Susan reviews Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Iron and Velvet by Alexis Hall is the first book in the Kate Kane series, following Kate Kane, private investigator, as she attempts to investigate the magic-induced murder of a young werewolf at a vampire nightclub (and hopefully avoids the three-way supernatural war that would result).

I absolutely loved it.

It’s very trope-heavy–Kate isn’t just a private detective, she’s a human(ish) disaster of a private detective; hard-drinking, hard-living, has just lost her (work) partner, constantly on the edge of going bankrupt, unlucky in love and everything else. She is also apparently catnip to the leaders of every supernatural faction that we meet, who all want her involved in their politics, on their side, within five minutes of meeting her. Absolutely tropey, but so refreshing to see this happen with a female character.

On top of this, many of the tropes it uses are subverted; for example, there is a casual take-down of the Vampire In A High School Dating Teenage Girls trope where the narrative makes it explicit that this is creepy. Plus, the the world building is really well done. The way the politics fits together is interesting, as is how werewolves work socially and how urban mages work at all, and seeing how the system maintains itself from the point of view of someone on the fringes is fun. Plus: most of the cast is queer, in all different ways! And the story manages to have both pulpy action, humour, and serious emotional moments all mixed up together!

I think I liked the romance–Julian, the vampire prince that Kate falls in love with, is charming and funny, even if their relationship gets intense really fast. I was not kidding about how quickly all of the leaders move! The way that she narrates her past as a story feels like obvious telegraphing, and in some ways it feels like her actions don’t always have the repercussions or impact I’d expect, but I really like the emotions around hers and Kate’s relationship, and the way the Iron and Velvet does specifically deal with the ripple effect this has on Kate’s social circle.

It’s not perfect, of course – I’ve mentioned that Julian’s narration sometimes tends to telegraph, but there are also developments that come straight out of nowhere to counterbalance them, and the ending is a jumbled mess. But it’s a jumbled mess that I love despite its flaws! In some ways, I love it because of its flaws, because Iron and Velvet is fun, pulpy urban fantasy, revisiting familiar tropes and making them queer. It’s excellent.

Caution warnings: Centuries old vampire dating a high-school girl; references to past stalking and abuse; assault.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Maddison reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a steampunk-esque novel set in gold rush era Washington. Karen Memery and the other “seamstresses” working for Madame Damnable at Hôtel Mon Chérie in Rapid City have their lives turned upside down when ex-prostitue and current “crib whore” savior Merry Lee shows up shot outside their Bordello with her latest charge, Priya. As Priya and Merry recover from the incident and Priya finds her place in Madame Damnable’s, a slow building romance begins to develop between Karen and Priya. The romantic elements of the book sit on the back-burner as the more salient issues of mystery, murder, and mayhem come to light. 

The book manages to bring the world to life with interweaving plots that encompass the personal, the economic, and the political. It also addresses issues like gender and sexual identity, racism, classism, and patriarchy.

The main cast of characters are lead by Karen who is the point-of-view character of the novel. While her fellow “seamstresses”–a code for prostitutes–and Madame Damnable’s employees like Crispin and Connie, are important and interesting characters, the novel focuses on Karen, Miss Francina, Priya, and Merry. As the adventure continues to unfold US Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche posseman also become integral to the story.

The book hosts a curious cast of characters with a gay African-American bordello bouncer; an African-American US Marshall and his Comanche posseman; the Chinese “crib whore” savior Merry Lee whose name has been bastardized by English tongues; and the brave, beautiful, and loyal trans woman Miss Francina to name a few.

The book doesn’t spare too many words in discussing sexuality, but it does remark upon LGBT characters and brings attention to the issues it may cause them. It does have a happy ending! Karen and Priya and the rest of the gang have a happily ever after.

I do think that Karen Memory has excellent representation and a very diverse cast and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. However, I found it hard to push my way through the beginning of the novel as I struggled to understand the way in which the book is narrated. Karen is intended to be undereducated young woman whose speech lacks some eloquencies and so it was difficult to get a grasp on some of the grammatical choices. However, as the book went on I was really pulled in by the story, and I became more used to the style of writing.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Karen Memory!

Alice reviews A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing by Avery Aimeson

“You won’t find anyone in this town straighter than a pretzel.”

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is the first book in the Fool’s Crown, a supernatural/urban fantasy series. The book contains themes of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness. An enjoyable read, but without much resolution, making it a two star book.

I was drawn to this book because I was in the mood for a typical paranormal romance novel filled with cheesy tropes where I could fall into the story and forget the stress of starting a new job. This book was not quite what I was expecting, although it was wonderfully escapist. The story focus was not on romance, as the protagonist was escaping a relationship not falling into one. This really worked in the book and opened up the story, and I didn’t feel at all disappointed.

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is about a homeless woman caught in a Supernatural city sealed of from the world of ‘Humies’. Using her skills with makeup and her acting training, our human protagonist shifts through an Identity for every day of the week to escape her abusive Witch of an ex-girlfriend. Along the way she meets a plethora of beautiful women (with shapely bodies and skin hugging clothes), including a Werewolf policewoman, a Succubus who runs the shelter for abused women, and a Vampire who always smudges her lipstick since she can’t see her own reflection.

This brings me onto one of my favourite things about the book: its humour. It is aware it’s a trope filled supernatural/urban fantasy, and the first person narrative brings a little bit of meta humour whenever she encounters a genre cliche. Lesbian puns are laced throughout the book too, leading me to giggle out loud on the bus to work a couple of times. This humour supports some heavy themes, with the main character fleeing domestic abuse, and also escaping from a horrific past. The book talks about these themes and allows you to face them without losing it’s escapist charm.

There is one ‘adult’ scene, which features reluctant/ unwanted sexual interaction. This scene made me rather uncomfortable and I felt the book came close to glamourising such situations, which was disappointing in a book that was rather sex-positive overall.

The main character, a human, is rather prejudiced against the Supernatural creatures she’s been living beside, believing none of them can be trusted as they all must just want to turn her. This can be a little annoying in places, but it makes so much sense for the character. [MILD SPOILER] Throughout the book she is led to confront these prejudices and becomes more accepting as she learns to ignore horror films from the land of humans, and instead listen to the people around her. [SPOILER ENDS]

However for all it’s examination of ‘Humie vs Supe’ suspicion and inter-supe racism, the book doesn’t look at racism as we know and see in the real world. The book even erases it, with one of the character remarking how odd it would be if humans went around calling each other by their race not their name, ignoring the fact that humans do indeed do this. Aimeson may have been trying to draw attention to the fact that this behaviour is ridiculous, but it came across more as her washing over the problem, which I take issue with in a book where there seemed to be no diversity of skin or culture.

Overall though I enjoyed this book, and it hit the spot perfectly for the WLW romp I was craving. This is a debut book–and you can see this in the writing. Over all it is very easy to read and you can fall into it quickly, however at times the story can be a little confusing. It’s biggest weakness is the end. Overall the book has a slow, light-hearted, lazy pace. Then the story escalates rather quickly–only to stop on abrupt cliffhanger. There was none of the resolution I expect from a good book, and this damaged my experience of it considerably. It sets up for what looks to be an interesting Fantasy series, I just wish more of the actual story had made it into the first book. Nevertheless as I enjoyed the humour, I am curious to see how the story progresses and will probably check out the second book when it comes out.

This story is perfect for fans of Holly Black who are after something a bit more light hearted, Pulp Fiction Stories, and fans of Urban Fantasy in general as they will love the in jokes from a narrative character who has read the genre too.

Rating: ** Shows promise, but feels unfinished.

Danika reviews Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Jessie is a ballet dancer who pours her life into controlling her body. It must be kept slim, contained, and each muscle must be acting perfectly according to the assigned movements. Despite going home from classes having danced until her feet bled, Jessie feels her chances of becoming a professional ballerina are slipping away.

Dawn has lost control of her body. She keeps slipping into “fugues”–chunks of time where she loses conscious thought and retains no memories from. She feels an overwhelming pull towards the animalistic, her body keening for wildness. Her life, fragmented and antagonistic towards her BodyBeautifulTM mother and bitter stepfather, can’t continue this way for long. Something has to break.

Dawn and Jessie were once best friends, but they haven’t seen each other in about a decade. Their parents used to be just as close, but once relationships between the girls and between the pairs of parents crossed boundaries, the families moved apart and cut contact. When desperation on Dawn’s part gets her to reach out, the two start clumsily rebuilding a relationship together. Meanwhile, Jessie finds herself lost in a new, overwhelming, raw style of dance, and Dawn keeps returning to a bear in a cage in the woods.

Usually I wouldn’t give this much summary in a review. But I’m finding it hard to gather my own feelings about the story. I was completely immersed in it while I was reading it, and it definitely has a wild, passionate appeal to it. Both girls seem on the edge of losing control, and neither seem to know whether that would be a bad thing. Dawn’s descents into her fugues are accompanied by fragmented, poetic writing, communicating her changing thought processes. This really worked for me, and I couldn’t help rooting for Dawn even as she lashed out at everyone around her and jumped out her bedroom window to run into the woods.

I would expect Jessie’s story to pale in comparison to Dawn’s… were-bear story? But I actually ended up just as morbidly fascinated with her world of dance. She is brutally disciplined, and when she starts dancing a more interpretive style, you can feel the intensity of base, physical emotion pour off the page. I was wrapped up in both of their emotional journeys, but I had no idea where they were going to go. This is a story about, as the author note explains, being a girl in a girl’s body. It’s about the intensity of societal pressure on teen girls’ bodies. How do you tidily wrap that up?

You don’t, I suppose. I don’t know what to think of the ending, exactly. [vague spoilers] There is confirmation of the complex, queer, but not entirely defined relationship between Dawn and Jessie, but it’s unclear whether they will have any relationship in the future, or what will happen in either of their lives. [end spoilers]

This made for an intense reading experience, and I really enjoyed the use of language to convey their differing perspectives. If you’re interesting in reading about a book inspired by a Mary Oliver quote and the scrutiny placed on teen girls’ bodies, I would highly recommend this.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Marthese reviews We Awaken by Calista Lynne

 

“I went on a date in a dream with a mildly mythical figure who couldn’t possibly exist. And we were swing dancing”

We Awaken is a Fantasy Young Adult short novel about Victoria and Ashlinn. What drew me to this book was the fact that it was a fantasy young adult book about an asexual couple. There aren’t many of those around! Despite being a fantasy, it’s also mixed with contemporary.

Victoria Lindy Dinham is going through a touch time. Her father died in a car accident a year before, and her brother fell comatose in the same accident. Her mother became vacant and uncaring and Ellie, Victoria’s best friend, is too different from Victoria. Dancing is her only outlet; until she meets Ashlinn.

Ashlinn is a creator of dreams, nice dreams. She visits Victoria to tell her about her brother, who she visits a lot. During their first meeting, Ashlinn gives Victoria a carnation that her brother Reeves had passed along. The flower stays in her room once Victoria wakes up, which makes her have proof that the dream wasn’t all a fantasy.

Apart from this meeting in dreams concept and the difficult times that Victoria is going through, this book is about the exploration of sexuality in the broader sense of the term.

I have to say, it took me around 30 pages to get into the story. Even though it was fantasy, it was a type I was not used to. However, I continued as I know about the asexual element (and how few there are) and I have to say, I don’t regret pushing on.

Victoria is a teenager and Ashlinn looks like one, although she isn’t. Despite this, although at time there is immaturity in the way they approach each other, for the most part there is a certain maturity that isn’t most often found in ‘teenage’ relationships. One example is earlier on when Ashlinn tells Victoria not to romanticize self-destruction. The two protagonists support each other, even in their relationships with other people. Ashlinn also helps Victoria explore her sexuality and her boundaries.

I liked both Victoria and Ashlinn, because they grew a lot but I also liked Ellie. When we first meet her, we see how Victoria views her as her best friend which she grew apart from in light of the tragedies in her life. However, Ellie is a very supporting friend that accepts Victoria for who she is, despite not understanding clearly.

At times, the tone is quite serious and sombre. Other times, it’s funny in the way that movie tropes are; such as changing in cars. Purely classic but also something relatable that some people do at times. It’s not a happy-go-lucky story, there’s a lot of pain but somehow, the protagonists carry on like one does in life.

For the book being fantasy, it’s relatable, especially for ace readers. My hopes for books like these is that there are more; that sexuality is viewed in a more complex manner, with easiness that does not make people feel like the odd one out when it’s not present in the sexual attraction way.

Danika reviews Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

sistermine

It’s hard to describe a book like Sister Mine. It would probably suffice to say it is just as surreal as the cover would suggest, but I’ll make an attempt anyways.

Makeda is a twin–originally conjoined twins–and is trying to strike out on her own. She and her sister have always been very close, but Makeda is sick of Abby’s controlling and overprotective attitude. It doesn’t help that while they are both mortal demigods, Abby has a magical gift with music, while Makeda is left with no mojo at all. She wants to make it on her own in the claypicken (human) world–but it’s not easy escaping from her supernatural family, when the unreal seems to follow her around.

There is a lot going on in this book. While it starts off following Makeda’s attempts at getting an apartment and establishing a “normal” life for herself, it quickly slides back into Fantasy. She’s being followed (hunted?) by a haint, her sister is dating the magical embodiment of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, her mother is cursed into being a sea monster, her father is temporarily human and has Alzheimer’s, and there’s something unnatural about her apartment complex. Phew.

Although there’s a ton going on in terms of gods, mojo, and the Fantasy world-building, Toronto as a setting is given just as much detail and life, which includes addressing the casual racism that Makeda deals with in the claypicken world.

Nalo Hopkinson throws you into the deep end in terms of introducing characters and lore. I wasn’t always completely sure what was going on–especially with the revelations around Abby and Makeda’s birth–but I was always immersed and fascinated. I love her writing. Everything I’ve read by her has been surreal and sometimes overwhelming, but always satisfying.

The queer aspect to Sister Mine requires a little bit of explanation that may be considered spoilers. Basically, the gods and demigods in this world don’t have a lot of qualms about sex and romance, which means that basically they’re all polyamorous and pansexual–oh, and also have sex with family. So even though Makeda in her claypicken life doesn’t seem to have any romantic or sexual interest in women (and makes a gay joke at one point?), she does have sex and date god/demigod women. Including her twin sister. To be honest, it made sense while I was reading it, and it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that it might be controversial.

If you’re looking for a surreal, immersive read, this is definitely one I would recommend.

Danika reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairIt’s rare for me to pick up a book and be surprised to see it has queer representation. That’s part of being so immersed in the LGBTQ book internet: I’ve usually heard about the representation before picking it up. I picked Everfair because I was intrigued by the premise: a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. I like steampunk, but I’m even more interested in steampunk that isn’t in a European context. I was happily surprised to see that in addition to that premise, this book also has several queer women main characters!

This is an incredible and complex story. I wouldn’t pick this up as a light or quick read: it definitely took me a while to get through. Each chapter switches perspectives, and there are tons of point of view characters (I actually lost count). This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. The alternate history of the Congo was fascinating, and although the steampunk element was more subtle than I was expecting, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice. There are a lot of nuanced political machinations taking place, including negotiations between the people who helped to found Everfair and the rulers of the area who preceded the existence of Everfair.

At least three of the points of view characters are queer women, along with more minor characters. I would argue that the relationship between two of them is at the core of the book. They definitely don’t have a simple, sweet romance. It’s complex and deeply flawed, but it’s also passionate, genuine, and loyal. I didn’t always like the characters (okay, one of the characters, but I won’t spoil it for you), but I always appreciated the layered, believable relationship they built between them, which spanned continents and many years.

This is an ambitious novel, tackling difficult and multi-faceted topics (including war, colonialism, and racism). It is thoughtful and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable conversations. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to dive into a book that is far-reaching and thought-provoking.

Marthese reviews Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

mermaid-in-chelsea-creek

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is yet another book I have been meaning to get into and the hype did not disappoint. This young adult fantasy book is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts and follows Sophia a teenage girl with Polish ancestry.

Sophia and her best friend Ella like to play the pass-out game because it’s the only thing to do in Chelsea. One day, when they are playing the game near the filthy creek, Sophia has a vision of a mermaid. Sophia’s mother Andrea is neglectful yet worried when Sophia admits to playing the game because she was freaking out. Something in her was coming forth. Sophia eats a lot of salt- this is a big element in the book.

At face value, this book is about Sophia coming into her powers and the people around her changing and being seen in new lights. Ella changes, people she saw often take on a new light and pigeons start to mean something nice, wonderful. On a deeper lever, this book tackles evil and sadness and the wrongness that’s in humanity- it treats elements like pollution and pain and sadness of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Humanity is caged, with seemingly no way out. This book plays on the readers understanding of these topics and offers lightness and hope. Sophia is supposed to help heal humanity from its corruption; her power allows her to see inside a person’s emotions and heal them. To heal humanity, that’s her mission.

Sophia discovers that she is a legend. She always knew she liked salt but now she understands why. Salt is an ancient preservative and measure- it makes sense to incorporate it into the story. Speaking about legends, this book beautifully incorporates different cultures and their ideas on witches. Chelsea is very multicultural.

This book also explores family dynamics: how generations can help each other or destroy one another. In Sophia’s case, it’s the latter; her mother is neglectful, her grandmother is worse. There are other positive family representations though. There’s Angel- who Sophia’s grandmother introduces as a guy but is in fact a girl- and her mother. There’s also Sophia’s lost relations which were in front of her the whole time.

This book features elements that at first you think are weird. Whoever thought that pigeons could be helpful main characters? Or mermaids making use of sea waste? All elements mash up well together. The sentences are constructed exquisitely, things like ‘She would submit to the grime, become like a feral cat wandering the heaps of trash’ offer a sense of aesthetic pleasure which Sophia, with all the awareness of her surroundings also shares with the reader. The illustrations, done in a simple style add more to the book experience.

The queer elements in this book do not focus on blatant relationships – although Angel for sure has a thing for Syrena the mermaid. Sophie is 13 but unlike Ella, she is not boy struck. She just values her friend.

I cannot wait to read the second book and see where the story goes. I definitely recommend this book to people that like fantasy, mermaids, pigeons, magic, character development and family dynamics and philosophical themes with some constructive criticism to the world that we live in.

Danika reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

of fire and stars

I haven’t fallen so head over heels for a book in years. Here’s the premise: a YA fantasy book where two princesses fall in love. I mean, there’s a lot more to it. There’s court politics and betrayal and suppressed magic and warring religious factions, but that’s the hook that got to me, and I suspect it’s what will convince a lot of people to pick it up.

This is a perfect read for Tamora Pierce fans, complete with loving attention paid to the horses in the story. This uses tropes that are common in fantasy books, but you just so rarely see play out with two girls as the main characters. The story is told from the two main characters’ perspectives, and initially Mare is unimpressed with Dennaleia, so we get to see that grudging-friendship-grows-into-something-more plot, which I love. Mare may be a princess in name, but she prefers riding breeches to dresses and digging for information in seedy pubs to attending balls. Dennaleia, on the other hand, has been training to be the perfect, proper princess (then queen) her entire life.

For all the fans of Frozen who wished Elsa got a girlfriend in the end, suppressed magic is a big part of the plot in Of Fire and Stars. Dennaleia struggles to keep her fire magic hidden in a kingdom that considers magic blasphemous, but when her emotions get out of hand, things begin to go up in smoke.

Basically, this is everything I ever wanted from Disney princesses, but with added depth and maturity. (Maturity as in there is brief sexual content and swearing.) Although this is a love story, it’s just as much about the two of them trying to find out the truth about the conflict (soon turned deadly) in their kingdom, especially when Dennaleia’s husband-to-be and the rest of the political powers don’t have any interest in the opinions of two teenage princesses.

This book warmed my heart. It’s not that this is fluffy or doesn’t have conflict, but it makes me unspeakably happy to know this story is out there for queer girls, and especially one that’s published by one of the big publishing companies, which hopefully means it will be on the shelves of enough bookstore to be discoverable. Have I mentioned that I love this book? 5 stars. I’ll definitely be buying myself a finished copy, giving it away as gifts, and peddling it to strangers.

Shira Glassman reviews Swan's Braid and Other Tales of Terizan by Tanya Huff

swans-braid-and-other-tales-of-terizan

Fantasy literature is rife with ‘clever thief’ protagonists for the vicarious entertainment of the virtuous, like Bilbo Baggins, but most of them are not even female, let alone lesbians. Swan’s Braid and other Tales of Terizan gives us the wily but honorable Terizan, who waltzes away from the first story in her collection with the affection of a female mercenary with whom she maintains a casual romance for the remainder of the book. Most of Terizan’s adventures aren’t love stories, but “capers”–she gets assignments from the Thieves’ Guild, which she joined pretty much for their health insurance plan (“the guild takes care of its own,” and she’s worried about what would happen if she ever got more seriously hurt during one of her falls from a mark’s window. It’s that kind of book.)

The plots themselves are pretty clever, with inflection points and twists and rising action and punch lines, reminding me of Maurice Leblanc’s dashing gentleman burglar Arsène Lupin, only in a fantasy setting with a lesbian heroine. Whether Terizan’s adversary is a ghost, a wizard, a prince, or the cult of an upstart goddess, reading about her besting them was satisfying and not stressful at all because they’re written in that “good old fashioned fun” way, not grimdark.

The prose is easy to follow, with the occasional evocative bit like “[…]sales pitches as wilted as the vegetables[…]” Huff’s worldbuilding is unobtrusive and “generic fantasy” enough to be pretty easy to understand, yet with enough originality that I didn’t feel like I was reading homage or parody. And I really can’t say enough good things about how relaxing it is to read a story about a woman Doing Things in a shady underworld without having to fear gendered violence. The villains in this book are mostly men, but their offensives and defenses against Terizan never include a sexual element.

I love so much about what Terizan’s stories have and don’t have. Her best friend is a bisexual male sex worker, her adventures aren’t gendered (in other words, she gets to interact with her fictional universe pretty much the way male characters usually get to), and her three bosses at the Guild are a man, a woman, and someone who “could be either or neither” whose gender is never further discussed. These days things like this are becoming easier to find in SFF, at least if you’re like me and play Heimdahl with indie LGBT publishing, but this particular story was written in the NINETIES. So I quietly hold this up to those who go around leaving skeptical, ossified reviews on fiction with nonbinary characters.

I would love to see these done in graphic novel form.

(Warning for the word ‘whore’ used a few times; I think it was only said by the sex worker character but I can’t actually remember and I returned my eBook to the library already.)

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