that explain some of the most pressing questions once the two narrative strands converge (and then raise more of them—this book raises as many questions as it does skeletons!) would spoil some truly mind-blowing “wtf” moments. Among the online fanbase, theories to piece together the answers to some open questions, speculation and attempts to fill in the gaps abound. Many point out that Tamsyn Muir’s literary wizardry relies on misdirection and withholding information to sneak the plot’s puzzle pieces in place. The glamour of the prose, the jokes and memes are just the distracting cherry on top of a much more convoluted plot around Gideon’s disappearance and the connection to the wider mythology of the series. 

What bears pointing out beyond that, since this is a Lesbrary review: even in Gideon’s absence, there is plenty of queer content. As in the first book, sexual orientation is a non-issue, but hey, if not even God is straight, that’s probably a moot point. My liveblogging at my friend Elvie included plenty of “Ianthe and Harrow should kiss—angrily” because in Gideon’s absence they are the main female-female relationship of the story, in which vulnerability and emotional closeness battle with Lyctor politics and the characters’ own agendas. In short, it’s a delightful mess, much like the rest of the relationships in the story, and more often than not it also made me want to transport Harrow back to Drearburh in a hurry to just give the poor girl a break. 

I am not entirely sure how to end this review, other than on another attempt to sum up the experience of reading it. Harrow the Ninth is a literary masterpiece, something that feels like a combination of dream logic, memes and humor pasted onto a deftly plotted narrative skeleton (pardon the pun). I want to say that Tamsyn Muir pulled out all the stops in both an exercise in worldbuilding and characterization, as well as connecting Harrow’s particular story to a wider world and the goings-on in it. But that would probably not do justice to the upcoming sequels, which are bound to be even wilder. 

Meagan Kimberly reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

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Alejandra Mortiz wants nothing to do with her magic, so she tries to get rid of it, resulting in catastrophe. Putting her trust in a brujo named Nova sends her on the path to nearly losing her family. She must travel to the magical realm of Los Lagos to retrieve them and set everything right. Along the way, she learns not to fear her power and instead embraces it.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this novel is the bisexual representation. Alex’s bisexuality had no influence on the outcome of events or the narrative of the story. As most young adult novels are prone to do, there was a love triangle, but it never played into a drama of having to choose one over the other, of being either-or. It was accepted and no one batted an eye at Alex’s love for her best friend Rishi. It was just as natural as her growing feelings for Nova.

While romance played a small role and was weaved throughout the plot, it never drove the story. If anything, the love for her family was the driving force behind the story. The fact that her family never questioned or made a deal out of Alex having a crush on Rishi was just such a relief to see in a YA novel. Instead, it was mainly about magic and family and the power a girl can have.

Córdova’s cultural heritage also plays a strong role in the story and characters. The Mortiz family has Ecuadorian roots and a family lineage that passes through Puerto Rico (which I greatly appreciated, being Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian myself). The underlying concept of the power of ancestry and how the dead are never truly gone resonates with many Latinx cultures as well.

However, Córdova makes the world her own by creating a magic system based in Deos and Cantos. While it’s all influenced by certain real-life cultural markers, it’s never appropriative. The magic system is also rather easy to follow. She makes it simple to understand that the use of magic always comes with a price, regardless of how it’s used.

The writing at times is clunky and doesn’t always transition flawlessly, but that doesn’t detract you from enjoying the story. It’s overall a fun and exciting start to a fantastic trilogy.

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Danika reviews Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larkie reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

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What a book! I didn’t know all that much about it before I started reading, and all the reviews I read felt like they confused me more. Once I got into this book and realized how complicated it was, I could see why. The first half of The Jasmine Throne is fairly slow, as Suri sets up the world. At its core, this book is about how to remove a fanatical, xenophobic emperor who believes so strongly in his superiority that he is willing to burn his own sister to death. This sister, Malini, is exiled so that she can’t continue plotting her coup to put her other brother on the throne. She is sent to Ahiranya, the weakest state in the empire, with its history of mysterious magic, a reputation for its brothels and loose morals, and a rot that has spread from the crops to the people. There we meet Priya, a maid for the regent of Ahiranya, who just wants to live her life and help the people she can. Priya ends up caught between various rebellions, as her brother Ashok leads a small but violent band of rebels, her sister Bhumika wants to work within the empire’s political system to get more support for the Ahiranyi, and Malini realizes that Priya is more than a simple maid, and therefore she presents an opportunity to escape exile and start a war.

With all the groundwork that Suri does in the first half, this book never felt overly complicated or confusing, even as the plot took off and hardly paused to catch a breath. I appreciated the complexity, because, while I love a good band of rebels fighting an evil empire any day, I often wonder about their society and what they plan on doing after fighting is over. Suri manages to address all the questions I usually have during this kind of story, and while she doesn’t solve everything (that’s what the sequels are for, right?} she does make this feel like a complete, complex world. The characters all have their own strengths and weaknesses, they tend to be right in some ways and wrong in others, and a lot of the tension in this book comes from Priya trying to decide exactly where her loyalties lie and how she wants to navigate these relationships.

When I started this book I was a little worried about some of the characters being almost cartoonishly evil and others were entirely Good and Just, but there is a lot of room for character development and background, and there are a lot of characters to bounce between, so I never got bored with one of them. Rao and Bhumika were probably my favorite POVs, because Rao was the most intriguing and I didn’t know where he fit into the wider story, and Bhumika thought the most like me: she was more worried about civilians being hurt and starving than a lot of the other rebels.
I absolutely loved the setting and the rich visuals in this book. Flowers, mosses, vines, they were everywhere—blooming in people’s hair as they suffered from the rot, springing from Priya’s unbridled emotions as her power grows, or carefully cultivated by Bhumika, the imagery of all these plants made me want to go for a walk in the jungle. I love a good creepy forest, and while I feel like the creepy forest could have been creepier, there is plenty of great scenery. Flower body horror is an acceptable replacement for creepy forests.

Finally I feel like I have to talk about the romance, because that is a lot of what drew me to this book, but it was really secondary to a lot of the plot. Which is fine! I have romance books if I want the romance to be center stage. But also this is definitely going to be a slow burn over however many books are planned for this series—Priya and Malini definitely like each other, and there are lots of gay little moments, but a lot of their relationship is spent in negotiation. Priya knows that Malini is manipulative (by necessity, she had to be in order to survive) and is worried about her feelings not genuinely being returned. Malini’s upbringing was a lot more homophobic and she has a Lot going on. She’s trying to escape a prison, break an addiction, and get back to engineering a coup for a brother who would rather be a priest than an emperor—she doesn’t have a ton of time to think about a crush. And with the way book 1 ended, I’m not sure she’ll find it any time soon, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Nat reviews Thorn by Anna Burke

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My recent infatuation with the Compass Rose series should have been all the warning I needed not to start an Anna Burke book just before bedtime. This dark, Grimm style and very gay retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” kept me reading well past midnight to get just “one more page!” Thorn, with its complex characters and their histories, goes so much further than just subbing in perpetually hungry wolves and a large ice bear for talking candles and singing teapots.

Burke does a great job with world building, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where you and our young protagonist, Rowan, have just been dropped. A very cold, very isolated place that one wouldn’t necessarily choose to live. Rowan’s father, a failed merchant turned aspiring fur trader, has had no choice but to flee the city with his three daughters and start a new life to escape his debts. While he’s not a villain by any means, he treats his children as commodities, and is preoccupied with returning to some status in society.

When we first meet Rowan, we see how different she is from her sisters. As the eldest, there’s a lot of pressure on her to take care of the family. It’s here we also find out that she’s betrothed to the neighbor’s son (let’s call him baby Gaston) and would very much prefer not to be. On top of it all, she absolutely hates living in this godforsaken, frozen little village. It doesn’t take long for us to get an idea that Rowan doesn’t love her homelife. 

The Huntress, our cruel and mysterious “beast”, is something of a legend and a myth for those living in the nearby village. But she and the curse that keeps her confined to the mountain are very real. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s there all the time within the boundaries of her land. Our beast has been condemned to a life of solitude, and the cold and loneliness in the story are very much intertwined. 

When a hunting party crosses the threshold of her lands and kills two of the Huntress’ wolf companions, Rowan’s father, one of the unfortunate trespassers, is spared by the Huntress only to commit the more serious crime of stealing a white rose. The Huntress doesn’t delay in retrieving her stolen property. Rose for a rose, thorn for a thorn. 

I enjoyed the vivid descriptions Burke offers, and I haven’t been that creeped out by a flower since watching The Ruins. We see a lot of interesting imagery with the rose throughout the book, and some particularly unnerving scenes where the flower winds its way from one person and into another. Burke also does a great job getting to the heart of the characters’ relationships in a relatively short period of time. We see Rowan fighting to resist a growing attraction to her captor, and a reluctance to admit that this new life is as free as she’s ever been. We also catch glimpses of the Huntress’s past, and how this literal ice queen came to be cursed and live in an enchanted castle with her pack of four legged Hounds. 

One of my favorite parts of this book, which made me laugh out loud, is an indulgent scene requiring the need for skin to skin contact for warmth — despite a perfectly serviceable hot spring in the basement of the castle. Thanks to Anna Burke for that fan service. 

As usual, Burke’s prose is strong, and it particularly shines in this book. You will feel the cold in your bones. You will smell the musty old castle and its musky animal inhabitants, and taste the venison stew. The main characters are well developed, and we get to see both of their perspectives throughout the book. The big romance tropes here are age gap, ice queen and enemies to lovers. There is of course an iconic library scene, and an “it doesn’t matter now, just let them come” scene right before the curse is broken. While the general promise of happily ever after is fulfilled by our star crossed lovers staying together, we also feel the angst and pain of other consequences. And with that, Burke leaves us with a bit of her book’s winter chill.