Nichole B-Larson reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst is the princess story my childhood desperately needed. Coulthurst’s characters are relatable, grow well, and their queerness isn’t the center of the plot–all aspects which make them inspiring. Mare is the strong, “tomboy” princess of my dreams. She shirks the traditional role of a princess within society and within her family, but not at the expense of her nation. She’s as uncomfortable in formal dress–ditching heels as soon as she leaves the banquet hall–as she is confident in her skills in horsemanship, and actively rebels against all the forces in her life saying “be this way!” Of course, I think this is something we’ve seen a lot of, especially in YA and children’s literature, but Coulthurst doesn’t ignore that Mare’s role in the kingdom is not limited to fancy dresses and balls–a princess is an integral part of the political aspects of running a country. Mare, however, isn’t one to settle on making an advantageous political marriage. Instead she’s sneaking into pubs and paying spies for information, working on the ground to better equip her country with the knowledge it needs to succeed, to outwit its enemies, to understand its people. Mare is a strong, badass princess and Coulthurst writes her beautifully.

Denna, on the other hand, strikes a different cord. She is who I related to most–a servant to duty, torn between who she is and who she is supposed to be, and always feeling like her voice is not worthy because of her age and her gender. Denna, coming from her own kingdom and playing the dutiful princess by marrying for political connection, is shy, demure, everything a princess ought to be in the traditional sense. Because Coulthurst writes from her perspective, however, we get to see that this is, for the most part, a facade. Denna, plagued with a magical gift in a country who outlaws magic, is fighting for herself and her future in the ways she knows best, but she is also struggling with closing off those parts of herself that society will not accept. It’s a theme that hearkens to many LGBT readers’ experiences before coming out and I think Coulthurst does a beautiful job of including this without the LGBT portion of the story being the most important part of the story. Denna, and Mare, grow as characters in ways which makes their LGBT status feel secondary – a refreshing way to understand this as part of who they are but not the definition of who they are, which I really appreciated.

Aside from these two, the story delves into some very heavy themes – political alliance, espionage, religious tension, and the power of all these things to alter the decisions of people in power. There’s rebellion and questions about the significance of tradition and belief that had me a bit on the edge of my seat. Coulthurst does a beautiful job of creating a world I would really sink into and characters that made me root for them, were relatable in ways which made me wish my 12/13 year old self had had this kind of validation, but there were parts of the plot which felt a bit old hat. Still, 4 out of 5 stars for sure. I’d definitely recommend it to YA fans and I am anxiously awaiting the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, which should be coming out next year.

Nichole B-Larson is a library associate at a small Mississippi university. She holds an MLIS, a BA in History, and usually knitting needles. She enjoys all kinds of crafty things, any kind of gummy candy, and travelling with her wife and their two rottenly spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @kneecoaleye_ <

Shira Glassman reviews The Gift of Your Love by Kayla Bashe

The Gift of Your Love by Kayla Bashe is a good fit for anyone looking for woman-centered SFF, f/f without graphic sex scenes, or shorter queer fiction.

Neely is a foreigner who only ended up in this city by accident — she traveled here with her merchant father as a child, but he ended up dead and she grew up in an orphanage far from home. Now she’s living on the street, not just because of her lack of local family, but because of a recent heartache — an abusive boss who tossed her out into the cold world. She needs people and safety and healing — but right now, she needs apples. Tasty, tasty apples. Too bad that just after stealing them, she gets attacked by a gigantic tentacle monster.

BUT HEY, that’s not so bad if it means you get rescued by a cute butch woman whose family then takes you in under their wing? All of whom have magical powers? (As does Neely, by the way.)

Here, let me let Forester sweep you off your feet, too—

“Not a diet. I just like eating foods that will give me big muscles.” She glanced down at her already-intimidating body, which Neely thought was the perfect combination of soft and strong. “Well, bigger. My dream is to be strong enough to carry a hunting dog under each arm. That way, I’ll bring joy to anyone who sees me, because they’ll be able to get kisses from two dogs at once.”

I love the writing craft in this description of her, when we first meet her, bolding mine: “And those eyes… a wolf’s eyes, a warrior’s eyes, the deep blue at the heart of a fire.”

Also, she uses potatoes as a weapon because once they’re underground they can grow, and that’s a superpower that sings to my very heart. As well as amusing me because using a potato as a weapon.

This is Kay Bashe’s latest “adorable queer people doing their best in a speculative world while recovering from trauma” romance — yes, it’s a brand image at this point. If you’re not familiar with Bashe’s work, they often contain teams of magical girls (and sometimes nonbinary people, too, although we don’t get any in the immediate family here) that read as somewhere between superhero found-families like X-Men or Avengers plus the magical girl squads of Sailor Moon and Read or Die–except, heavily slanted towards queerness and disability representation (often reflecting Bashe’s own) and sometimes more ethnically diverse. There’s usually a heavy focus on interpersonal relationships and character development alongside the adventure itself, which is sometimes just a framework on which to hang the former meaty emotional stuff. This one slots neatly into that subgenre.

It’s short and sweet, and most of the romance consists of mutual pining for each other before a closing scene get-together — and yes, it’s that characteristic Bashe type of pining where both ladies think the other one is Far Too Amazing to Like Someone as Trash As Me (while, being anything but trash, and saving each other, and doing all kinds of brave and magical things.)

Gift of Your Love also gives us an older woman mentor figure as part of the family. For those of us who couldn’t get enough of General Organa (or having her and Admiral Holdo in the same movie!) and feel a deep emptiness that we won’t get more, this is neat.

Bashe’s characters face microaggressions and stresses that are clearly plucked from real life. One of the other ladies in the little magical family has a peanut allergy, and only the other characters’ vigilance saves her from the casual dismissiveness of a disbelieving restaurant employee–which could have led to her serious disaster. The love interest, Forester, worries that she’s not a good enough feminist because of the way her OCD causes her to hyperfocus on the picayune details — this could easily be any one of us after reading the wrong thinkpiece.

In fact, Forester’s struggles with her violent intrusive thoughts, and the way she copes with the accompanying guilt, are especially poignant having been written by an author with same. (I’ve written #ownvoices intrusive thoughts myself, with Prince Kaveh, but they’re of a different type and it was interesting for me as someone with a similar-but-different issue to see what else is out there in brainweird land.) I hope anyone else out there whose brain betrays them like this finds community in the representation and validation in her heroism.

Incidentally, the main characters are coded Jewish inasmuch as they’re outsiders from somewhere else who don’t eat pork and are written by a Jewish author.

Oh and did I mention, there’s a “oh no we’ll have to share the only bed” trope at one point? This story is adorable. Even through all the heavy themes of women struggling to find value in themselves and being far from home with nobody there for you.

Shira Glassman is a hair factory and storyteller living in a bi townhouse on the moon. She just released a new high-heat f/f romance in which a super hero lady finally asks out the damsel-in-distress she’s been rescuing (and flirting with) for months. But will they ever get to have a normal date or are there too many Monsters of the Week? Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor is $1.99 on Kindle!

Megan Casey reviews The Girl in Gold by Beth Lyons

I recently received a couple of review copies of books in which the private investigator protagonist has paranormal powers. The first, Geonn Canon’s Underdogs, has its shape-shifting PI use her powers to do surveillance for a client in the first few pages. Perhaps I should have read on, but using paranormal powers to solve a case—or any part of a case—is verboten as far as lesbian mysteries go. The mystery genre should be a cerebral one—one in which, ideally, the reader can empathize with the detective, weighing clues and solving the mystery concurrently with the detective. Because readers are not canidae, it is difficult to empathize in Canon’s book. In other words, a dog can watch a house without arousing suspicion; a human cannot. So for me, the book became primarily paranormal.

So it was with some foreboding that I began The Girl in Gold, in which 23-year-old part-time P.I. Vox Swift is an elf.

Vox seems to be one of two employees of Boleian Investigations, the other being Boleian himself. She also works as a messenger for a family business called Swift Messengers, which was fortunate, because during one of her deliveries, she becomes aware of a murder. Seems that the victim—dressed loudly in gold—has just been discovered in the library of a famous author. Then, the same day, another girl about the same age and size—her face unrecognizable—is also discovered.

Vox is studying to be the type of magician called a Bard, which is one who sings songs as she investigates, asking the universe as it were, to help in her discoveries. The first time she uses this magic, she is simply trying to ascertain if magic was used in the murder. To me, this was okay—the magics were canceling each other out because, in fact, there was no magic used in the crime. But when Vox questions a maid in the house where the murder was discovered, she uses a charm that causes the girl to spill everything she knows. This was a no-no. It’s not something a human detective could do. So the book can not be truly considered a lesbian mystery. Rather, it is a lesbian fantasy. But I had already read five chapters so I went on. Later, she casts a spell to find a secret door where she can eavesdrop on an important conversation. Shake my head.

The idea of a town that had humans, fae, elves, and dwarves living in relative harmony was a good and interesting one. Vox herself has promise, and her budding relationship with the human paladin Jesskah Morningstar was tantalizing.

Still, in rating the book just for myself and for whoever reads this, just about everything about it gets a 3: the mystery (which everyone solves before Vox dose), the writing style, the relationships, the emotions, and even the universe are all above average, but just barely. It isn’t something I can’t recommend, but neither am I going to warn you away any more than I have. Those readers who specialize in reading lesbian mysteries are going to like it less than those who prefer fantasy.

Note: I read a review copy of this book kindly provided in ebook form by the publisher through Lesbrary.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Mary reviews The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin

Fantasy was the genre that got me to love books, but I fell out of love with it as I couldn’t find any books with characters that weren’t straight or cisgender. I was browsing through recent LGBT releases and found The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin, which has turned out to be everything I was looking for.

Princess Esofi has traveled far from home to the foreign land of Ieflaria to wed the crown prince, but upon arriving finds he has died in a sudden accident. Their marriage had been planned since they were babies in order to bring magic into the land and fend off the dragon attacks. The King and Queen offer for Esofi to marry the next in line, Princess Adale. Esofi accepts, but quickly finds that Adale does not want to rule or be in an arranged marriage. However, just as Adale and Esofi begin to feel something spark between them, Adale’s heartless twin cousins arrive to try and win Esofi’s hand as way to the crown.

Esofi and Adale have a realistic relationship and their story easily pulls you in as they slowly develop feelings for each other. I loved that they didn’t immediately fall in love or lust for each other, and at the same time they didn’t immediately hate each other. There are complex characters of very different backgrounds and this results in some disagreements that only served to strengthen the character development and plot.

The LGBT representation was amazing. Esofi describes herself as not having a preference for the gender of her future spouse. She says this is how most people experience attraction in this world. The idea of two women marrying each other is not looked down upon by those around them, except for doubt as whether they will be able to perform the magical spell to produce heirs to the throne.

There is a large pantheon of gods, one of which is Inthi, a deity that is referred to as neutroi. Anyone who is a part of Inthi’s temple is neutroi, a gender that exists outside the binary. There are a few side characters mentioned that are neutroi and go by they/them pronouns.

The side characters are just as interesting and complex as the main ones. Esofi has three ladies in waiting, Mireille, Lexandrie, and Lisette. Mireille is a sweetheart who wants everyone to be happy. Lexandrie is more concerned with what’s expected and considered the right thing to do. Lisette is not really a noble lady, but a bodyguard who is ready to protect Esofi with a variety of weapons. Each of them had distinct personalities and seeing Esofi talk with them was enjoyable. Adale has several scenes with her parents, and I liked that they didn’t make her parents perfectly good or horrendously evil. They are monarchs of a country, but also her mother and father. You can see that they are struggling to find the right path for both.

The world building was really well done and one of my favorite parts. Effie Calvin has created a complex world that is easy to understand as it interweaves with the plot. One of the main deities focused on is Talcia, the goddess of the moon, magic, and creator beasts. She is also the creator of dragons that plague Ieflaria.

Along with the world building, the politics was interesting. I’m the type of person that tends to be impatient to get the plot back to the love story, but in this case I was just as intrigued by the political situation surrounding who will rule Ieflaria, the threat her twin cousins pose, and the looming threat of dragon attacks.

The dragons were interesting and covered in mystery for the first part of the book. The reader learns more about them as the story continues. Admittedly I was a bit disappointed by the resolution to the dragons. However, the ending to the story as a whole was great and satisfying.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves the fantasy genre and wants to find some LGBT representation in it.

Danika reviews Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

This is a fairy tale about misogyny. About the men who pit women against each other, and force them into limited roles. And the relationships that form between these women regardless. The love that they share even when told they should they should hate each other. The revolutionary power of love and forgiveness to break apart these narratives and allow for a new beginning. Ostensibly, this is a retelling of Snow White, but while it uses touchstones from that story, it isn’t restricted by it.

Mina is a girl who’s been raised her whole life to replace her dead mother. Her father fawns over her similarities to his late wife, but Mina is uncomfortable being shaped into the mirror image of someone she’s never known. She wants the chance to be her own person.

The story alternates between her story and Lynet’s backstory–Mina’s stepmother and the only mother figure she’s ever known. Mina adores Lynet, but Lynet has a more complicated relationship with her. The only value she can see in her own life is her position as queen, and Mina is a threat to that. We get to see how Lynet was groomed into this “Evil Queen” role by her father, who is manipulative and unkind and uses his daughter to gain power. She uses everything at her disposal to escape her father, but she’s told that the only value she has is her beauty. No one will ever love her for anything else. (Those are the words from her father that continually echo in her mind.)

I loved that Girls Made of Snow and Glass took this fairy tale trope of the “Evil Queen”/”Evil Stepmother” and did a deep dive into imagining what could lead someone to feel like that was their only option. Why would someone act so unfeeling? Why would she be so cutthroat in her pursuit of the crown? Lynet can be ruthless, but she’s sympathetic. She’s been told her whole life that she is unlovable, that the only value she has is in her appearance. The only way out of that she can see is to become queen and be loved by her subjects. And if she has to scheme her way there, well, that’s what’s necessary.

The complex relationship that Lynet and Mina share is the central tension of the story. They are constantly pitted against each other, but they’re reluctant to follow through. Lynet has been told by her husband not to get too close to Mina (no one can replace her real mother!) but Mina has grown up with her. She’s the one who finger-combs Mina’s hair every night to gently release the tangles. She’s the person that Mina feels loves her for who she is.

There is, of course, an F/F romance in here as well. Nadia is the court surgeon, and Mina is immediately drawn to her. To be honest, I don’t feel like I can comment on this storyline without spoiling anything, so I’ll just say that I think it complemented the other narrative threads well. All three women are trying to create the most promising futures they can with the circumstances available to them, but they’re hemmed in by the expectations and limitations placed on them by the men in their lives. When they seem to have found a loophole, they’re somehow pulled back and forced to make the choice to hurt the people they love or hurt themselves. It feels so inevitable and tense that you can only anticipate that final moment, where they seem to have no option but to fall into the roles provided for them. But despite what they’ve been raised to believe, despite the hurts that they inflict on each other because of this, despite the mistrust and skepticism and pessimism, they still find a way to reach out–however briefly–and find connections with each other. And the bonds they form, the love that develops even then, creates the shimmer of other possibilities for them.

Susan reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory is a steampunk alternate universe set in Seattle during the Gold Rush, following a prostitute named Karen Memery (“like memory but with an e”) as she and her colleagues investigate the murders of streetwalkers, attempt to help rescue of women who have been trafficked, and also have to deal with a rival brothel owner trying to drive them out of business using mad science and mind control. I feel like everyone I know has read and recommended this book at least once to me since it came out, and they were exactly right because it falls squarely in the middle of my interest in both queer mysteries and genre-crossing SFF!

Karen’s narration is written in a really strong voice – it felt quite natural and dialectic to me, although knowing that every “should of” or non-standard grammar choice was a deliberate choice from the author really helped me to shut off my inner grammar snob. Some of the descriptions were hard for me to follow, though – I could not for the life of me parse what was going on with the street levels of this city, and learning that they’re real has honestly actually clarified everything magnificently; and I honestly had no idea what to picture for the Singer sewing machine at all until Karen started using it in ways that definitely were not intended by the manufacturers and I went “OH, IT’S A MECH!” – but it worked out.

(The mix of real history with the alternate universe and steampunk elements are really cool by the way – the man who comes looking for the murderer, Marshall Bass Reeves, was a real person, and Rapid City’s raised streets are based on the actual Seattle Underground (which I didn’t know was a thing until I started reading around for this review!)

And the characters! I adored Karen and her friends; Karen in particular is very well drawn, and her awkwardness in trying to show her interest and regard for Priya warmed my heart, especially because it’s such a slow-moving romance and it’s really sweet – and her admiration for Priya is so sincere! I love that completely. Plus, the friendships are lovely between all of the women, and the way that everyone goes out of their way to help each other in the face of racism and stigma against their profession, I also like that despite the majority of characters in this book being sex workers, there’s no actual onscreen sex – it’s very much depicted as a boring job that people have different preferences about. It’s refreshing!

But yes, Karen Memory is fun and action-filled, with a sweet romance running through it and some really cool ideas and inventions – see also, sewing machine machine mech – and all of the social commentary that you’d hope for in a steampunk story. My only real complaint about the book is that the pace and scale of the last quarter or so of the book escalated really suddenly. It makes sense, considering that its supposed to read like a dime novel (Was I delighted by that aspect of the story? Of course I was.).

I did think that this was a standalone book, but it turns out that there’s a a sequel called Stone Mad due out on the 20th of March, and I am really excited, so that might be worth keeping an eye out for! But in the mean time: hello, this is a book about sex workers investigating murder and using a sewing machine as a mech, it’s great.

[Caution warnings: misgendering, historical racism, human trafficking, mostly off-screen torture and abuse, off-screen murder of sex workers]

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-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Marthese reviews Dragon Horse War: The Calling by  D. Jackson Leigh

‘’I am this animal because they need me and my warriors to protect their reign of peace’’

I made a yearly resolution to read more fantasy, especially series since those are the kind of books that I end up enjoying the most. I did some research and found this series which is centered around queer women (after I got the third book as an ARC on Netgalley…I thought it better to start from the first!). Happy Woman’s day (for yesterday!) this book series does contain some kickass and imperfect women.

The story is set in the future. After religious wars, people have recognized the Collective and most people are enlightened on the fact that they had past lives. The story follows Jael and Alyssa, however, there are some parts told from other characters’ point of view. In fact, the story starts from the antagonist’s Cyrus’ point of views and there are some parts from his views, but only a little. Most of the chapters follow Jael and Alyssa. Jael has been a warrior for the Collective in all her lives. She burns the bodies of those that die alone in order to release their soul; she also kills those that are badly-born in one life in order to have peace in another. Alyssa is a healer type and an Advocate for the Collective. Jael has some interesting abilities and Alyssa also. They are the ultimate power couple…only they do not always agree on the methods to use. This is very much a plot where one character finds light and the other darkness, in order to form gray together.

As I mentioned, some parts are told from other characters’ points of views. One of them follows Kyle, Cyrus’ daughter. Cyrus became a prophet for the One – a monotheistic god from ancient religions. He also became a preacher for capitalism in a world that distributes fairly and treats everyone equally. Kyle is very much not like him but for a while, she does not know what to do.

The main plot point is that the Natural Order formed by Cyrus is becoming too dangerous. Food and medicine is being stolen and redistributed by them in a world which is facing many natural disasters in all of its borderless territories. The Guard, which Jael is the leader on, are assessing people that have heard the Collective’s calling and training them…to become Dragon Horse warriors. Yes, the Guard have a bond with horses that come darkness, sprout wings.

This book is part of a trilogy – both the name and the plot itself show this. This is only the beginning. It does not start too fast but the end has some interesting action. I have to admit that it took until almost the end for me to become interested in what would happen.

I have been researching and discovering what makes good plots and characters and this book had all the right things in place. However, one thing really bothered me, enough for me considering quitting. This book was published in 2015, so not that long ago. To me, there were two main problems. The first is that the Guard are pureblood descendants. The Natural Order is also preaching pureblood-ness (and are racist, unlike the Guard). At least, the Guard have a reason for this, although it confused me why they should keep to ethnic couples if they all had the gene. Perhaps that will be explained later on. I admit to not knowing a lot of biology. This factor bothered me a bit but I could understand that it was a plot point not ideology pushing as the people of this Collective world, do not care much for ethnicity.

The second factor that bothered me was that the author, in my opinion, confused gender and sex. A person that is intersex but identifies more towards being male, is said to be a third gender. There was also the phrase ‘same-sex oriented’ being used which is used in today’s reality but it would be more accurate to say, especially towards one particular character, that it was same-gender oriented. I have to admit that I cringed a bit with all these happenings in the book. At one point, ‘gendered’ is used. It’s also a very binary world still…you would think that it being set in such a fair and enlightened future, that it would be otherwise.

Despite this, the world building was okay. It was interesting to see what things from today would be called then. The horses were interested and the powers as well. It was interesting to see how Jael and Alyssa changed each other. Jael is a realist and Alyssa is an idealist but they both question what needs to be done. Jael at times was a bit too aggressive and at the beginning to sexually driven (she saw Alyssa as a sort of spoil of war! That changed quick however). Alyssa was very interesting. Although she’s a first life-er and Jael has so much experience, she isn’t pushed around. Even during sex, she doesn’t just sit there but she initiates as well and is active. There isn’t a lot of sex scenes although there are a few. There was one however, where even I (somewhat asexual and I tend to skim them) thought it was very hot and different from how they are usually written.

The fact that they like each other, doesn’t resolve their problems and their incompatibility. The characters are realistic, not always likable and that’s ok. Their relationship has chemistry but I found it a bit squeaky that they had sex before discussing and that one is super-protective even though Second, another character, said that Alyssa is a grown adult who makes her own decisions. Jael especially is ethically dubious, not in the fact that she must kill people but in the way she acts.

Overall, I’m intrigued enough to continue reading the series. I would give this book 3 stars. The ending was better than the start or the middle. I want to see the characters evolve. Whoever is interested in reading the series should proceed with caution on the topics mentioned above.

Megan G reviews Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn 

Lai has spent her entire life training to be a priestess for the gods, taking in her mother and grandmother’s steps. Yet, when her trials arrive, she finds herself rejected by the gods after a mysterious vision from her favourite goddess. Confused and lost, Lai makes the decision to leave the only home she has ever known, and venture out in search of her true fate.

Keeper of the Dawn is a novella with the plot of trilogy of novels. So much happens that if you get distracted for even a moment, you can lose your place in its chronology. Now, this allows for a quick read, but honestly, I would have preferred the story be longer. There is so much that goes unexplored that could have strengthened the story. Every aspect of the story is important, too, meaning that Gunn could not really afford to cut any of it. The problem was that, because it was a novella, a lot of what happened was condensed greatly, to the point where at times several years passed over the course of a paragraph.

The length also affected the characterization of essentially every character, but Lai, the protagonist, in particular. By the end of the story, I felt like I barely knew her outside of her devotion to her religion and her ancestry. Because of this, I found it difficult to become invested in her and in the relationships she formed, especially the romantic relationship she enters about half-way through the novel. I would have loved to learn more about Lai and about her motivations. As it is, her desires seem shallow, and I am unsure if she really felt a connection to her goddesses outside of the fact that her mother and grandmother were strongly devoted.

Something I did not realize when I began this novel is that it includes an asexual character! Which was quite a pleasant surprise, even if I’m not entirely sure if I’m comfortable with the way it was handled (before she admits her lack of desire for sex, she is questioned by her girlfriend about what “normal couples” do in bed. The use of the word “normal” to describe a sexual relationship felt a bit off for me). I would not advertise this as an asexual novel, however, as I feel that anybody reading it exclusively for asexual representation will feel let down.

Although not as developed as I would have liked, the relationship between Lai and her love interest, Tara, is quite sweet. It provides several nice scenes, and is a necessary reprieve from the action within the novella.

A few short warnings about this novel is that it isn’t explicitly racially diverse, so while technically you could assume all the characters are of different ethnicities, it is most likely that Gunn wrote them all to be white. There are non-explicit mentions of dangerous levels of homophobia, but these mentions are brief. There is also some fatphobic implications, in that there are only two characters throughout the entire novella who are described as fat, and both are villains. As well, there is quite a large amount of violence throughout.

Overall, Keeper of the Dawn was an enjoyable story. The only true complaints that I have can all be reduced to the length of the story, which was far too short for the amount of plot that Gunn included. I would still recommend it to any lovers of fantasy, though, especially those looking for fantasy with a queer female protagonist.


Danika reviews The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S.L. Huang

This is a fascinating novella. It’s a dark, reversed retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from the point of view of a human scientist who acts in an anthropological capacity studying the atargati (definitely not “mermaids”). If “dark queer retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid'” didn’t already hook you, I don’t really know what else to say.

I really liked the author chose to not only have the atargati not have gender, but to also have a nonbinary human character (who uses hir/zie prounouns), so that it wasn’t presented as an alien concept:

We did try to describe binary genders to [the atargati] once. Of course Dr. Hansen jumped in and tried to expand the conversation to sex versus gender, and to explain intersex and genderqueer people, and I tried to stop hir because I thought that would be too confusing, but it turned out that part made more sense to them than what we tried to tell them about men and women.

This also had personal appeal to me because the main character falls in love with one of the atargati (of course), and really grapples with what this means for her identity as a lesbian, especially when she had to fight so hard to claim that space in the first place:

I lost my whole identity. I had to rebuild myself brick by brick and seal a shield around myself with the label “lesbian.” I’m attracted to women. I was born that way. I’ve always been that way. If that’s not true, then my whole life, every relationship, every broken tie—it was all a lie. …

I’ve never been attracted to a human man, and still can’t conceive of such a thing. But maybe… maybe I can’t be slotted into a box either. Maybe I don’t have a definition

Have I mentioned that this is a dark retelling? And that it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, and not the Disney version? I probably should have paid more attention to that, because I was disappointed by the ending. I was looking for a little more from the story: I think I was so intrigued by the world that I wanted to spend more time with it, even outside of this specific story. I wanted to know what happened after the story was over. I wanted to learn more about the atargati.

Still, this science fiction, queer, dark take on “The Little Mermaid” is compelling and memorable. You can easily finish it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after that.


Danika reviews The Year of the Knife by G.D. Penman

Sully has not been having a good summer. She works for IBI, the investigation bureau of the British empire, and despite the strikes against her–woman, Irish, gay–she has managed to gain some respect by being the best in the field. She may have learned from a hedge witch, but she can hold her own against any university-educated magic user. But she may officially be in over her head: every day, a new person, seemingly possessed, has been acting out public, grisly murders. That’s impossible, though: demons can’t possess living people. The body count is climbing higher, and her boss being stuck as a parrot isn’t helping any. Can she end the reign of what the killers keep calling “The Year of the Knife”?

The Year of the Knife is a grungy, gory urban fantasy. While the plot focuses on Sully attempting to solve this string of crimes, most of them gruesome mass stabbings, there are a lot of balls in the air: in this world, the British empire still rules much of the world, including New Amsterdam (which seems to be near Brooklyn), where Sully lives. There is an undercurrent of tension around this: in Ireland, for instance, hedge witches with borrowed power have attempted revolution many times, each time getting cracked down on by imperial power, which causes more resentment, fueling the next rebellion.

On top of the mystery and alternative history elements, of course, there’s the magic system. I was impressed by how complex this world is, and I appreciated that the magic system seemed to be cohesive and clearly defined: magic users have to speak spells, draw glyphs in the air, and often work out mathematical equations (if you fudge the numbers in a travel spell, you might find yourself lodged in a wall when you arrive). Whenever I’m reading about a world that has magic, I want to know that the author has thought it out. Specifically, there needs to be clear limits to magic, or else there can never be believable tension. This world comes with a magic system that makes sense to me. In case there wasn’t enough going on, there are also demons in this world, pushing through from another plane of existence. And those might not be the only dimensions at play!

While I was intrigued by the world, I had trouble connecting with the main character. I’m all for a gruff, unlikeable female character, but Sully takes it to another level. She cackles as people die under her use of magic–seeming to take pleasure in it even when the person being killed deserved, at the very least, some pity. At the same time, she can’t handle being in charge because she can’t deal with deaths of her colleagues on her conscience. She has her own resentment of the British empire, but she seems to judge other groups who speak out against it. What really got to me, though, was the multiple times when Sully mentions seeking out young, possibly underage women to have sex with. She goes to student nights at bars to take home “presumably legal” experimental college students. She wakes up with a girl and wonders if she was a teenager after all. That is not cute. Sully is nowhere near these women’s ages, and it’s skeezy at best and illegal at worst.

Sully does have a girlfriend–sort of. She has a tumultuous relationship with her ex. At one point, they were engaged, but after her girlfriend left her at the alter, things have been tense. They still sleep together occasionally, usually when her ex needs some blood. (Did I mention that she’s a vampire?) They punish each other while still not being able to let each other go. I was interested in their relationship, but it felt like there was something missing. I didn’t quite understand why they had the dynamic they did, and they seemed to quickly fall back into a loving relationship, so I didn’t feel like I really understood them as a couple.

I did have a couple of concerns, the most major of which was the racism. I understand that the idea is that with the empire still ruling most of the world, racism is even more entrenched than it is now, but having, for instance, Chinese people described as “Oriental” and an Egyptian guy as “swarthy”–while apparently all Native Americans Sully has ever known have been breathtakingly beautiful, though for some reasons they’re all deeply bigoted against vampires–pulled me out of the story. There are a lot of instances like these: casual racism scattered throughout the text. It was jarring enough for me as a white reader. I can imagine many readers of colour wouldn’t find it worth pushing through them.

My other major complaint was with the specific focus of the book. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but focusing on New York in this alternate timeline of continued British occupation felt like the most uninteresting take on the idea. I would have liked to see pretty much anywhere else in this world: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and India, to name a few. [spoilers, highlight to read] Near the very end of the book, the plot ground to a halt with an extended flashback to 1775. Flashbacks during the climax of the plot are dicey at the best of times, but personally, I find the American Independence setting deeply boring. If there had been some way to incorporate this flashback into smaller ones throughout the book (if they were made vague) would have worked better for me. Even if it was condensed into a smaller amount of exposition, I would have felt less whiplash. Going from the most dramatic part of the book to the slowest section is not the best reading experience. [end spoilers]

This sure was an interesting reading experience! I will be watching to see if this is spun into a series, because the world definitely could support it.

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