Maddison Reviews Long Hot Summoning by Tanya Huff

The Long Hot Summoning by Tanya Huff follows 18-year-old Diana Hansen, a Canadian teenager who comes from a line of Keepers, members of the Lineage who keep the dark and light in balance. Diana has just completed her final day of high school when she is given her first Summons, she must pass to the Otherside and help a group of street kids turned elves to stop the dark side from completing a segue that will give them access to the world.

Cats with an attitude, a cocky King Arthur, an over-protective older sister, and a distractingly cute girl – what could go wrong?

Well, a lot.

The book has a few plot lines, and the story sometimes follows Diana’s sister Claire, Claire’s boyfriend Dean, or the sister’s cats Sam and Austin, but Diana is still the protagonist.

I would most likely consider Long Hot Summoning to be an urban fantasy novel: it is set in a mall, after all, even if that mall is in an alternative reality. It is a fun read, with a believable magic system that incorporates important rules and consequences for breaking them. You can’t just magic yourself out of a problem without giving the bad guys an advantage.

Diana is a likeable character, who errs on the side of action, rather than caution. She knows her strength, and how to use it, but doesn’t always use it at the right time–to be fair, kissing a cute girl when the world is ending can be distracting. She is snarky, sarcastic, and full of teenage insolence, but is still good at heart and takes her job seriously. The Canadian and early 2000s references were also an enjoyable part of the book.

If you have the chance, I would definitely recommend reading the Long Hot Summoning.

Danika reviews Sovereign (Dreadnought #2) by April Daniels

This is my favourite superhero story I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed Dreadnought, the first book in the series, so I was equally excited and hesitant to start the sequel. To be honest, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the first one. Dreadnought was great in a lot of ways, but it did have some rough-around-the-edges elements, and I wasn’t sure it could maintain a whole series. I was glad to be proven wrong–in fact, I ended up enjoying Sovereign even more. (Mild spoilers for the first book from here on.)

Dreadnought dealt heavily with transmisogyny and Danny’s abusive home life. Those elements are still present in Sovereign, but not to the same extent. She’s not living with her family now and is trying to be emancipated. She’s built a support system. Instead, she’s dealing with the fallout of what she’s been through. What happens when you take an abused teenager, give her superpowers, and then reward her for beating people up? I love the way this series explores the crunchy, interesting questions of what being a superhero would actually be like, including the internal politics of the superhero community, the power imbalance between superpowered humans and everyone else, and the complex relationship between superheros and police. The background struggles are a little more subtle, which drew me in and made me think more about the invisible underpinnings of other superhero stories.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this volume also has a F/F romance! Danielle is a lesbian, and her love interest is a bisexual amputee Latina vigilante. I was rooting for them in the first book, so I was definitely happy to have my ship sail. I love their dynamic. They both respect each other as people and as superheros, and they challenge each other to be better. (In terms of representation, there’s also a genderqueer side character who has they/them pronouns!)

This is all, of course, not beginning to mention the actual plot of the book. I’m not well-read in superhero stories (comics or prose), but I was surprised by how captivated I was by the superhero vs supervillain plots of both books. These are gruesome, brutal fights that drag Danny through the mud and to the brink of endurance. Sovereign also includes torture. This story does not shrink away from the level of violence that is both inflicted and endured. I found the overarching plot fascinating, and I’m really hoping that there are more sequels to come, because I’m confident that this world and this writer can support them.

Tierney reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

Werebear Zelda is lusting after hunky werewolf Jake–while simultaneously nursing a longstanding crush on her gorgeous coworker Janine. (Yes, werebear–as in, Zelda turns into a bear once a month.) And on top of everything, she’s been tasked by her boss with guarding Benedict, an insufferable member of the Fae. All of which combined leads to quite the whirlwind few days for Zelda.

Bearly a Lady is a cute, breezy novella, with chatty first-person narration and a refreshing way of portraying the supernatural–the author describes it as a “paranormal rom-com,” which certainly rings true. Zelda is an enjoyable character–her running commentary is endearing. And the supernatural chick lit angle is a lot of fun: the novella isn’t overly dramatic or self-important about the Fae in a way that feels welcome, and lets the cheerful romance go hand in hand with this casual conception of the paranormal. Plus I just love the idea of there being all kinds of were-animals running around.

As a novella, it’s quick read – I definitely felt like I would enjoy reading more of this story, and in fact there were moments where things felt a little convoluted and lacking in detail or connections, likely because of the novella format. I would have loved to see things a little more fleshed out – more details about the Fae and descriptions of the characters (especially Benedict, who is a bit of a flat antagonist), some more of Zelda’s backstory with both Jake and Janine than the little that is alluded to…

Bearly a Lady is a fun, lively supernatural romance–the little snags in the story are outweighed by the enjoyable world that Khaw has built, and the feel-good romantic ending (spoiler alert: she gets the girl!). Give it a try–supernatural chick lit is the genre you didn’t even know you needed.

Alice reviews Unicorn Hunting by Roya Hellbender

Emerging from the woods was a form so white it hurt Cal to look at it… The unicorn could never have been mistaken for a normal horse… Hardly noticing the tears that spilled down her cheeks a the purity of the creature, Cal  was shocked when the unicorn slowed to a walk and approached her.

This book is a 3* Fantasy Romantic Adventure.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I love unicorns. It was an affair that started when I was about four, and has manifested itself in me being an adult who will grab any book with ‘unicorn’ in the title or on the front cover. Needless to say when I saw a book called unicorn hunting, I heard that little voice in my head purr, and read it.

I’m so glad I did. The story is about a young woman, Cal, who lives in a world where unmarried women have two choices, become a Unicorn hunter, or join the nunnery. But Cal wants to know why, and in world of secrets that’s not an answer she finds easily. Living in a world where killing these beautiful creatures is the only way for a girl to make money, Cal and her friends have to figure out where they draw the line, and who’s side are they really on?

I enjoyed this story, it was a simple fantasy adventure with a couple of interesting ideas, a likeable cast, and a reasonable pace. The only gripe I had was the author seemed a little afraid of tension, giving the payoff as soon as she’d set an idea up, which whilst it does move the story along, can make things feel a little anti climatic. The story has one example of a hate crime against immigrants,  and yet the book showed no real cultural or racial diversity, with everyone fitting into a similar mold, despite the country being split into four distinct zones with four distinct languages.

I loved the main character though, I suspect she thinks a lot like me, and there was more to her than who she was in love with, which is a nice thing to happen in a ‘romance’ book. The unicorns, by the way, were great, and the author had some brilliant little ideas for them, and a flair for rich description. I enjoyed the love story, and the secrecy of the world Cal moved through.

Overall it’s an enjoyable book, that supplies what you’d expect from a Lesbian Unicorn story, however it is let down in places by underdeveloped characters with two dimensional motives, or a brilliant idea that is rushed into and away from far too quickly. It’s quick to read, and well worth the time, and certainly left me with a smile on my face.

Megan G reviews Quiet Shy by Brandon L. Summers

All Alexandria Fix wants to do is stay at home with her beautiful wife Quiet Shy, a woman from the future of an alternate reality. Unfortunately for Alex, her job continuously gets in the way of her time with her wife. Things only get worse when Alex becomes entangled in the doomsday plans of a dangerous cult.

Considering Quiet Shy is a relatively short novel, there’s a lot going on. Almost too much going on. There’s a large plot revolving around a cult wanting to bring about the end of the world, but it often seemed to get lost in the background of Alex and Quiet Shy’s relationship, as well as Alex’s frustrations with her work. There is also a subplot with Alex’s boss that ends in what I can only assume was meant to be a plot twist, but because there is so much else happening in the book it barely affected me at all. It took me a second to realize that a major piece of information had been revealed, because it came so seemingly out of the blue.

What frustrates me about all this is that because there is so much happening in this story, I couldn’t fully enjoy the sweet moments we get between Quiet Shy and Alex. There is an incredibly sweet section of the book where Alex and Quiet Shy go away on vacation together, yet all I could think of for the entire time they are away was “Do they really have time for this?” If the other aspects of the plot had been lengthened slightly, then having two or three chapters of just the girls alone on a vacation may not have felt so unnecessary and out of place. As it was, instead of basking in the domestic sweetness of Alex and Quiet Shy, I just scratched my head and wondered when they would get back to the action.

As well, most major plot points are resolved quickly and innocuously. As I already mentioned, a rather large plot twist evoked no emotion from me because there had been very little build-up and it was so sudden and, after a little bit of dialogue, never spoken of again. The cult plot is equally dealt with, and so is a strange, completely unnecessary, self-harm subplot.

Another frustration I had that could largely be attributed to the length of the story was the way that Alex spoke of Quiet Shy. All she ever seemed to have to say about her wife was that she was beautiful, sexy, gorgeous. Almost every compliment about Quiet Shy is based on physicality, and while I think it’s healthy for couples to be vocal about their attraction to each other (in fact, I think it’s necessary within a relationship), it did concern me that that was all that Alex had to say about Quiet Shy. Even when she is telling the antagonist how powerful Quiet Shy is, she prefaces it with “Not only is she incredibly sexy,” as if that’s somehow important to her statement. Perhaps if the story had been longer, Summers could have delved further into the intricacies of their relationship instead of keeping it as surface as it was.

All of that aside, I found the story unique and interesting. We weren’t bogged down by world-building, or too-long descriptions of characters and locations. The plot was original, and blended science-fiction and fantasy in a very interesting way. This was not a book that I had to force myself to finish, as I was genuinely interested in the outcome of the plots, albeit a little frustrated in how quickly everything came about.

I will give one warning about this book, however: it deals very explicitly with self-harm, both physical and mental, and overall this adds very little to the story, if anything at all. If this in any way triggers you, it would be best to give this book a pass.

Susan reviews Humanity For Beginners by Faith Mudges

Humanity For Beginners by Faith Mudges is an absolutely charming novella about a group (not a pack; definitely not a pack) of lesbian werewolves running a B&B in the Lake District.

Gloria has, unintentionally, set up a half-way house for lesbian werewolves. She is a former soldier, and the owner of the B&B; Nadine is the cook, who escaped from an abusive pack; Lissa, is a nervous former street-kid turned waitress; and Louisa dropped out of university to join the team and process being a werewolf after meeting Lissa on tumblr. They have a good routine down… Until Louisa’s family comes looking for her, and the beginnings of a new pack move into the area.

The world-building is interesting–a lot of it is done through the headlines in the newspapers, with typical punny-headlines in the wake of the full moon, or in the hints that are dropped about characters’ pasts (such as Nadine’s.) What hints we get highlight that the four of them are explicitly rejecting the norms of the world-setting for werewolves; they have opted out of what might be described as the “traditional” werewolf power structures, forming a family (not a pack) where Gloria manages to be the de-facto leader while also explicitly rejecting the idea of alphas and being an alpha. I found the depiction of being werewolves and the explicit separation of wolf-dynamics from people-dynamics to be really interesting.

Humanity For Beginners has a great sense of humour as well! Gloria’s low-level exasperation with being a werewolf made me laugh from page one, along with how well thought out the coping strategies for being werewolves are (it involves a lot of chew-toys.).

The humour’s balanced out by the beautiful relationships. The relationships between the four women are really well-sketched and heart-warming. There is a genuine sense of responsibility, protectiveness and respect for the autonomy of everyone running the B&B (even if sometimes they go too far into the opposite direction), and seeing the two romantic relationships grow delighted me. Even the relationships with outsiders (such as Gloria’s brother, or the B&B’s gardener) are well done, and have genuine affection in them. It’s particularly interesting contrasting the relationships everyone has with the people at the B&B with the relationships it’s hinted at them having outside of it.

I think what I really liked about it was that it’s a quiet story. There is some conflict–both socially, in the form of Louisa’s family and in Nadine and Gloria attempting to renegotiate their relationship; and physically in the form of the new pack who want to absorb Gloria’s family into theirs. The resolution to all of these felt so satisfying, but all of the reactions felt realistic and sensible instead of melodramatic, which I appreciated.

If you like stories about women building their own families; if you want sweet, heart-warming romance; if you want an urban fantasy story that is more funny and peaceful than action-heavy; if you want middle-aged women falling in love; this is the book for you, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

CW: Mentions of abuse, but nothing explicit.

Danika reviews Dreadnought by April Daniels

If “trans lesbian superhero YA” makes you think “queer escapist romp,” you would have the same idea as I did going into Dreadnought. And although I don’t regret picking it up based on that, I got the “escapist romp” inference entirely wrong. This is a book that deals directly with intense transphobia (especially transmisogyny) and abuse. To give you an idea, here’s a line from the first few pages (trigger warning for suicide)The dirty little secret about growing up as a boy is if you’re not any good at it, they will torture you daily until you have the good graces to kill yourself.

Danny has enough on her plate just trying to survive her abusive household while being a closeted trans teenage girl. She has ducked behind the mall to secretly paint her toenails–her only avenue of self-expression–when blue lasers explode around her: Oh. Great. A superhero fight. Just friggin’ wonderful. It turns out to be Dreadnought, the world’s most powerful superhero, locked in combat against an unknown enemy. The fight turns deadly, and Danny pulls a wounded Dreadnought to safety–but it’s too late, and Dreadnought passes his abilities on to Danny just before he dies. Danny gains access to the “lattice” behind reality. She immediately uses this to shape her body into her ideal version of herself, but this also means that she has super strength, can fly, and can influence reality in ways she’s not fully aware of.

Being a superhero doesn’t mean that she escapes the problems she had before, though. Although she relishes being in a body that other people recognize as her gender, being a cape comes with risks–and the superhero community has its own transmisogynistic assholes. This isn’t escapist utopian fun: it’s battling bigotry armed with superpowers. And although initially she feels like no one can hold her back, she quickly finds out that her father’s vitriol can still get under her skin (even though bullets can’t).

This is a catharsis fantasy. Danielle fights the bad guys both in her cape identity and in her everyday life, and it makes her victories even more triumphant. This is about pushing through unimaginable pain and conquering it, surviving, maybe even emerging stronger.

I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to the next book, but I do want to emphasize that this should come with some major trigger warnings. Danielle deals with suicidal thoughts. There is a ton of transmisogyny, including slurs. Her father is extremely verbally and emotionally abusive, and the poisonous words he uses are on the page. There were also a few notes I wasn’t sure about: the origin of superheros/villains in this book is Hitler’s Ubermensch, including a villain called Kristallnacht. Would like to hear Jewish reviewers’ thoughts on that. There was also a moment of ableism near the end (vague spoilers), where Danielle shows disgust towards someone (one of the villains) without arms and leaves them face-down on the ground. (On a more minor note, some of the dialogue did seem stilted to me, but it might be because I just don’t want to believe that people would say such heinous things, and I believe the author did mention that some of it is word-for-word what was said to her, so that’s likely just me as a reader.)

I still would recommend this book, but don’t expect a fluffy read! Also, Danny does mention that she’s a lesbian, but there isn’t a romance in this volume (though there is a ship I hope will sail in the next one!), and her sexual identity plays a pretty minor role beside her superhero and trans identities.

Susan reviews Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery is a fantasy of manners, set in the fictional European country of Alpennia during the early nineteenth century. The focus is on Margerit, who wishes to be a scholar and inherits a Baron’s fortune… And his bodyguard, much to their mutual dismay. Barbara, the bodyguard and a feared duelist, was promised both freedom from the Baron’s service and the truth of her parentage, which she is denied in favour of being bound to Margerit’s service until they are eighteen. Together, the navigate intrigues, Regency-era society, and the titular mysteries.

This book managed to consistently confound my expectations. Every time I thought I knew what I was getting, I turned out to be wrong. I was expecting a Regency romance with minimal physicality and maximum philosophy from the reviews I’d already read, but I somehow managed to miss that this was a fantasy series as well! The focus is also not as much on Margerit achieving her goals as a scholar and her introduction to society as it is on the philosophy and mechanics of what she’s studying, which threw me at first. Daughter of Mystery does not throw aside Margerit’s goal of going to university, which I appreciate, it just didn’t spend more time on it than was required to establish that she found Her People through it, and that they would be working together.

The subject of this work is one of the mysteries of the title: in Alpennia, appealing to the Saints in a specific manner can produce magical effects, known as Mysteries. The way Mysteries are written and discussed has a very academic, technical tone to it, especially as a fair amount of the discussion is how to reconstruct them from conflicting sources, which I quite enjoyed! (If you have ever studied history or philosophy, this tone is probably going to sound familiar to you.) If you decide that this is not for you, however, there is a lot of it and it is quite slow. I have to admit that missed that this was the philosophy that everyone mentioned in reviews the first time around, as I mentally filed it as “the magic system” and made no further demands of it, so it is possible to let it wash over you if that’s what you prefer!

But these are not the only mysteries in the book. There is the mystery of what Baron Savese (Margerit’s benefactor and Barbara’s former… Patron? Owner?) was scheming before his death, as those schemes have repercussions that ripple out and affect both protagonists long after his death; there is the mystery of Barbara and who her family was; and there is attempting to work out which factions are working against Barbara, Margerit, or both. The resolutions to the web of secrets around Barbara was particularly nicely handled, I thought? Daughter of Mystery dug into the the reactions of the reveal, which was particularly satisfying to see because usually those emotions are left unresolved, especially when it is too late for there to be repercussions for the secret-keeper. And it leads to an explicit conflict in how the protagonists view a character, which was excellent to read.

But I’ve not gone into the characters or the romance yet! I adored most of the female characters in this book; Margerit’s guardian has an arc about getting into a relationship as an older woman, and Antuniet is a prickly fellow-scholar who is the protagonist of the second book. (The male characters mainly serve as obstacles and threats, with maybe a few exceptions.) Margerit is passionate about her learning in a way that I enjoyed, and she just discovering that it’s possible to be in love with a woman, which is written in a very sweet way that I enjoyed – if you, like me, enjoy a lot of unspoken desperate longing, hyper-awareness of the other person’s presence, and two people desperately trying to protect each other without letting the other one know, do I have a recommendation for you! But Barbara is my favourite, as a fierce and protective woman trying to steer Margerit safely when Margerit has no concern for the hazards of what she does. The book is also very clear in using Barbara’s in-between position (not quite a servant, not quite a noble, but the one who understands both worlds) as a contrast with Margerit’s status (country nobility and new money, with no understanding of the position she’s been thrown into) to explore class and classism, which I enjoyed. My biggest problem with their relationship is that towards the end, the “unspoken” part of their longing crosses the line into melodrama, in a way that distorts their characterisation somewhat and could have been resolved with literally a five minute conversation.

My biggest problem with this book, honestly, was not the ending though. It was that the pacing is a bit odd. It’s a Regency novel with a philosophical bent, so I was expecting it to be a little slow, but there is a point towards the end where literally all the main characters do is sit around and wait for four months. This was partially to give depth to the romance and aid in the resolution of Barbara’s parentage, but it stuck out to me because that four month timespan has so much activity happening against Margerit and Barbara, but we see none of it. I suppose that’s a problem that shows up earlier in the story; it’s told from a very restricted point of view, the villains move in very different circles to our protagonists, and the schemes tend to have many moving parts behind the scenes, so we only see the results, if that? But it was very puzzling to read.

All of that said: I found this very compelling! I was so invested in the relationship between Barbara and Margerit, and I did manage to hand-sell this book to three people after I read it. If you like fantasy, Regency romances, and/or reading about characters piecing together history, I definitely recommend it.

Caution warning: there is an attempted sexual assault early in the book.

(The copy I read was a review copy from The Lesbrary)

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.

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!