Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.

Rachel reviews The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Intense, expansive, and original, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter (2020), book one of the Drowning Empire, was a joy to read. Its lesbian representation offers a fresh refocusing of queer desire. It’s perfect for fans of Gideon the Ninth (2019).

Stewart’s novel follows multiple perspectives as she sets up the Bone Shard world. The empire is ruled by an emperor who clings tightly to his reign. As a master of bone shard magic, which controls animal-like constructs that spy, make war, or play politician, the emperor has an iron-like grip on his people, all of whom are required to contribute a shard of bone in order to power the constructs. This is a contribution that will eventually drain their life force prematurely.

But conspiracy and sabotage lurk in the shadows. In spite of his power, there are those that would see the emperor and his regime fall—including his daughter, Lin. Through different characters scattered across the landscape of this world, Stewart begins to set up the key earth-shaking influences that will reshape the world that the characters know.

This book was incredibly fun and thoroughly detailed. I appreciated the slow and careful world building that Stewart was careful to include. Furthermore, I was grateful that Stewart’s empire included an environment where queerness was not only accepted, but hardly thought of. The relationship between Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and Ranami, a member of the resistance, is original in many ways. For this novel and its characters, lesbianism is not a plot point, but rather an incidental aspect. The tension between them arises from their differing beliefs, rather than any fears or tensions related to their sexualities. This kind of representation is refreshing and necessary, and it fit as a whole with the book.

These characters and their tropes worked well together—the warrior lesbian who is only soft with her girlfriend is positively delightful and something I look for in lesbian novels. While this pairing was exciting, it was also complex, and I’m honestly hopeful that there’s more for Phalue in the next installment in this series. One of my pet peeves in fiction that features lesbian characters is moments sacrifice lesbian complexity in favour of moving the plot forward. One of these moments happens early in the novel when we meet the lesbian characters. While the lesbian representation Stewart’s novel works wonderfully for the most part, I’d love to see more active and complex relationships at work in the novel, in addition to the fascinating plot.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book if you love fantasy, normalized queerness, and great writing. I couldn’t be happier that I read this and I am excited to pick up the next installment.

Please visit Andrea Stewart on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Bone Shard Daughter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Shannon reviews Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Labyrinth Lost is the first book in Zoraida Cordova’s captivating young adult series entitled Brooklyn Brujas, and it’s one I didn’t expect to fall head over heals for. In 2019, I picked the book up, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story. I eventually put it down, deciding it just wasn’t the book for me at that particular point in time. I went on and read other things until the fall of 2020, when I decided to give it another chance. The second time really was the charm, because the story grabbed me right from the start, and I ended up flying through the book in a little over twenty-four hours.

Alex can’t think of anything she dislikes as much as she dislikes magic. To her, it’s at the root of all of her family’s problems, and no matter how often her mother and older sister remind her of the honor that goes along with being a bruja, Alex just wants to get rid of her powers and live a normal life.

She thinks her Deathday celebration is the perfect opportunity to decline her magical abilities once and for all. True, most brujas look forward to their Deathdays, reuniting with deceased ancestors and honoring the deities who gifted them their powers, but Alex has a totally different plan. Instead of acknowledging and being grateful for her magical gifts, Alex plans to work a powerful spell to banish magic from her life forever.

As I’m sure you can imagine, things don’t go quite the way Alex anticipated. Suddenly, her family has disappeared seemingly into thin air, leaving Alex alone with Nova, a mysterious Brujo she’s not sure she can trust. He’s been kind to her in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right person to help her reverse the harm she’s done. Still, she’s desperate to rescue her family from what has befallen them, and when Nova tells her he knows how to free them, she reluctantly joins forces with him and embarks on a quest that will change her in ways she never could have imagined.

Alex is a wonderfully complex heroine, with her fair share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. I sometimes found myself annoyed with her tendency for drama, but she does grow and change as the story progresses. The author does a fantastic job giving the reader just enough insight into who Alex is as a person without ruining the story arc. Her complicated relationship with her family feels completely relatable as does the uncertainty she feels about her sexuality.

Alex’s sexuality isn’t the main point of the novel, but it is an important element of her need to be accepted for exactly who she is. She’s known she was bisexual for quite a while, but she’s never been sure how to tell her family how she feels. She’s constantly torn between doing what she thinks is expected of her and being true to herself. You might think this sort of inner conflict would take away from the action and adventure of this fantasy novel, but it doesn’t do so at all. Instead, it adds an element of realism to the story, highlighting Alex’s struggle to fit into multiple worlds.

I didn’t end up loving Nova as a character. Something about him rubbed me the wrong way as soon as he appeared on the page. At first, I wondered if it was just because Alex herself wasn’t sure she could trust him, but as I continued reading, he started to fall the slightest bit flat for me. I wanted a better understanding of his motivations, and although some of my questions about him were eventually answered in the second half of the book, it felt like a case of too little too late. Even so, Labyrinth Lost has much to recommend it, and I definitely plan to continue with the series.

Mo Springer reviews Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Deadline by Stephanie Ahn

Harrietta Lee, or Harry, is a witch excommunicated from the magical community due to a checkered past and a lot of baggage. Her main goal is to make rent on time with by using what magic she has left to help people. One of these people is Tristan, an apprentice of the famous Meresti family, whose leader is Miriam, a former friend and part of Harry’s baggage. He lost a very important object and needs Harry’s help to find it, but there’s a lot more layers to this quest than a simple a find and retrieve mission. Harry has to grapple with a past she never truly healed from and hopefully not lose herself in the process.

This was a really fun and quick urban fantasy book. There’s a hint of romance between with Harry and Miriam, as well as with a demoness, but the book doesn’t contain much of that aspect. There are also parts that are undeniable erotic, with a BDSM scene. None of this felt like it detracted from the plot, but only added to it, because the author weaves together the quest and Harry’s personal arc so well.

Harry as a character was like a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to find butch characters, harder to find butch protagonists, and even harder to find butch main characters written with such complexity and vulnerability. I can’t remember the last time I felt so seen and represented in a book and that’s why this series quickly became a favorite.

The mystery was well done and never felt it dragged or took away from what I felt was interesting and engaging about Harry and her personal problems, because these two things were not separate entities. As the mystery unfolds, so does Harry’s baggage. As we learn more about Miriam, Tristan, Harry’s sister Luce, and her new demon friend Lilith, we learn more about the plot of this book, as well as the overarching series, that feels intriguing and satisfying.

The characters feel complex and I enjoyed learning about each one. Miriam has a duty to her family, but she is also a person with her own needs and wants, and in addition to that wants to do right by Harry. Luce loves her sister dearly, cares and worries about Harry greatly, but she also has her own life and career. Lilith is fun and mysterious, but there are hints of something deeper we have to yet to learn.

The world building felt real and I left this book wanting to explore more of it in the rest of the series. One of the most important things to world building is that it works with the characters and plot instead of standing separately. Here, the author does a great job of using the world to inform the character’s motivations and drive the conflict of the story. As you learn more about the world, you also learn more about Harry, the mystery, and her friends.

Overall, this is a fantastic first book to a wonderful series. After I finished it, I immediately read the next two books. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy.

Mo Springer reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

200 years ago, Cinderella died. Now, all the girls of the kingdom are forced to reenact her fairytale, forced into marrying men who mistreat them and discard of them as they please. But is there any truth in the story the system of cruelty is based on?

Sophia is in love with Erin, who wants to follow the rules to ensure good fortune for her parents and her own future. Sophia is horrified by what she sees at the ball and runs–right into Constance, whose history changes everything Sophia thought she knew. Together the two of them must find a way to end these years of suffering–but will they be able to endure it for their happiness, with each other?

This was a really good book. I love fantasy and this was an interesting world to explore, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the building of it and it shows in the narrative. I liked how this wasn’t too complicated of a system to try and understand; there’s a lot of the world that is similar to our own, which lends itself well to being a story you can relate to you.

The characters felt like they fit this world and were created by its structures and cruelty. Sophia was a great protagonist, leaping off the page from the beginning. As a reader, I was able to engage with her very well, and I was invested in her story. Her romance with Constance was also fun, there was some really good tension there, as well as with Erin. The side characters felt real and helped build the story, especially the villain and their motivations.

The plot was fast paced, and there was never a part I felt bored. I liked how character-driven the story was and the satisfying arcs that followed. The stakes felt real, as the villain was well built and established.

There were some parts that felt a bit too quick, and I would have liked some more build up and complexity to those moments in the story. Sometimes it felt like the author had a lot of scenes in mind and then patched them together after writing them up. That’s not to say those scenes were badly written or took away from the story, but overall, it felt like connection between them could have been stronger.

Having said, this was still a fully enjoyable novel and I recommend it to anyone interested in fairy tales and fantasy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Comet’s First Christmas: The North Pole Chronicles by Delilah Night

Comet's First Christmas by Delilah Night

As we enter into the end of 2020, if you’re someone who celebrates Christmas, you’re probably having some strong emotions about it right now. Maybe you want to forget the whole holiday, because we probably can’t celebrate it the way we usually do. Or maybe you, like me, are filling your Netflix queue with holiday romances and stocking up on eggnog, because we deserve a tiny sliver of hope and happiness this year! If you are looking to dive headfirst into Christmas, Comet’s First Christmas is a great way to kick it off.

This is about Claudia, a reindeer who has just been brought in to act as Comet this Christmas season. Yes, this is about reindeer shifters. And yes, all nine of Santa’s reindeer are lesbians. As you might expect, this is a book overflowing with Christmas cheer. Everything is themed: Claudia drinks candy cane coffee, her assistant is an elf, and her phone comes equipped with a Naughty-Or-Nice app.

This overwhelming festivity reminded me more of a classic kids’ holiday movie, initially: it is an unapologetic celebration of Christmas that can verge on the tooth-achingly sweet, but is perfect for if you want to be completely immersed in the holiday. I’d love to see this series get cartoon covers in the style of Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series, Clare Lydon’s holiday books, or even Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, because I think that would better match the mood of the this story.

The conflict is that someone is going around convincing people to not believe anymore. Claudia has to try to stop this nefarious villain before they lose any more Christmas magic! Although it sounds like a kids’ movie, this is a romance novel, which means we see 25-year-old Claudia earnestly asking other adults why they’ve stopped believing in Santa. It was a little jarring, but in this world, adults who believe do get gifts from Santa every year, so it makes sense in this context.

Did I mention that this is a romance? Of course, you’re coming to the Lesbrary not just for generic holiday cheer, so you’ll be happy to know that this includes a very sweet romance. It definitely falls into the instalove category, but it works for this very cute book. Claudia crushes on Jillian hard when they meet. Jillian is technically her assistant, but because the role of Comet changes and Jillian’s job stays the same, it didn’t feel like a power difference to me: they both seemed like equals. They made for an adorable romance, starting with clueless lesbian flirting (she’s obviously hitting on you, Claudia!) and including lots of healthy communication.

Although this is a sweet book with a pretty straightforward plot, there are a lot of details to enjoy as well. I loved seeing Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy get a shout-out (I’ve got the sequel on my bedside table right now!), and there’s a Star Trek-loving reindeer who swears in Klingon. Claudia is visiting New York for the first time, and she revels in getting the classic Christmas in New York experience, including going to Macy’s, Times Square, seeing The Nutcracker, and more. Claudia also has anxiety, which is own voices representation. She manages it with breathing exercises and other techniques, which it was nice to see included.

This is the first book in the series, so it’s not surprising that everything isn’t tied up completely, but it did feel a bit anticlimactic in terms of the overarching plot, though Claudia’s story concludes nicely. I feel like I guessed the mystery really early in the book, but I’m not sure yet if I’m right. I look forward to the next book in the series, which seems to be about Prancer–will every reindeer get their own story?

In the afterword, Delilah Night says she wrote this because “after how bruising 2020 has been, can anyone blame us for wanting something a little sweet?” This definitely fits the criteria for sweet, but be prepared: only pick this up if you’re ready for a heavy dose of Christmas cheer!

Kayla Bell reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.

This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.

There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.

Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.

Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.

Carolina reviews The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (Amazon Affiliate Link)

“Your characters begin to live the way you do, unrepentant. Never reduced to their queerness, only expanded by it. It infuses them in many ways, sometimes subtle, others loud.”

What does it mean to be invisible? As queer people, most of us are familiar with invisibility in many forms. For some of us, it’s being in the closet, having to deliberately conceal parts of ourselves; for others it’s a lack of representation, a blank outline where we should be in the media. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is the fantastical and introspective journey of Addie LaRue, a bisexual immortal cursed by the devil himself to be forgotten by all who meet her, until she meets someone who finally accepts her and loves her for who she is.

I’ve always loved Schwab’s writing, from her X-men inspired Villains series, to the whimsical and enchanting A Darker Shade of Magic series. One thing that I always appreciated in her writing is the casual inclusion of queer representation; Prince Rhy Maresh makes Alucard his prince-consort in the magical Red London, and the anti-hero Victor Vale’s asexuality is a valid part of his identity.

Following the immediate publication of long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, author V.E. Schwab came out as gay in a moving interview for Oprah Magazine. Schwab’s coming out was touching and it was refreshing to discover one of my favorite authors was queer as well. In the article, she cites the queerness of her characters as a tool to becoming comfortable in her own sexuality and skim, a theme that is echoed throughout Addie LaRue’s life, as love allows her to discover her true self and worth.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is more of a character study than a romance; although Addie does not shy away from describing her female partners in the same way as her male partners, the true core of the book is Addie’s character development. Addie begins the story in 17th century rural France, a desperate teenage girl willing to sell her soul for the chance to to escape an arranged marriage, and live openly on her own terms. Lucifer, ever cunning, gives her the freedom and immortality she longs for, but curses her to be forgotten by all who meet her, dooming her to a life of isolation and sorrow. Throughout her eternal life, she is haunted by the charismatic, seductive devil himself, and nearly loses herself to his deceit. As she grows older and wiser, she learns that although she is forgotten, she will still be remembered through the marks she leaves behind on people’s lives, history and art. When she meets Henry Strauss in 2014, they slowly fall for each other after learning they were both marked by Lucifer. With Henry’s support and encouragement, she begins to find the strength to tell her story and defeat the devil on her own terms.

The novel embodies Schwab’s familiar, haunting prose, and introduces us to a cast of unique and lovable characters, the majority of which are LGBT. Henry’s friend group feels like a love letter to gay friendship as a whole, illustrating the inside jokes and affection only a group of queer people can have for each other. I also loved following Addie through history, seeing the world change and advance around her. The use of multimedia and art as a motif was particularly moving; the art we make acts as a stark indicator of both who we were, are and will be, and the world we live in.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a microcosm of a life’s journeys and discoveries. Addie’s imperceptibility can be seen as a metaphor for being closeted; Addie sells her soul for the opportunity for freedom, and the ability to choose who to love outside of the pre-conceived notions of narrow-minded people in her small French village. Thus, Addie is erased from the forefront, a vital part of her identity disregarded and ignored, her contributions lost to the sands of time, like many queer individuals through the annals of history. Addie is isolated and cut off from anyone like her, similar to being in the closet. It isn’t until Addie meets Henry, someone else who is cursed for wanting love and acceptance on his own terms, that she is able to see herself in him and come into her own.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a moving reflection on isolation and what it truly means to be human, summing up the collective need for companionship and acceptance in a tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm for the modern age.

Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance review copy.

Trigger Warnings: Abusive relationship, suicidal ideation, depression, addiction

Thais reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I have had Dread Nation in my TBR list for a while. After Deathless Divide was released, I was even more pressed to check out this duology, even though YA stories about zombies are not exactly something I would normally read. The premise was just too good—after the dead rise during the American Civil War, Native and Black American kids are taken from their families and forced into an education that basically trains them to protect white people from zombies.

The first book, Dread Nation, set up the world and had protagonists Jane and Katherine finding out that the biggest danger did not come from the undead. Deathless Divide starts just as the first book ended, with Jane and now friend Katherine fleeing the town they had been sold to and trying to find their luck in a nearby frontier town founded by people of color. But the people who were all too gleeful to see our protagonist basically enslaved into a death sentence flee to the same destination, and so Jane’s problems continue to follow her.

I had conflicting feelings about Deathless Divide. On one hand, the duology as a whole is the best YA series I’ve ever read. On the other, the books seem to show that I’m not really the audience for YA dystopian fantasy, even the most creative, amazingly developed ones. I have always struggled to get on board with how overly plotted and overly designed some YA fantasy books feel. It was an issue I had even with books I read and loved as a teenager.

Dread Nation had a chaotic energy that I loved. It had some tropes, but it mostly felt wholly original. Deathless Divide, on the other hand, seemed to try very hard to hit all outlined plot points, sometimes to the detriment of the characters, and it drove me mad, because the characters are the soul of the books.

It also had very specific quests the protagonists had to complete, unlike the ‘just survive’ approach of the first book, and after the first half, the sequel feels like it’s spinning on wheels trying to convince us the characters really would make all these decisions that would lead to resolution being delayed and delayed until the very last pages. For example, it’s impossible not to see where Justina Ireland (as amazingly talented as she is) tried to turn Jane bitter and where she left crumbs for Jane’s salvation.

I have loved Jane since the first book and I was even more excited to spend time with her in Deathless Divide, because while it is revealed in book one that Jane is bisexual, this installment was supposed to bring us a sapphic romance for Jane.

When Jane told people again and again that she had to get revenge, no matter what, I sided with her. I felt her pain. I was annoyed at Jane’s constant attempts to try to save people who were monsters, but I also believed in my core that she was a good person who felt she had to try. I was annoyed that Jane believed she could reason with people who saw her as less than human and convince them she was right, but I rooted for her nevertheless. I believed in her flaws. I trusted her as a character.

But all my love for Jane could not prevent me from seeing that halfway through this book she changed specifically so she could be redeemed. She became a different person than she was for one-and-a-half books entirely to drive the plot into meandering tangents that delayed her completing her quest. She made stupid decisions to delay the climax of the book and create tension.

That soured the book for me a bit. The fact that other characters also have their ultimate growth attached to Jane’s arc didn’t help.

Ireland created a cast of characters that was instantly likable, despite their many stubborn moments and their many errors in judgment.

I loved Sue more than I loved Jane. I loved Katherine more than I loved Jane. I wanted their journeys to stay their own. And I wanted to love Callie, and hated that she was not given as much complexity as Jane’s male crushes.

I won’t lie, the promise of a little sapphic action was what drew me to this series. I stayed because of the writing (despite my whining), but I still wanted to see Jane in the context of this relationship, given that her feelings for the two male romantic interests in past books were extremely relevant to the story and her growth as a character.

But Callie is never developed very deeply. We never see them falling in or out of love. We never know if there was anything in Callie that Jane liked beside Callie’s willingness to take care of her and stay by her side. It was so disappointing.

Jane and Callie are not the only LGBTQIA+ representation, however, and if I still loved this book, it is in great part because of Katherine. Katherine and Jane have an enemies-to-best-friends journey that is the emotional core of the books. I was heavily invested in their friendship, but I was especially engaged with Katherine’s arc.

Katherine is complicated and delightful. She is consistently loyal and curious about the world. Her ace identity did not feel forced, and it did not feel like a gimmick or a throwaway storyline. She is always whole and complex and driven, even when her story becomes all about her friend. She wasn’t my favorite character in Dread Nation, but in Deathless Divide, she rightfully steals the spotlight and stays the most cohesive character, even while growing and changing.

I wish Katherine had enjoyed more of an arc of her own. I wish the side characters had also gotten more time on the page. I rarely say this, but this duology could have easily been a trilogy, because there were enough character-driven plots that could have been pursued.

There were so many elements that worked in the book—the experiments and the anger they caused on Jane; the complicated journey to find a safe haven from the zombies, only to find out that there were few refuges to be had if you were Black; and the way each loss resonated and was felt deeply.

But I would also have loved for the one queer relationship to have gotten its due on the page, even if it didn’t have a happy ending. I would have loved for more of the characters to have time to feel whole.

I still think Justina Ireland did something unique and special. This was such an original idea, and while some of its elements left me frustrated, I think it says something about the book that I just wish there was a lot more of it. I cared about this world so much, to the end. I would gladly revisit it and spend time with any of the peripheral characters.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Whatever problems the book has, it also has beautiful people you will be glad you spent some time with.

Kayla Bell reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Gothic fiction is my jam. I love the slowly building sense of dread that is the cornerstone of the genre. If I could have the job of any fictional character, it would be the creepy groundskeeper of the haunted manors in gothic ghost stories. I also (as you can imagine from me writing for this website) love queer stories. Looking back, my favorite horror and gothic books have consistently been those with queer elements. So as soon as I saw Unspeakable on the list of books up for review, I knew I had to read it. I’m happy to say that this short story collection lived up to my high expectations.

While all of the stories include gothic elements, they are all very different. The stories run the gamut from classic, historical gothic horror to modern-day shapeshifter romance. This collection is stronger for the diversity in storytelling that it holds. I loved the ones that had explicit sapphic relationships, but the ones without them were just as good, too.

One feature that really stood out to me in this collection was the setting. As I said, I love classic gothic stories. So every story that took place in an old, desolate home overlooking a grey sea made me very happy. The stories that I thought used setting to their advantage the most were “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple and “Quicksilver Prometheus” by Katie Young. Both of these stories used the grey, dark classic gothic setting to show the inner minds of their main characters. “Quicksilver Prometheus” also stood out to me because of its brilliant use of historical elements. That was definitely one of the best stories in the collection for me. Other stories that had amazing settings were “Moonlight” by Ally Kolzow and “The Moon in Glass” by Jude Reid.

Three of the other stories also stood out to me as being exceptionally good. The first was “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt. This sea creature horror story incorporated the culture of the Philippines to create a truly unique and horrifying tale. Watt’s writing was also featured in another one of my favorite recent anthologies, Haunted Voices. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.

“Homesick” by Sam Hirst almost made me cry. I wasn’t expecting such a profound and beautiful love story between two ghosts. In my opinion, it also had the best opening line in the book (and maybe of any short story I’ve ever read). This one was simple, but incredibly beautiful. It will certainly stick with me.

Finally, “The White Door” by Lindsay King-Miller turned a classic story on its head and proved that gothic stories can absolutely work in a fantasy setting. I was impressed by how well this one drew on standards set by classic works in order to create something completely unique. It also had an amazing and very chilling ending.

Overall, I really loved this anthology. I can see myself rereading it at night in October, waiting for something spooky (and potentially even sapphic) to happen.

Kayla Bell is the pen name of an author, reviewer, and lover of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can catch up with her on Instagram @Kreadseverything for more book reviews and updates about her writing.