Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

the cover of Briefly, A Delicious Life

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Vic reviews Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey

the cover of Valiant Ladies

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Melissa Grey’s Valiant Ladies, inspired by two real seventeenth-century vigilantes, centers around two teenage girls’ quest for justice and love for each other. While Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza spend their days in the fine home of Kiki’s wealthy father, they spend their nights on the streets of Potosí, engaging in gambling and fighting and other “unladylike” activities. After the murder of her brother on the night Kiki’s engagement to the viceroy’s son is announced, Kiki and Ana set off to discover what really happened while also confronting their feelings for each other.

Perhaps because it is based on real people, this book delights in being separate from actual history, which served the book very well. The characters speak and think in more modern language (though not distractingly so), and the girls are free to be brazenly in love with each other with little more than a scandalized gasp or a “hey, that’s wild” from the people around them, which allowed me, as a queer reader, to also indulge myself in the fantasy of kicking ass, taking down the patriarchy, and getting the girl in the end. (It also means I don’t feel like I’m snooping on real people, because obviously it didn’t happen like this, but it’s still really cool either way.)

That being said, it is not a rosy, completely-divorced-from-history fairy tale either. The world felt well-drawn from the rigid and wasteful aristocracy to the bars and brothels where Ana grew up, and while I always trusted this book would have a happy ending, it also did not pretend life is great for teenage girls at this time. Ana’s background in particular gave the novel plenty of room for acknowledging and criticizing the ways the nobility and specifically Spanish colonizers suck, which, for the most part, it took.

As for the characters, both Ana and Kiki were delights. Their voices were distinct (and so funny), and while they were certainly badass, they were badasses who felt like people, with feelings and vulnerabilities as well as snark. Their romance was likewise really sweet. This is friends-to-lovers at its best. They had the established camaraderie of lifelong friends, as well as some of my favorite pining that I’ve seen in a while, and while romance and crime-solving can be difficult to balance, the one never distracted from the other.

I would not have known about this book if it hadn’t been recommended to me, but I’m so glad it was because it was so good. I didn’t realize before I started reading, but this is the book I have been wanting to read for I don’t know how long. It was fun, it was funny, it was sweet, it was badass. I just had an all-around great time while reading it. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves badass historical sword lesbians with a little bit of mystery (and really, how could anyone not love that?)

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill

the cover of When We Lost Our Heads

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

A totally surprising, whimsical, and powerful new novel, When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins 2022), is a queer historical fiction that is a must-read this summer!

The novel focuses on the complicated friendship between Marie Antoine, the wealthy heiress to her father’s Montreal sugar factory, and Sadie Arnett, a clever and unnerving girl whose family moves to Marie’s neighbourhood with her politically ambitious family. The two girls become fast friends, drawn to each other through their mutual intellect and intensity, until one day one of their games ends in tragedy, and in an effort to save the reputations of everyone involved, the two girls are separated. What follows in the novel is a long winding narrative of the two women’s lives together and apart across time and across a city that loves, hates, and loves to hate them. Complete with a cast of characters that enrich the narrative, O’Neill paints a fantastical portrait of nineteenth-century Montreal in all of its tragedy, glamour, grit, and delight.

In short, this novel is one of the cleverest texts I have ever read. O’Neill takes many of the principal characters from the French Revolution and transports them to nineteenth-century Montreal. Oh, and she genders all of them female. And the majority of them are queer. Although the novel is a fictional and magical realist text, When We Lost Our Heads is well-researched and full of compelling easter eggs that reveal the historical depth of the novel’s construction.

Furthermore, there really is nothing like O’Neill’s prose. I was anticipating this novel’s release after reading her other books, such as Daydreams of Angels (2015), The Lonely Hearts Hotel (2017), and Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), and I wasn’t disappointed. O’Neill’s writing is immersive and full of intensity, with hints of magical realism. The relationships, connections, and twists in this novel kept me engaged. I have never encountered a book like this one, and I’ve already read it twice since its release this February.

When We Lost Our Heads is queer historical fiction at its finest, and Heather O’Neill is one of the most prolific voices currently writing in Canada.

Please follow Heather O’Neill on Twitter and put When We Lost Our Heads on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content warnings: sexual assault, violence against women

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

the cover of My Home Is On the Mountain

Amazon Affiliate Link

If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

the cover of How Long 'Til Black Future Month

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I listened to this short story as part of the audiobook How Long ’til Black Future Month, but it can be found for free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

I’ll start this review off by saying that I think NK Jemisin is an incredible writer. Her Broken Earth trilogy was dark and often painful to read, but it was such an incredible work with beautiful craft, and I’ve been wanting to read more of her work for a while, but I wasn’t ready to commit to another long series: naturally, her short stories proved to be an excellent solution. In some cases, they also acted as an exploration (and teaser) for her other books, proving that yes, I do indeed need to read all of them.

“The Effluent Engine” takes place in an alternate history New Orleans, albeit one that is not so far removed from reality. It really packs everything into a small space: spies and intrigue, chemistry and engineering, romance and revolution. The main character, Jessamine, is a Haitian agent whose mission is to find a scientist who will develop a safe way to extract methane gas from the refuse generated by rum production, so they can produce their own fuel for their dirigibles. But she isn’t the only one after such a mechanism, and she has to avoid enemy agents who want Haiti to go back to being an enslaved nation. 

This story, although short, has a deep and satisfying plot. It feels like reading a novel, because so much happens in a short space of time. There is plenty of action, but also a great sense of space and time passing. There isn’t a huge cast of characters (although with spies, scientists, and eavesdropping nuns, there are plenty!) but there’s lots of complexity to the ones we have. And most of all, this story is just plain fun to read. It’s exciting and romantic, with enough seriousness backing it up to keep the stakes high. I absolutely recommend anyone who had time to read this review to take a minute and go read the story itself.

Cath reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

the cover of That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston is a servant to Eliza Hamilton — yes, that Eliza Hamilton — and most of her work consists of assisting Eliza with her research into preserving Hamilton’s legacy. Her life is boring, quiet, and predictable, and at this point she prefers it that way. She’s been burned too many times by letting herself love and care about others, and she’d rather not make that mistake again.

But when Andromeda Stiel arrives at Hamilton Grange for an interview her grandfather can’t attend, Mercy’s immediate attraction to her throws all her carefully-laid plans into chaos. Andromeda’s charismatic, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer personality doesn’t help, and Mercy quickly finds herself spending more and more time with her and doing exactly what she’d promised herself she’d never do again — falling in love.

This is a really sweet story, centered around two queer black women and their journey from vague antagonism to love. We learn a surprising amount about both characters for such a short story, and we get a few glimpses into their work and into their relationships with others beyond the romance. They both feel like fleshed-out people with their own lives, which change and stretch as they get to know one another rather than contracting to only the two of them. Both of their relationships with others also changed as the story went on, and especially Mercy’s with Eliza and Angelica (Alexander and Eliza’s daughter).

The romance between Mercy and Andromeda is cute and engaging, but because this is a very short piece, some aspects of their relationship felt quite rushed or skipped over. They write letters to one another, and while you can absolutely (start to) fall in love with someone through letters, the time period over which this takes place doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the pacing of the story. They seem to move from “admitting they’re attracted to one another” to “and we’re totally in love” very quickly, and while that’s often a mainstay of romance novels, it stuck out from the rest of the story for me.

I did struggle a little with how “easy” some of the problems of issues like homophobia were glossed over. Mercy is deeply afraid of how people will react if they find out she likes women, compounded by the way some of her previous partners reacted to her desires for commitment and their incredulity that they could have a life together as two women. Andromeda does not exactly dismiss these fears, but the way she soothes Mercy’s worries and the way others reacted to the two of them felt a little too accepting. I do recognize that this is likely my own fears and worries coming to the forefront, and while this felt out of place in the story, it was not a bad thing, and I did appreciate that they had a variety of supports around them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, and mostly wish that it were longer!

Content Warnings: sexism, homophobia, racism, parental death (past), sibling death (past), partner death (past)

Larkie reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

the cover of Passing Strange

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Passing Strange is a novella that feels like it has it all: a bit of mystery, a lot of history, and just a hint of magic. A queer love story set mostly in 1940 San Francisco, the book opens with Helen Young, and elderly woman who has just a few errands to run before her life is over. As she finishes these and her life comes to a close, we drift back to when she was a young woman–and unravel some of the mystery surrounding her final actions.

This novella reads like a love letter to San Francisco, and the setting feels vibrant and clearly well researched. The plot mostly revolves around the romance between two creatives: Haskel, the visual artist who paints covers for pulp novels; and Emily, a singer at the lesbian nightclub Mona’s. They also spend their time in Chinatown, climbing the steep streets of Nob Hill, and visiting the World’s Fair, as Haskel and Emily melt together in a passionate romance. Helen is there too, of course, as are a few other queer women who enjoy throwing dinner parties, but they are all secondary characters to Haskel and Emily’s exploration of the city. While there is a lot of love for San Francisco in the novel, it clearly isn’t perfect, as we still see the prejudices of the time: Mona’s is a lesbian nightclub, sure, but it also acts as a tourist destination, where straight white couples come to be scandalized by the unnatural acts of its target patrons. Similarly, Helen is a lawyer who can’t get clients because she is a Chinese American woman, so she dances with her (beard) husband at the Forbidden City, which plays up American interests in Orientalism. All the characters both rely on and resent the tourists, as well as the stereotypes they have to perform in order to pay rent.

While I did enjoy the romance between Haskel and Emily, I was a little disappointed with how little the side characters are really involved in the story. The book opens with Helen, and she feels like the most interesting character to me, but she mostly spends her time off doing other things while Haskel and Emily go on dates and get to know each other. Then there are Franny and Babs, whose names I can hardly remember as they are only in a few scenes in the book. After such a strong opening with Helen, the ensuing domestic romance felt like a bit of a letdown–again, it was a very nice romance, but I was expecting something grand and mysterious, and I got a fairly standard romance that was like Carol, but set in San Francisco and better.

And then there’s the magic. I have mixed feelings about the magic in this story, and I think the shortness of the novella might influence a lot of it. Franny does fold maps to create shortcuts around the city, but they explain that magic is difficult, and needs to be very precise, like a complex mathematical equation. Magic is only used three times throughout the whole book, and twice are at the very end; the first usage introduces it and allows the characters to discuss it a bit. That makes this book feel less like a fantasy and more like a historical fiction that just has a magical deus ex machina so that the characters can escape the trouble that they got into at the end of the book. Now, given that the magic doers themselves talk about how this isn’t something everyday, and the magic is often small and unnoticeable to anyone not directly involved in it, there really isn’t enough room in a short book like this for there to be a lot of magic. So it does make sense in universe as to why there is so little actual magic use in the book. But I was drawn to this book because of the fantasy elements, and if I didn’t like historical fiction, it would have been a bit of a letdown.

This was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a sapphic historical fiction that is short and sweet, with just a sprinkle of magic. However, I doubt I’ll be revisiting it. I do have a lot more opinions about the ending, so highlight below for spoilers!

I appreciate the open ending, where we don’t actually know whether or not the big magic works (but assume it does). But I have…a lot of questions about even the presumed happy ending. Nitpicky, perhaps, but…what exactly happens when a singer and a visual artist emerge in modern day San Francisco? Where do they stay? How do they afford rent in one of the most expensive places in the country? They don’t even know what a computer is, how are they going to make money and support themselves? I appreciate the sentiment of disappearing into a painting until you can emerge in a more accepting time, but it’s also a more expensive time, and I feel like it would have been easier to just…change their names and move to New York or something.

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage

Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.