Danika reviews Witches of Ash & Ruin by E. Latimer

Witches of Ash and Ruin by E Latimer

Witches are turning up dead in this small Irish town–and they are following a pattern, one that has been winding through different towns for decades. Two rival covens must make an uneasy alliance to find and defend against this witch killer.

Dayna’s coven is the only place she feels at home. Her father is a conservative Christian who would never tolerate witchcraft, if he knew about it. He cast her mother was cast out for her mental illness, sending her to a Christian camp that she has only recently returned from, a stranger to Dayna. She also deals with somatic OCD, and has been ostracized by her community after being outed as bisexual. Now, the cozy family she has with her coven is being threatened, and she’ll do anything to defend it.

Meiner has been raised by her abusive grandmother, who also happens to be a terrifyingly powerful witch. Now, the King Witch is losing her memory, and often slips into irrationality or moments of delusion. Also taken in by this grandmother is Cora, who was “rescued” from an abusive aunt. She and Meiner used to be close, and even dated briefly, but now they have been pitted against each other for who is most worthy to inherent the coven. Cora will do anything for power, even if it means losing herself.

While Dayna and Meiner are clearly the main characters in this story, and their hate-to-love relationship is compelling, there are more point of view characters included. Dubh is the witch killer, and we see brief, chilling glimpses into his actions and motivations. Cora sometimes gets her own POV, revealing her desperation thinly veiling her vulnerability. We also get Samuel’s POV, who is Dayna’s ex, the Good Christian Boy, and is secretly obsessed with a serial killer.

I found it difficult to get into Witches of Ash & Ruin because of the constant POV shifts: it felt like there were so many starts and stops. I also found it difficult to keep track of so many names all at once (but that’s a fault of mine as a reader). By halfway through, although I didn’t remember all of the side characters’ names, I could appreciate what each POV brought to the story. I did get caught up on Samuel, though, who seemed more like a plot device to show things that the other characters necessarily couldn’t see. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that he’s unnecessary; maybe it’s just that I didn’t like him!

I think this would be a great October read for a blustery evening. There are murders taking place, and a real sense of foreboding. The characters are basically being hunted, and you’re not sure how or when they will be targeted. I was a little bit disappointed with the magic aspect, though: early in the novel, we’re told that the “witchlings” have all been waiting to ascend as witches, when they will get a direct link to their god and gain incredible power, unlike anything they could access before. But although two ascend fairly early on, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic being used until the very end of the book. Ultimately, although I appreciated a lot of this book, I just didn’t connect to it the way I wanted to. I think partly that was because I probably would have enjoyed this more in the fall, closer to Halloween, but also because I was overwhelmed with the amount of characters (everyone in both their covens, plus family members and friends), so I couldn’t remember who some of the major characters were, even by the end of the book. I don’t think that’s a fault of the book, though. If you enjoy dark stories about witches, and are interested in one set in Ireland, give this one a try!

Meagan Kimberly reviews From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

This paranormal fantasy novella follows “you,” who is Phyllis Avis Symons. She’s a young girl living in New Zealand in the early 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. Her contentious relationship with her parents leads her to run away and fall in love with an abusive man that becomes her downfall.

It’s hard to give a concise summary, as Phyllis lives multiple lives throughout the novella. But her first life takes up the majority of the story’s space. This book can’t be discussed as a linear narrative or in terms of character relationships and development. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Far from it.

From A Shadow Grave is a compelling array of connected stories told through the second-person point of view, putting the reader in Phyllis’ shoes. This perspective creates a matter-of-fact tone, giving a degree of emotional distance despite the subject matter. No matter what events occur and all the bad things that happen to the main character, the point of view puts it in a voice that indicates this is just how things are.

Phyllis’ relationships with George, Aroha, and others throughout her various lives indicates she is on the bi/pan spectrum. But it’s never explicitly stated. However, she does give voice to her hesitation and fear, as she recognizes the feelings she has for women and how it’s unacceptable in the society she lives in during the 1930s.

But that “you” perspective once more creates a factual tone, showing how Phyllis presumes life is just what it is, and there’s no use getting attached or worked up about anything. It’s her defense mechanism.

One aspect that pops up throughout is her learning disability. She’s written as someone with dyslexia, but because of the time she lives in, she’s deemed a stupid girl. What really breaks the reader’s heart is how she believes that’s true and accepts that as fact and reality.

Phyllis is also described as someone living with mental health issues. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “You were born with demons in your head, an unexplainable wish to self-destruct…” It’s especially fascinating as a description as the story takes place with a paranormal aspect, so the main character deals with magical demons as well as metaphorical ones.

The paranormal powers that exist in this world are never explained. They are accepted at face value and considered a normal part of everyday life for Phyllis and Aroha. It makes the narrative structure easier to accept, as the audience never needs to be told when another life jump has been made. It just is. This is strengthened once more by the second-person point of view.

The biggest detriment to the shortness of the novella and “you” perspective was a lack of depth in secondary characters. There were scattered details hinting that Aroha is a woman of color, but it’s not obvious that she’s an indigenous woman of New Zealand, Maori, until near the end of the book.

It’s difficult to give a specific analysis of this story without spoiling it. So many of the events and relationships are tied up in the plot, and it’s a great plot to enjoy on a first read without spoilers from a review. The best summary to give is it’s a ghost story, a love story, and a series of fragments of one person living multiple lives.

Marthese reviews Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

“Camille reminded herself that they had a lot of indoctrination to undo”

Not Your Average Love Spell is a not-so-average book that I discovered thanks to Netgalley, for which I am grateful. From the start, this book was one adventure after another, yet it didn’t feel rushed and was well-paced. Not Your Average Love Spell stars four main characters: Sydney – a knight, Camille – a master researcher, Rowena the Hawk – a witch and Ember – a homunculus.

This fantasy book is set in a world where the knights of the flame have been trying to capture all witches after the Witch Wars, which set people against witches. However, a new threat emerges, and Sir Robert instructs Major Sydney to make conduct with the Hawk to transport their troops in order to fight the Kells, who are dangerous because they believe other people are dreams. Sydney has Camille’s help as a master researcher. The two soon develop a fling. However, after the two are separated is when things get even more interesting.

Rowena, known as the Hawk, is a benevolent but grumpy and reclusive witch. She lives on top of a mountain with Ember, who she created and Husks. Ember is a highly energetic, curious and fiery woman who wants to go out and explore, though misses Rowena, and eventually has a ‘Rowena was right’ stage, like most youth when they grow up.

These four characters get tangled up together in all kinds of ways. Sydney and Rowena are rivals who reluctantly work together, sometimes admire each other, and for certain are too stubbornly similar to each other. Sydney and Camille were cute together, but something seemed off, and this was more evident once they found new partners that suited them better. I won’t give other dynamics away, but I liked the fact that even frenemies or new friends got time to put their heads together. I found this refreshing, because not a lot of books explore relationships in this way.

There was enough time for good character development. Characters learn to accept hard truths, to challenge themselves and their beliefs, to change their behaviours, and so on. The characters, and not just the couples, encourage each other directly and indirectly to be better. This was such a healthy way to portray relationships. This depth of characters is also shown by the fact that at first, I disliked the characters a bit (except perhaps Ember), yet as the characters developed, I couldn’t help but root for them and support them. All characters are flawed in realistic manners, such as their fears, snapping and shutting out others, and overcompensating. None of them come out as perfect from the start. The different forms of femininity and diversity of characters is definitely a plus too.

The adventures, as mentioned above, were plentiful. There are pirates and warriors, a yeti, giant spiders, a possible dragon, lizard people, and in general, a lot of tough-headed knights. The plot was definitely interesting, with a lot of twists and turns. It took me a while to realize that the Kells-plot was not concluded, but the whole overall plot was so great that I didn’t mind.

The writing was seasoned with beautiful writing and truths. The cover was lovely too! It was what first draw me to read the plot of the book so I’m grateful for that. The title is an overall hint to the character development and plot: it’s not average.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of fantasy and to those that want characters to be challenged to deconstruct what they know and learn how to live together. It’s a beautiful book!

Susan reviews Zodiac Starforce Volume 1: By the Power of Astra

Zodiac Starforce Volume 1 cover

Zodiac Starforce Volume One: By the Power of Astra is about a team of astrology-inspired magical girls, who have already done that whole “saving the world” thing and are trying to get back to their regular lives. It’s excellent.

I love the art and the character designs. All of the girls have really sensible, practical-looking magical girl outfits that make me think of armoured roller-derby uniforms, and they all have recognisably different styles! And the art is really cute and has a bright, pop-colour palette that brings me joy just looking at it. I think the decision to skip over the origin story and the exact details of how they sealed Cimmeria away was an interesting one that’s mostly handled well; we get to skip the teething pains of a team learning how to work together, but the story could have coped with being a little longer so there was more time for us to get to know the non-team characters. It felt like the second series of a magical girl show, where they have to reunite and find out the truth behind their powers, which is what the creators were going for, but there’s a corresponding lack of getting to know the characters. (Also, I absolutely adore the different Zodiac Starforce teams we get to see! They’re all really cool and visually distinct, and I would love to read the spin-off comics about them!)

And of course, shockingly enough for a magical girl comic, there’s a really strong focus on the relationships between the team and with their wider social groups. The friendships between the girls was really well done, especially for the fact that they have clear boundaries that they enforce even with each other! I like the way that their magical past simultaneously draws them together and is responsible for the cracks in their friendship – the different attitudes the characters have to that past and how ready they are to go back into battle is really well done, with a believable range of reactions. Plus, the way that members of the team get to be both openly queer and have very cute relationships with their significant others filled me with joy.

Zodiac Starforce is a lot of fun, and if you’re in the mood for an upbeat magical girl comic with great relationships, I’d definitely check this out.

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sheila reviews Wolf by Chris Fenwick

Wolf by Chris Fenwick

The first book in the State Changers series by Chris Fenwick is Wolf. I wanted to read this book to expand more outside of what I usually read. I used to read a lot of fantasy books when I was younger, and thought that this would be a great way to dip back into this genre. The description of the book piqued my interest, as I don’t know very much about Irish magical lore; but I do know that there is a rich history of magic there. I was interested to see how Fenwick would play with these conventions, while mixing in some queer content. Anything with a strong, female lead will usually get me to give it more than a passing glance when picking my next read or watch. I was glad to pick this book up.

In reading more about the author, Chris describes that she likes to have characters who happen to also be lesbian. That is exactly what reading this book felt like for me. The fact that the main character, Casidhe is a lesbian doesn’t get established until later on. There are other queer characters in this world as well, beyond the immediate love interest. It was refreshing to read something like this, a lighter fantasy read with an ongoing plot that doesn’t feel like anyone’s sexuality is a forced part of the character development. One thing I will note though, is that there is scene of loss that is a main plot development point. However, I didn’t feel like the way that Casidhe handled the situation emotionally was quite as realistic or in-depth as it could have been. That’s just my personal opinion, based on my own losses. It was easy for me to be able to look past that and take in this book for what it is. I’ll probably continue to read the State Changers series, and further get to know the characters and their magical world.

Bee reviews Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

I’ve been reading Alison Evans’ work for a while. The main appeal for me is that they are a Melbournian author, and their YA sci-fi/fantasies always have a basis in the city and surrounding areas. I think I’ve written here before about how much that appeals to me. When their newest book, Euphoria Kids, was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy that turns magic into an everyday thing for its core group of teens. Iris was grown from a seed in the ground, giving them an affinity for plants and their magical properties. They are a lonely kid, with no human friends – only the faeries that visit them in the house they live in with their two mums. That is, until they see a “new” girl on the bus one day – Babs, who was cursed by a witch and sometimes turns invisible. Babs is made of fire, and lives with her mum, who has fibromyalgia, but still practices magic. A third member is added to their group when they meet a boy who hasn’t chosen his name yet, but who also has something magic about him – what exactly is uncertain.

As is probably clear, this is a diverse group of friends. Iris is non-binary, Babs is a trans girl, and the boy is also trans. Iris’ mums are obviously lesbians, and Babs makes it clear that she is too, as well as a secondary character who works in a café which they love going to. The trio also encounter dryads and faeries – dryads who have no gender, and cannot understand why humans do; faeries who shift between as many genders as they like, as easily as they can change their appearance. I’m loath to say “It’s great representation”, because I often feel that the word “representation” is just used as a catch-all for an identity named in the story, even when that identity isn’t given justice or used naturally. However, that isn’t what Evans is doing at all. The genders of the teens are tied to the magic they learn and explore, almost like being trans is a magic in and of itself.

The writing and story are, in a word, tender. The trio of teenagers are just so sweet and wide-eyed, experiencing this magical word with wonder and care. Their friendship is fierce and loving, and the way they band together to overcome obstacles is very endearing. It is a very kind book – a book that is careful with its characters, with its reader, and with all of the people who may see themselves represented in its pages. The descriptions of magic are ethereal, and the use of plants and connection to nature is filled with all the joy of walking in a secluded forest and seeing light pouring through the trees. It is all just so gentle; the perfect book for reading under a blanket with a cup of tea (and the characters drink a lot of tea too, so you won’t be alone in that).

Something which Evans does very well is write otherworldly things in a convincing way. Of course planting a jar of herbs in the garden works as a protection spell; of course a lesbian couple can nurture a seed that turns into a child; of course a girl can light fires with her touch. Theirs is the type of writing that draws a reader in, and enfolds them in the world that has been created. It’s a book filled with comforting imagery and beautiful turns of phrase – the world of magic is easily pictured, and the use of the Australian bush is wonderful.

I am usually not much of a fantasy fan; I find it confusing at the best of times. But for me, this type of real-world magic is easy to get behind. With friendships at the core of the story, there is something to root for. The characters are all also very appealing – the adults all have magic of their own as well, and treat the three teens with love and respect. It’s just plain nice to read, honestly. While it’s a good entry-level fantasy, it’s also a very witchy story, full of enchantment. And I was enchanted, definitely. It’s a world I would gladly fall into, again and again.

Mary Springer reviews Out of the Woods by TJ Land

Out of the Woods by TJ Land cover

Ruth and Hermana have been best friends since Ruth fished Hermana out of the river as when they were both children. Ruth lives with her older brother on the outskirts of town, outcasts on account of their long-gone parents’ choices. Hermana’s parents are also gone, and she lives with her grandmother, the local midwife. They’re best friends and experts at the wilds they live in, known to the town as savages. Their life is as predictable and as enjoyable as they make it, until they find a dead body – and it may not even be human.

I loved how authentically adolescent Ruth and Hermana were. They were teenage girls in the purest, most feral form, and I loved every bit of it. They definitely should have gone for help about the dead body way sooner, but the fact that they didn’t, that they thought they in their wholly unexperienced youth could handle such a thing, only made me like them more. They are terribly mean to several people, some who deserve it and some who don’t. But it’s realistic with how they grew up, treated as outsiders and even savages by the townsfolk. Or in one rich guy’s case for Ruth, as some beautiful savage who can be tamed and made civil for his high-class friends.

Ruth and Hermana’s also have a friends-to-lovers romance. It might be slow and not really in the spotlight of the story, but for what is there, it really shines. I definitely spent a good portion reading this cheering them on to get together already.

The side characters also had their time to shine. There’s a subplot involving this girl who is the maid at the local rich woman’s house, and her romance with the local sheriff, who’s a handsome butch. Then there’s Hermana’s grandmother, Ruth’s brother, and a whole host of other characters who have small parts but make big roles out of them for the short time we read about them.

The world building was also a lot of fun. It’s a short book, so the author doesn’t try to throw too much at it, keeping it relatively easy to understand and in tradition of most fantasy settings. But at the same time, the world has its own uniqueness in the places where it counts that makes the story come alive and be all the more engaging. I found it easy to sink in and imagine myself there.

It’s also very much a story about women their places in a patriarchal town in a patriarchal society. It was sometimes frustrating but overall interesting to see how the characters find ways to overcome the struggles they face because the men they must deal with. It was enjoyable to see the characters combat these challenges in their own ways.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a fun fantasy story.

Sash S reviews Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

“Two lovers get separated on a night out in a parallel dimension. A ship that runs on memories malfunctions in the dead of space. A giant prophesised to wake from its centuries-long slumber beneath the sea.”

This graphic novel is a delightful triptych of stories, all queer, all exploring themes of love and loss in various sci-fi/fantasy settings. I pledged for this particular version in Valero-O’Connell’s recent Kickstarter and I could not be happier with such a gorgeous quality book.

Art-wise, the book is so beautiful. Each story is coloured in a different pastel shade and emphasised with well-chosen line weights and deep blue, almost black shading. The art style is soft and easy on the eyes, but with tons of visual interest as the creator quite literally draws us into three otherworldly settings. Machinery and florals alike are depicted with tons of intricate detail, making each page a work of art in its own right.

Don't Go Without Me page

The stories themselves are simple, yet well-told. The pacing is great, with the particulars of each setting slowly unfolded in a way that doesn’t leave the reader drowning in exposition. There’s also just enough left unsaid that you can’t help but let your imagination stretch out to what the rest of the world might entail – particularly so with the open-ended nature of the final story. A shout-out to “What Was Left,” previously published as a stand-alone comic, for literally bringing tears to my eyes with such a dreamy, romantic concept turned to tragedy, then acceptance, then hope. Each romance is strongly defined, each character is someone you can root for, each character dynamic is compelling and unique.

It’s hard to write too much about short stories, especially ones where half the experience is visual. But if you like graphic novels (or even if you don’t, really, give this a shot!) and you want to read more stories about queer women that are also about love and loss and mystery and community and dozens of other things, you couldn’t go wrong with this book.

Rating: *****

Maddison reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood

Firstly, thank you Tor, for the e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood is an action-packed, high fantasy, coming-of-age story (orcs, necromancers, mages, giant snakes, and countless fantasy races!). Csorwe lives in the House of Silence as the Unspoken One’s chosen bride. On her 14th birthday she is to walk into the shrine, never to be seen again. But a mage, on a quest for a lost relic, persuades her to turn away from her god and join him. She leaves the shrine, alive, by his side and sets out on adventure. With training and endless tutors, she becomes his sword hand and together they will reclaim his seat of power. Of course, it doesn’t end there, and Csorwe’s story of adventure continues. At its core, The Unspoken Name is a book about choices and their importance.

You really get three stories for the price of one with The Unspoken Name. Other authors may have drawn out each of Csorwe’s main adventures into its own book, but A. K. Larkwood utilizes every single one of those 464 pages to the max. A lot happens, enough that I questioned how so much happened, but it never felt like too much and it never felt rushed. Her prose is (forgive the genre-related pun) fantastic, and it really drew me into the story. The writing is descriptive and clever. The small pieces of comedy, amid what is often chaos and destruction, were a relief and were really well done.

I really loved that we followed the story of a young female orc. I think it was a refreshing change. Typically, these coming-of-age stories, especially those sold as fantasy, follow men – rogues, mages, swordsmen, but almost always mostly human. It was fun to follow a different type of character through a familiar genre.

Csorwe’s character development is realistic, as are her relationships with the main cast of the book. And I would be remiss not to include the gradual relationship progression between Csorwe and Shuthmili. It was sweet to watch their relationship progress, and to see how these two young women changed for it, developed around it. Like most of what I read, Csorwe’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the book, it was just a part of her character. Because of this, the relationship between the two women isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the story, but it becomes a driving motivation and the story would have been entirely different, with different emotional stakes, without it.

From one SFF lover to another, you should read The Unspoken One. It is a wonderfully well written story, and if you are disappointed you can come fight me about it online (but I’m almost sure that you won’t).

Marthese reviews The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

The Prince and Her Dreamer by Kayla Bashe

“The Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English”

At the end of last year I got interested about the story of the Nutcracker. I knew it was a ballet but I didn’t know it was a story… so naturally I looked up queer retellings. This looked like the most promising one, so it was my first read of the year.

The Prince and Her Dreamer is about Prince ‘Mattie’ Mathilde, who gets injured while fighting the rats. Her best friend and court fae Ross suggests turning her into a doll so she can heal and Mathilde agrees. Fast-forward a few decades and Clara, Ross’ relative from the human world, manages to break the spell through an act of unselfish kindness.

Now, while choosing which retelling to read, as there are a few sapphic retellings of the nutcracker, I read mixed reviews about this book. Many people were saying the book was too short (it’s a novella) and that there was a distinct lack of world-building. This is all true, however, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven story but a character-driven one. It assumes that people are already familiar with the story, so if you are not, look up the story first before reading this retelling.

Before we get to the good stuff, let me air out my pet peeves about this story. To me, the story around Mathilde being turned into a doll sounded unconvincing. Like, why must it be someone related to Ross? Is the magic linked to blood? Most importantly, how does a fae have human relatives? Did they used to be part of the same world? Did someone move? Even a character-driven story needs to address plot-holes.

There is also a bit of an age gap. Yes, Mathilde doesn’t age while being a doll, but she was conscious: she had a lot of time to grow and mature as a person during those two decades. Clara is 17… while being mature and headstrong, she’s young. This book, apart from being fantasy, is also historical fiction, as Clara lives during the Victorian era. I am aware that age was a different concept then, but still, this gap was never addressed. In fact, Mathilde thinks of them as about the same age.

Another plot point which was never resolved was the toy soldier. Were they wooden always or had their appearance been altered? I just did not understand.

Clara’s coming out, even though to her ‘uncle’ who she knew would accept her, felt a little fake. The language used was not something I associate with Victorian times, and I’m sure that even with all her self-awareness, it was too quick for her to unpack all her baggage, for her to be comfortable saying those words. In a way, it’s a fairytale, but it still needs to seem realistic.

Now, the things that I did like were, in brief, the characters, their relationship and altering gender-tropes.

Mathilde has a tragic background. She’s young, but she’s leading an army, and suddenly she is not able to do even that. When she comes back, most of the people around her had aged; they moved on without her, and she has both to overcome survivor’s guilt as well as find her place again among all those people who did not expect her to come back.

Clara is trying to please her family while still doing somewhat what she likes. She’s trying to compromise, and at some point, she needs to make a decision. Clara likes to read and likes her ‘uncle’ and the stories he tells her, and even though she’s too old for a doll, she really liked his present. With all her knowledge of the four realms (due to her reading her Uncle’s book over and over), Clara proves to be a great help to Mathilde.

I liked how the two characters, while drawn immediately to each other, take some time to develop a relationship (even in such a short novella). The two characters, because of circumstances, also mature separately before coming back together. I liked very much the fact that in spite of everything, Clara wanted to live life in her own terms, not because of someone else, but because of her will. There was also consent while kissing! So props to the author for that (even though it should be common practice both in reality and in fiction). I’d like to point out that there are no sex scenes in this book.

I also liked the gender-altering elements in this book. The most obvious being the ‘Prince’ title to Mathilde, a girl. The way I saw it was that a Prince was the successor of the King (or an unmarried Royal). I don’t see why in reality there should be any gender distinction to royal (or other) titles. There was also a gender-altering for a minor character, who you expect to be female but is male. That was a nice touch and plays on our assumptions.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this retelling. There were a lot of plot holes. It felt like starting a book from the ending. We know nothing of the rats apart from what the rat king was made from. We also do not know what happened to the rats towards the end of the book. A few sentences here and there to explain the plot were definitely needed and for use, a longer book was needed. However, there were found family feels, good relationship structures and gender-bending elements.

Give it a try, especially if you already know the story and can fill in the missing information from your previous knowledge or your imagination. It’s also quite short, so you can read it in a break, but hurry up if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as it’s best read while it’s still cold.