Mallory Lass interviews Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones author photoHeather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy GrailSword and SorceressLace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals. When Mallory caught up with Heather, she was just about to take a trip east to visit family in Maine.

Q: What is something people would never guess about you?

Ooh, I both love and dread this sort of question because it depends on the audience. People at my day job are startled by the most ordinary of things–like, that I once turned in a homework assignment written in cuneiform on a clay tablet. Most people in SFF fandom don’t know much about my day job as an industrial failure analyst. And I can usually befuddle those who see me as a stuffy amateur historian by mentioning that I once had the police called on me for participating in a dog fight…as one of the dogs. (This story is best heard in person as performance art.) Once people start getting to know me, it’s hard to stump them because then they’re willing to believe almost anything!

Q: You often post photos of your desk rose on twitter. How did that start? Do you have a green thumb?

I have a brown thumb. I kill houseplants. I killed an aloe vera once, and that’s hard. But I live in California and have an automatic watering system, so it’s hard to fail too badly at growing things. For obvious reasons, roses are a meaningful flower for me. (Heather would be too, but it’s harder to grow here and not nearly as picturesque.) I have somewhere around 30-40 different roses growing in my yard but I don’t get to spend as much time enjoying them as I’d like. That’s why I started the habit of bringing a rose (or two) from my garden to put on my desk at work every week. That, and the insufferable smugness of being able to do so practically year round. I do a major pruning around January or February every year and take a break from the desk roses, but the rest of the year they come through. There’s a third, more philosophical reason for the desk roses. I pledged to myself that I’d never wait for anyone else to bring me roses–I’d not only give them to myself, but I’d plant an entire rose garden to make sure.

Q: Who and/or what has influenced your writing the most?

Another hard question. My influences and inspirations tend to get thrown into the mulch pile of my back-brain. By the time they’ve composted enough to fertilize story seeds, it’s hard to identify individual influences. I’ve read so many books from so many different–very different–authors. It’s easier to identify the abstract influences. One is a sense of the fantastic possibilities around every corner in everyday life. Not that I actually believe in fantastic things, but the stories that most inspired me usually involved an ordinary world with strange things happening. I still remember reading Mary Norton’s The Borrowers when I was ten years old and choosing to believe that every old house had colonies of tiny people living in the interstices. Every time I’ve lived in a house with a basement, my imagination has populated that space with monsters and secrets. My second most important influence was the lack of media representation I felt growing up. It was impossible to find characters I could identify with thoroughly. The closest I came were the “lost child from a different plane of reality” like Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door. I started writing stories so that I could populate them with characters who made me feel less alone.

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Marthese reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

“Even that which seems impossible at first, may be overcome with strength of mind and heart”

Girls of Paper and Fire, the first book in a fantasy series, follows Lei, a paper cast girl, who is forced away from her home to go and serve the king as a papergirl.

Lei’s birth pendant still hasn’t opened, since she is not 18. She wishes for a quiet life in her village, but that seems to not be in store for her. In a world where paper cast are at the bottom on the chain, under steel cast and especially moon cast, she has to continuously struggle to fight, to hold her own while being careful not to end up dead. This proves to be difficult, but Lei is stubborn and enjoys her freedom.

Lei is taken from her home, coerced to leave, to become a papergirl because of her unique golden eyes. The bull king is rather superstitious and the general who kidnaps her wanted to score points with the heavenly king. Lei has no choice. However, she vows to go back to her family and find out what was her mother’s fate.

Lei meets the other papergirls. Among them, there is Aoki, who she feels protective of, and Wren, who she is immediately intrigued by, but it takes them a while to open up to each other. Both have secrets which they protect and hold close to themselves.

Lei wants to be strong and free, but she has to battle a lot of guilt. She feels like a traitor to her own people even though she did not have much of a choice.

This books will make you angry. A lot. First of all there is sexual assault and sexual coercion, not just on Lei but many girls. There is a sense of hopelessness, especially for the paper cast. The king and moon cast demons are too powerful and they abuse this power, at least most of them. Lei is told several times that she is no better than her job as a papergirl – a job that entails serving the king in and out of the bedroom and attending to the court. She is also called a whore several times even though she had no choice… She is also told several more times that she should be grateful since being a papergirl is prestigious and at least she’s not just a common prostitute. Moon cast also have a lot of entitlement, and there is a societal hierarchy that is usually enforced, with some exceptions. Be warned there is off screen rape and a lot of sexual assault. It’s not romanticised.

While this book will make you angry, it will make you angry for all the right reasons. Because it’s not right, how she and other paper casts and women are treated. It’s also realistic while being fantasy, because these things do happen – in society, people of different casts, ethnicities, etc are discriminated against. Powerful people do abuse their power (and possibly lost a bit of sanity along the way) and double standards – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – do happen in real life. In this world there are also double standards for queerness, which happen in real life too, because while males are accepted, female couples aren’t even thought of. While Moon casts are usually depicted as discriminatory, we meet different Moons that are kind and show us that not everything is black and white.

There is slow but strong character development and the budding feelings between Wren and Lei are slow but so worthwhile. Wren’s character is intriguing. While at first it may seem that Lei could develop feelings for her captor (she first describes the king as handsome), don’t worry: this won’t happen. There is lesbian activity! It just takes her a while to realize her feelings for Wren. With her growing romantic feelings, there is a growing sense of rebellion.

There is a sense of found family, and the story shows that even in darkness there is hope. Lei makes friends, and she learns to be stronger, despite all the things that keep on bringing her down.

As almost all magical fantasies plots, there is a prophecy: a prophecy of fire and redemption. The plot overall is solid. The characters are diverse (not just in their demon/non-demon forms), and the setting is a fantasy Asia, not Europe.

Since this book is part of a series, the epilogue introduced a fact that I guess will lead to the second book. The only thing that I didn’t like was the too-long flight scene towards the end, but apart from that, even the abuse that got me angry had a purpose in the plot. I’d like to see what happened to the other papergirls, but I am not sure if we’ll get to see that.

I recommend this book for anyone that likes fantasy and can stomach sleazy and discriminatory characters and practices.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

Marthese reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

“May your memories keep you warm”

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a novella by Day Al-Mohamed that follows Azulea, a trainee from the Shining City that wants to be an Archivist. An Archivist interviews cross-world traders and keeps an updated archive and repository. She has a lot of vision and intuition even though she is blind.

She and her cousin Peny complement each other in their learning and work. This is not looked at kindly in the Archive, where each Archivist has to be self-sufficient. Azulea especially wants to prove herself and be taken seriously. She gets this chance when a terrible tragedy occurs. Her Amma dies and Azulea believes it to be murder.

For such a short novella, the story is action-packed. I read it nearly all in one day. This novella is a mixture of fantasy and mystery: my two favourite genres. The murderer was a bit predictable, to me. Although there were many suspects, however, the new spins to the world and the plot kept the story interesting. There definitely were some twists and turns, some of them were refreshing and not tropes.

This is also a novella about the importance of asking and getting help while still being independent. This is also an exes to lovers story, that is not explicit and the importance of understanding where each other is coming from, control and clearing misunderstandings in relationships.

Melethi is Azulea’s ex. She is also the leader of the market guard and arbiter and of course, gets involved in solving the crimes that happen. Even though it’s short, there is character development.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is part of the Broken Cities series and was released in July 2019. So far, there is only this book but I look forward to keep up with this series. It looks promising. Most world building in fantasy novels, especially if short, could be confusing. There were times where I found myself asking ‘What is that?’, but with time, it all cleared up.

One small thing that I liked about this book is the culture. I live in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and my language is a creole one that combines Semitic (Arabic), Anglosaxon and romantic languages. The culture and especially the words felt similar and I could connect to this world. The souq (market) is like my suq and the fūl (broad beans) are the ful that I eat each summer.

I feel that such a series, like my favourite the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman, would be appreciated by people living in the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean region or people interested in non Eurocentric/Americanized  fantasy, of which there aren’t that many, especially if queer.

All in all, it’s a good introduction to a new series. Azalea has many opportunities ahead and I look forward to see which she will take. I wish to read more about this world and the Labyrinth of worlds and want to see new worlds and exploration.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

The Sanctuary of Themyscira by Leila Hedyth

In the first of the Amazons series by Hedyth, Kylla is rescued from imprisonment and thrown into an otherworldly adventure on the mythical island of Themyscira, home of the legendary Amazonian women. However, the paradise of a land ruled by women, away from the patriarchal world, is not all it seems. Kylla soon learns the history of the Amazons, as well as their secrets and regrets, and what role she plays in it all.

I had a hard time getting into this book, as the language felt awkward and out of place, not only in the dialogue, but in the exposition. I do recognize though that this was written in translation, so it could simply be a matter of that. It seems like such a small detail to nitpick, but the constant repetition of certain words, like “grandiose” to describe everything that left Kylla in awe or “piercing” to describe everyone’s eyes, is distracting when trying to follow the story.

The language also felt stilted and unnatural, as if the author/translator tried to create a lofty voice for the Amazons. The problem this creates is one in which not a single Amazon is discernible from another. Even the main character sounds like this, but she comes from what can only be described as “the real world,” so there isn’t a clear reason as to why she speaks this way.

There’s a lack of setup for the world Kylla lives in before she’s rescued and taken to Themyscira. It’s a vague context of an overly patriarchal world that uses and abuses women, but not enough time is spent developing that world to show why Kylla is whisked away to safety and refuge. Throughout her time on the island, there are a few details sprinkled about her clan, giving the reader the idea she might come from indigenous people, but it’s never made clear.

As the story unfolds, more and more characters are introduced. There are the Amazons Ines, Cynthia, Lorelei, Re’gan, Johanne, the Queen Iris, and so many more. There is such a wide cast of characters that the reader never has enough time to get to know any one in particular. In fact, it’s even hard to remember that Kylla, the main character of the novel, is indeed the main character. She fades too easily into the background of what’s going on around her, never making a lasting impression.

Because of this lack of character and relationship development, the stakes fail to land and leave a meaningful impact. By the time the reader gets to the end of the book, they’re left wondering why they should care. Between the overwhelming number of characters and fast pace of sequence of events, it’s easy to tune out while reading and miss so many details. It felt like the author tried to make one book out of two or three.

The story doesn’t focus on any specific w|w pairing, but there are a couple main ones that take place throughout the novel. But again, there was such a lack of development between the characters that these romances fell short of the potential they had to bloom and depict a healthy, loving example of queer women relationships. This underdevelopment is detrimental to the inclusion of people of color among the characters as well. Brief, surface descriptions when a new character is introduced are the only indicators that this world even has black and/or brown women. Their ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds are so minimally important that it reads more like the author was working off a checklist of diversity.

The most compelling content in the novel is the second section, which goes into the history of the Amazons. For those familiar with Greek mythology and the mythos of the Amazons, this part of the story holds strong. It relies so much on familiarity with the myths, that without it, the novel as a whole could not stand on its own. However, within the section about the Amazons’ history, there is a standout character named Phoebe. Her story and her character are by far the most developed in the book, which keeps the reader engaged and interested to see how it all ties together.

Overall, I’d rate the book somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. There are moments that kept me reading and intrigued, but on the whole, I felt it needed more development.

Sash S reviews The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

“Let the sea take it.”

The Gloaming begins with jellyfish washing up near a cliff by the sea, on an island where the residents die slow deaths by turning to stone. It’s a sad, strange and beautiful scene, just one of many sprinkled throughout this novel.

Our protagonist is Mara, who falls in love with Pearl, who is a selkie or a mermaid or perhaps neither? Myth and metaphor wind around one another, the author weaving multiple fairytales together to create one of her own. Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. All of this is set against the backdrop of an island with “dark, tarry magic” and the tragic loss of the protagonist’s little brother who was swept out to sea. The novel follows Mara and her family as they try to move through their grief, living their lives amidst the push and pull of the island.

It’s up to the reader to decide, in many places, how much of the island’s magic is real and how much is not. In that sense, The Gloaming is an excellent example of magical realism.

It’s also a beautifully written book. The island is painted so vividly it’s not hard to see how Mara and her family are drawn to it. Sentences flow like poetry – or dare I say, like water – with such careful, well-chosen language it’s easy to get swept up in it.

The novel asks big questions about grief and love and family, and answers them by waving its arms in wide, sweeping arcs. True to its title, The Gloaming is shadowy and mysterious and leaves much unsaid. Instead it asks its readers to read between the lines – there are leaps in time, flashes backwards and forwards, conversations we aren’t fully privy to. The plot meanders through at a leisurely pace, with all of the focus being on simply exploring the characters the story presents to us.

That lack of clarity might be frustrating for some, but it fits with the central themes of the novel rather well. The overwhelming confusion of loss; the sharp pain of hope; half-forgotten stories of childhood; a yearning to be somewhere else but not being quite sure where that somewhere else is. Mara’s queerness melds naturally into these themes, but we skirt around the edges of the harder truths of coming out in a small community. The reluctance to be affectionate with Pearl in front of her family is just barely addressed, for example, and we rarely see the world or anyone in it outside of the main characters.

That said, Mara and Pearl’s relationship is only a fraction of the novel. It’s not a romance, so much as a fantasy that threads romance throughout it. Each member of Mara’s family is fleshed-out and we get to peek inside all of their heads, with every familial relationship explored. Signe and Peter, the parents, are delightful to read about. We spend a lot of time with Mara, who, like the “changeling” motif she is associated with, is seen so differently by so many. She’s brave, sensitive, sad, loving, angry and self-conscious all at once. Ultimately, she’s a fascinating protagonist.

Motifs are everywhere: water, stone, time, death, wind, air. It’s very much a modern-day fairytale that pays homage to the centuries of fairytales that preceded it.

If you’re looking for a story that’s purely about romance, The Gloaming might not be for you. However, if you want to read a haunting fantasy that happens to have a queer romance, this is a great book to dive into.

Danika reviews “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns is an anthology of speculative fiction by people of colour, and it does include a few queer women short stories, but one really stood out to me: “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh. The author describes it as “A pornographic triptych of three different individuals encountering a creature part human, part bobbit worm.” This story perfectly combines two tropes that need more f/f content: human/mermaid love stories and human/monster sexuality. Any time a movie like The Shape of Water comes out, it sparks a new rehashing of the age-old question: “Why are so many people attracted to monsters?” I’m not here to answer that question, only to recognize its truth, and this is the perfect short story to explore it.

Mayang is not a mermaid: her bobbit worm-like traits, including mandibles, are too disturbing to fit our sexualized and Disneyfied vision of a classic mermaid. But she is a fantastical creature who lives in the water, who is fascinated by people, but also separate from them. Salmah and Mayang have a relationship, but there is tension there: they belong in different places. Salmah can’t reconcile this relationship with her life or future. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is Mayang’s next, unexpected relationship that bring her more acceptance and really explores what is possible between their different lives (and bodies).

Part erotica and part revenge-against-misogynists story, with an undercurrent of the grotesque that leaves you equal parts disturbed and enthralled, this is a story I think a lot people have been looking for without knowing it.

Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Danika reviews The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta

This was my most-anticipated book of 2019, and it lived up to the hype. I knew from the time that I heard about a YA novel featuring six queer witches among the California redwood forests, I was hooked. This is such an atmospheric, encompassing read. It’s told in a way that mirrors the fantastical events: we see the story through different time periods and perspectives (Danny–the main character, The Grays–the witches, the Ravens, the Trees, the students at their high school, etc), giving a piecemeal account that advanced remarkably organically. I found that I had to let the story wash over me, without getting too bogged down with the details. 

I still get a little thrill out of seeing books that actually use the word queer in the description, so that’s always a plus, but it exceeded my expectations on the representation front. It’s no coincidence that this is the queerest YA book I’ve read since Amy Rose Capetta’s Once and Future. With a few exceptions (Anger is a Gift and Down to the Bone come to mind), I still don’t see a lot of YA (or books in general) that feature a queer friend group. To have 6 queer witches that celebrate their identities is–I hesitate to say–magical to read about. The group includes a grey ace non-binary character, a black bisexual character, a main character who identifies as queer, a character with synesthesia, a character with a limp, and a Filipino character. These characters discuss their labels and identities freely and without shame. This book includes a character casually using the phrase “femme as fuck.” Not only that, but Danny is a queer teenage girl who enjoys her sexuality. Kissing is her favourite thing to do, and she usually kisses girls. Before moving to Tempest, she spent her time finding all the girls in the school who wanted to kiss her, and kissing them. I feel like sapphic YA often shies away from explicit sexuality, while The Lost Coast celebrates sexuality/sensuality, and includes an on-the-page f/f sex scene.

I found myself partway through this book, impatient to reread it. Because there are so many central characters as well as perspective and time period shifts, I felt like I couldn’t keep track of it all the first time through. It wasn’t a problem, because this has such an eerie, dreamlike feel that this disorientation just added to the experience. Although I am Canadian, I live on the west coast, and the magical, foreboding, awe-some power of the forest described in The Lost Coast really spoke to me. By the end of the book, I did feel satisfied that I understood the crux of the plot despite my initial confusion, but I am still excited to read this again on a breezy October evening, diving into this magical and encompassing story with a better understanding of the personalities contained there.

There were a few moments that really made me stop to appreciate and process them. At one point, Danny realizes that although her mother loves her, she doesn’t understand her: “there are parts of me–maybe the best parts–that she will never see, because they’re too strange.” Despite the flack that The Well of Loneliness gets, I still find that one line from it echoes through queer lit even to the present, where the main character declares that her love–which she has been shamed and hated for–is the best thing about her. I see this in Danny, too, this confusion/shame/outrage that the qualities others may resent or want to change about us may be our best qualities, what we most have to offer to the world. Later on, Danny realizes that part of the reason that the Grays touch so much is that they recognize that people like them have been denied this in earlier times, that every kiss is also in tribute to the queer people who were not able to openly kiss the people they wanted to. Especially in the conclusion of this story, there is a real recognition of queer people through time, which I really appreciated.

This is a beautiful book that I feel like so many people have been asking for. It’s an atmospheric Fantasy story. It has diverse queer representation. It’s whimsical and has a big queer cast, all of whom have their own magical specialization. I think this deserves so much more attention. Amy Rose Capetta has really pushed queer YA forward, between this and Once and Future. I’m so glad that 2019 is bringing us the stories we’ve been craving for so many years. Please pick up this story of chosen family and finding your own magic, and spread the word, because I know so many readers have been waiting for a story just like this.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.