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

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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.

Sam reviews The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

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When I reviewed The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, this is what I wrote:

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that.

Well, you’ll never guess what happened.

The Thousand Eyes is the second book in the Serpent Gates series by A. K. Larkwood, following her debut novel The Unspoken Name. But, in a move that seems intended to contradict everything I wrote in my previous review, The Thousand Eyes is a startlingly different book from its predecessor. Larkwood’s writing is still snappy and her character voices enjoyable, but the plot has turned from something predictable and satisfying into a narrative primarily defined by twists and anxiety.

The novel picks up two years after the end of the first book, with Csorwe, Shuthmili, and Tal making a life for themselves guarding archeological expeditions in the Echo Maze. Instead of exploring new territory in Larkwood’s imaginative collage of colliding fantasy worlds, however, The Thousand Eyes seems intent on retreading familiar ground—Iriskivaal, Echentyr, and of course the previous book’s villain, Belthandros Sethennai. But before I could even cultivate any proper disappointment at this, Csorwe is suddenly possessed by a fragment of the dead snake goddess. Shuthmili can’t save her, so she swears fealty in a desperate hope that time will give her an answer. And then the book jumps fifteen years into the future.

Yes, fifteen years. The worlds we knew are being trampled underfoot by an empire reborn, and our characters are either dead or have been hardened and harrowed by a decade and a half of violence and despair. Chapters from Shuthmili dwindle in number; by the halfway point, it feels more like Tal’s story than anyone else’s. Even as the novel kept me nervously turning pages, I found myself nurturing a sick hope that perhaps some plot contrivance could undo all this, could rewind the clock and return the story back to where it was at the beginning. Which is certainly an emotional investment to have in a novel, but I can’t imagine it’s what the author intended me to feel.

The reason I said in my review of The Unspoken Name that I would be alright with it remaining a stand-alone novel is that the book’s ending perfectly enables readers to imagine the many thrilling and romantic adventures that Csorwe and Shuthmili could have together. The potential is there, and sometimes that’s enough. But in one fell swoop, The Thousand Eyes takes all the promise from the end of The Unspoken Name and erases it.

One of The Unspoken Name’s primary themes was choice—Shuthmili chose to live with the woman she loved, even if it meant dying young to mageblight, rather than live long tethered to her rigid society with no individual will. Csorwe gave up the approval of her adopted father and all the power and privilege he could offer, and even faced the terror of her religious upbringing, all to be with Shuthmili. These are incredibly relatable lesbian experiences illuminated in the colorful pageantry of fantasy adventure! But now, nothing’s come of it. The choices that Csorwe, Shuthmili, and even Tal made pale in consequence to this much larger, darker portion of their lives. All the adventures that could have occurred, now we know for certain were never meant to be.

What hurts most is that The Thousand Eyes is still a well written book, one that the author clearly believes in. Her heart is in this story—but sadly, mine isn’t. If there is ever a third novel in the Serpent Gates series, it seems likely it will put the lesbians aside as protagonists in favor of Tsereg, the new non-binary teenage embodiment of the Unspoken. The abrupt change in main characters may be some readers’ cup of tea, certainly, but it isn’t mine. I think I’ll be getting off the Maze ship here, with my slightly bruised heart and my dreams of what might have been.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea 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.

Anna N. reviews Heathen by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

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Aydis is a Viking and warrior, raised on stories of wartime valor and battlefield sacrifice by a father who taught her things “unbecoming” of a woman. But she is also sincerely kind, more likely to reach out a hand than draw her sword against a stranger. She is driven by fairness, by a sense of justice that bends towards liberation rather than punishment.

The story begins with her running away from her clan on the pain of death (or marriage to a man) after getting caught kissing her best friend. Stubborn, sincere Aydis’s first plan of action is freeing Brynhild, the former leader of the Valkyrie now cursed by the god Odin to spend an eternity in exile on earth, bound to whichever mortal passes her test. A test that has only been attempted by men.

So, with a chip on her shoulder and the strong conviction that someone shouldn’t be stuck in some lonely cave just because she stood up for what she believed in, Aydis attempts to undo the curse for good and give Brynhild the chance to find her lost love.

But by daring to defy the gods, she puts a target on her back, one that will bring her into the crosshairs of Odin himself. Unexpectedly, though, she finds herself joined by a cast of sympathetic allies.

Some have questionable motives, like shifter-trickster Ruadan and the band of omnivorous apple-loving mermaids who offer her navigational aid. Others are, like Aydis, are doing their best to bring balance to an unjust world. Take the gold-hearted pirate crew and the goddess Freyja, who is fed up with her husband’s fragile sense of power and strident belief that his brute might supersedes everything she stands for.

That’s the central conflict of the story. What happens when the valorization of violence warps our ability to feel love and empathy for others? When fear leads us to turn on those we care about, to hurt those we love?

The team behind the comic series has created a story that questions reductive gender norms without making equally reductive generalizations and deftly shows how true strength and power requires kindness and love. Beneath the magic, mythology, and standard fantasy-quest narrative lies a very compelling, touching story about the responsibilities we have to each other, and the idea that freedom doesn’t mean going it completely alone. There is so much fleshed-out humanity in these paper pages, and I burned through all three volumes in a few hours.

It took that long because I lingered over the excellent, evocative illustrations. One of the things I love most about comics is the specific kind of humor that can be captured through clever use of facial expression. They feel like an artistic form of punctuation – one that lends itself especially well to serving as a punchline.

The art also reflects the arc, with harsh, aggressive strokes denoting the sort of bloody, violently inspirational battle-lore of Aydis’ childhood home and rounder, softer work indicating where her story moves from the stuff of legend into something more grounded, loving, and achingly alive.

The colorist works wonders with an artfully limited palette, and you can practically feel the climatic and climactic shifts in each panel. The nudity never feels exploitative, and the diversity is both period-accurate and contributes to the narrative texture.

It’s not an easy story, though it is chock full of comedy, heartwarming moments, and the ending has a delightful bit of bookending. The romances are sweet and complicated and nuanced.

The authors don’t shy away from recognizing how those who have been raised to value force and control may respond cruelly to the liberatory possibilities of kindness. They also explore the pain that can come from standing up for the right thing, the kind thing, in the face of overwhelming anger and fear. In another subtle interrogation of grand questing legends, there are no stock villains here: only scared people, angry people, and people whose fear or rage has stoked reactionary beliefs in their own self-righteousness.

I appreciated the focus on how simple, tangible acts of love beget goodwill and lead to a net better world. In contrast to the dramatic, grossly embellished acts that constitute myths and legends, it is the little moments that drive this story. It was a refreshingly honest narrative, in that sense. After all, real life doesn’t exactly adhere to the archetypal Narrative Arc. It is a bumpy series of ups and downs and difficult choices. The best we can hope for is to leave the world a little kinder than we found it.

If you enjoy quest stories, Norse mythology, compelling characters and/or questioning gender binaries, you will find much to enjoy in these comics. The completed series is collected in 3 trade paperback volumes, all of which are currently available for purchase and possibly at your local library!

Trigger Warnings: violence, blood, nudity, animal death, implied murder; Volume 2 has limb loss, period-typical homophobia and sexism.

Sam reviews The Warrior Moon by K Arsenault Rivera

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If there is one simple truth about writing that is not given nearly enough credit, it is this: endings are hard. It is far easier to begin a story than end one; it is even easier to continue a story than end one. Ending a story means answering any questions that deserve answers, completing any character or narrative arcs yet unfinished, and bringing the story to a definitive and satisfying conclusion. A good ending feels worthy of the time and effort the story took to reach it; a fantastic ending elevates what came before to new heights once the reader can view the complete work in its entirety.

But even putting quality aside, I believe that what makes endings so uniquely hard to write is that all endings (if true endings they really are) require the author to stop writing and finally let their work stand on its own. To end a story, the author must put down the pen and say, “It is finished. There’s no more—this is all there is. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Warrior Moon is the last book in her Ascendent trilogy, finishing the story began in The Tiger’s Daughter and continued in The Phoenix Empress. And it is the definitive end to the trilogy. While there is certainly enough imagination and and emotion in both the world and the characters Rivera has created that she could string this out into yet another who-knows-how-long continuing fantasy series if she wanted (and I would happily buy each novel as it came out if she did), she instead chose to give Shefali and Shizuka, Hokkaro and the Qorin, and this whole tale of gods and lesbians a proper ending. No matter how the final book ended up, I would respect K Arsenault Rivera for that.

As it stands, there is plenty else to like about The Warrior Moon, but also a few places where I feel it falters. With Shefali and Shizuka’s tales imparted to each other over the last two books, it is finally time for them to fulfill their childhood promise to ride north and slay the Traitor. The entire novel is spent on the campaign against him and his two remaining demon generals, but therein lies the book’s first issue. It has a bit of a “trek through Mordor” problem as the offensive has to trudge through miserable conditions and tragic delays just to reach their objective, and the first half of the book can feel like a bit of a slog. The tone is kept fresh by a much wider range of viewpoint characters, but as much as I enjoyed them all, it wasn’t a break from Shefali and Shizuka that I wanted—it was smoother pacing. Once the action picks up it really picks up, though, and I couldn’t put the book down after about the halfway point.

But how is The Warrior Moon as an ending? By my earlier definition, a good one, without a doubt. In a trilogy defined by tragedy, it manages to land just the right moments of hope and resolution, and wraps up everything it needs to for the story to end (which means no, we don’t get to see any of Shefali’s adventures in Sur-Shar, Ikhtar, or beneath the earth; it was the right call, but I’m still a little disappointed!). I’m not sure it manages to make a sweeping statement on the rest of the trilogy in retrospect, but The Warrior Moon certainly earns the ending that it has. During the last few paragraphs I was tearing up so hard that I couldn’t even read the words on the page!

Overall, The Warrior Moon is a good read, and the entire Ascendent trilogy is a great one. That the kind of epic fantasy trilogy I would have loved when I was younger now exists starring a lesbian couple feels like nothing less than a gift, and it’s one I will long be grateful for.

Content Warnings: body horror, gore, mind control, spiders

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

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Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner follows Jo, a famous actress, writer and showrunner in Hollywood, and her assistant Emma. When they appear at an award show together and seem incredibly intimate, rumors of their romance begin to swirl. This ignites questions of the dynamic of their relationship and pushing from their family and loved ones. Miscommunication and shenanigans ensue.

I listened to this on audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie and Xe Sands. If it hadn’t been for listening to the audio, I probably would have DNFed this book, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, but I know if I’d been reading it in e-book or physical copy, I wouldn’t have plowed through it. But that’s just my personal taste.

From the way the book starts, I had high hopes for what it could accomplish, but it fell short in my opinion. It’s established early on that Emma is bisexual, out to her family and comfortable in her identity but not shouting from the rooftops, and that Jo is a lesbian only out to her best friend and parents (not even Emma knows until about halfway through the book).

In the beginning, Jo’s issues with Hollywood’s racism are addressed as she deals with comments from entertainment reporters who believe she’ll have “too soft a touch” to properly write a screenplay for the action franchise, Agent Silver, the James Bond of this world. Emma pegs it right away as racist, coded language because Jo is Asian, and Asian women are often stereotyped as soft and submissive.

Emma’s dedication to Jo and Jo knowing Emma so well is established right away. It’s clear they have a close relationship that goes beyond employer and employee; it’s a solid friendship. Truthfully, that’s what their relationship feels like throughout the entire book. The romance that eventually blooms doesn’t feel organic. It feels like it’s stemming from the pressure of the rumors and the insistence of their friends and family that they are, in fact, in love.

The relationship dynamic between Jo and Emma always feels like an intimate friendship. Even the most romantic moments feel platonic. Their friends’ and family’s teasing about their rumored dating relationship is cringe-worthy. It’s never mean-spirited, but good intentions don’t necessarily mean the behavior is appropriate.

Part of what makes the dating relationship feel forced and inorganic is the power dynamic difference. Wilsner actually addressed this pretty well throughout, showing the characters’ recognition of how Jo had influence over Emma’s career, as well as the age difference.

However, when the rumors first started spreading, Jo insisted on not making a comment because she’d never commented about her love life, and she wasn’t going to start now that the rumor was her dating a woman; it would seem homophobic. Jo’s points in not commenting about her dating life are valid and solid reasons. But the way she believes she’s right comes off as dismissive and invalidates Emma’s feelings about the situation.

It was hard to become invested in the characters’ inner lives because these characters are people who don’t let anyone see too deep into them, including the reader. Their development both as individuals and together as an eventual couple feels surface level. Even the supporting characters are often described as knowing them so well, but it’s always a statement made through exposition and rarely shown within behavior and relationship dynamics.

Overall, the story itself was entertaining, but the characters and their interactions felt like they needed something more.

Content warnings: Homophobia, biphobia, racism

Kelleen reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

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You know how sometimes you’re watching a hit 90s romcom set in high school or college and you’re reveling in the delicious shenanigans of the leads and the dramatic irony of them not knowing that they are the leads in a romantic comedy and they’re about to fall in love despite their absolute refusal to acknowledge that they are fallible human beings and love will come for them and their one true love is standing right in front of them? And they go rollerblading and play Never Have I Ever and try their darnedest to futilely manipulate fate? And then you turn off the TV (or Netflix or whatever) and sit back and sigh and think “Man, that was delightful but I wish it had been sapphic”?

Well boy, do I have a book for you.

She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick is an ADORABLE interracial Cyrano-ish college-aged sapphic romance about two polar opposite college freshman who team up to help each other get the girl of their dreams only to discover that the girl of their dreams has been in front of them this whole time. It is such a cute, fun read.

I love Alex and Molly. I love both of them so much. They are opposites attract in the best way possible, both trying their hardest to navigate a world that they do not feel valuable in and finding value in themselves and each other. Alex is a thick-skinned white lesbian and Molly is a nervous Korean-American lesbian. In short, Molly is a mom-jeans lesbian and Alex is a ripped black skinny jeans lesbian. They are flawed and messy and just trying their best and that is the best kind of young sapphic romance.

This is intricately plotted, and the different POVs are distinct and vibrant. The writing is funny and contemporary and wholehearted. The whole book feels so hopeful to me.

This is being sold as a YA, but I’m not entirely sure why. There’s no sex on page, but also there it doesn’t feel like there needs to be for the story. However, there is alcohol and drug use on page and it deals with some pretty heavy subjects such as alcoholism and internalized racism. The college setting and the liminal adulthood of it all feels necessary to the blend of maturity and immaturity of the story. It is definitely grittier and more mature than I was expecting from the ADORABLE cover and the YA tag.

I highly highly recommend for both romance and YA readers alike.

Also it was written by a wife/wife team, and what is cuter and gayer than that?

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon&Schuster for the ARC. She Gets the Girl releases on April 5th, 2022.

Content warnings: Anti-Korean racism, food scarcity, alcoholism, car accidents, on-page drinking

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Rachel reviews Girls Can Kiss Now: Essays by Jill Gutowitz

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Hilarious, poignant, and stunningly clever, Jill Gutowitz’s essay collection Girls Can Kiss Now was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022 and it definitely did not disappoint!

When I talk about this book (which is often), it usually goes something like this: “I’m reading this book, it’s called Girls Can Kiss Now. Have you ever heard of a title so excellent?!” Even if I had never heard of this book, if I saw it in a bookstore this title alone would induce me to buy it. It’s such a small phrase but it perfectly articulates the premise of Gutowitz’s collection: the boom in lesbian culture and media in mainstream society, and the social history of how we got here.

Through a series of witty and smart personal essays, Gutowitz explores popular culture’s treatment/representation of queer women throughout the last two decades in conjunction with her own life and her journey of self-discovery in relation to her own sexuality. The essays, alternately personal, deeply resonant, and hilarious (and sometimes all three at once) are truly a snapshot of the significance of popular culture in all of our lives—and how that significance has changed as the internet has evolved.

I have been waiting with very little patience to read this book since it was announced. A collection of essays about lesbianism and queer life written by someone who, like me, spent their formative years in the 2000s in a weird miasma of confusion and intrigue with only the internet to console you? Sign me up. This book recounts nearly every aspect of what it’s like to grow up in a very particular time in queer history: the moment when the marginal moves toward the mainstream. The moment where, suddenly, Ellen isn’t the only celesbian you can list. Gutowitz expertly articulates the strangeness and the delight associated with that shift, and even though a lot of these essays are personal and specific to her own life, they are so obviously relatable to queer experience that I found myself totally engrossed by the writing.

Not all of the essays are completely personal, though. This is a book about lesbian popular culture. Chapters like “The Ten Most Important Sapphic Paparazzi Photos in Modern History” and “The Current Lesbian Canon, as It Stands” are engaged with popular representations of queer culture. This book is such a clever and whip-smart collection. It’s so funny and insightful, and it’s required reading if you’re interested in the evolution of lesbian culture.  

I can’t recommend Girls Can Kiss Now enough for anyone interesting in queer culture, lesbian media, and the growth of the internet and social media over the course of the twenty-first century. This book couldn’t have been more clever!

Please visit Jill Gutowitz on Twitter and put Girls Can Kiss Now 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.

Til reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

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Trigger warnings: this book contains racism, homophobia (especially religious homophobia), and someone being outed

The Henna Wars 
by Adiba Jaigirdar is the story of Nishat, a Bangladeshi Muslim girl living in Ireland who decides to come out to her parents as a lesbian. At the same time, her school hosts a business competition. Nishat’s is one of two henna businesses, the other run by love interest Flávia and Flávia’s racist cousin. The book focuses on Nishat navigating personal and educational challenges all in the context of her culture.

At its strongest, this book is a portrayal of a Bangladeshi family living abroad. The extended family and community, the traditional practices and how Western traditions begin to mix in, and even everyday things like food all shine as a love letter to Bangladeshi experiences. Nishat’s relationship with her little sister Priti is especially complex, loving, and delightful as they share experiences as the first in their family born and raised in Ireland.

Adiba Jaigirdar is a talented writer with a way of saying simple, meaningful things in the most affective way possible. The absolute humanity of the main character and her feelings of love, hurt, and pride are real on every page. The pacing is steady. All of that combines for a very pleasant reading experience.

I had mixed feelings about Nishat as a character. She feels very real because of her flaws and it’s normal for a teenager not to fully consider how their actions impact others. I’ve seen her criticized for pettiness and that’s not what I mean—she goes to steal Flávia’s henna tubes, for example, and that was completely understandable. That’s the sort of flaw I like in a character. However, it was sometimes frustrating how much she prioritized her rivalry over relationships with people who genuinely seemed to care for and accept her, like her sister and friends. Because the narrative never rewards this, ultimately it didn’t leave me with too bad an impression, but it did create a weakness to the ending. There isn’t much in the way of consequences for Nishat’s harassers, or for Nishat herself—the plot centers on the business competition, but the book is actually about Nishat and her relationships with her family and romantic interest. For me as a reader, the lack of engagement with both the villain and the main character’s larger flaws in a character-centric piece made for a hollow conclusion.

Overall, I enjoyed this book as I read it, but its lasting impact on me was somewhat middling. It is an exceptional book about a queer brown girl with pride in herself. Just as a book, it has some flaws. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Sam reviews The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault Rivera

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K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, ended with a lot of stories left to tell. Both of its main characters, Shefali and Shizuka, had gone on perilous and dramatic adventures only hinted at in the book itself, and their future clearly holds challenges yet to come. But still it ended, closing out with an emotional and satisfying conclusion despite so many unanswered questions. I knew The Tiger’s Daughter was the first book of a trilogy, but I have to wonder if the author knew when she wrote it. Because while its sequel novel, The Phoenix Empress, feels like a natural extension of where things left off, in some ways it feels far more dependent on being part of a trilogy than The Tiger’s Daughter ever did.

Before I worry fans of the first book, let me say that if you liked The Tiger’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Phoenix Empress. For a novel so concerned with how years of trauma can change someone, both Shefali and Shizuka felt completely true to the characters I fell in love with. It’s written like a reverse of The Tiger’s Daughter, with epistolary chapters from Shizuka’s perspective interspersed with present-day narration from Shefali. Getting to suddenly see through Shizuka’s eyes adds a compelling new depth to the story we already know; learning that many of her moments of arrogance and hubris were fueled by uncertainty and fear deeply humanizes her as a character. Also, hearing Shizuka call Shefali handsome for the first time was a revelation—I saw the butch/femme dynamic between them during the first book, but having it signposted so explicitly in the second was spectacular.

But for all that I loved, The Phoenix Empress did have some peculiarities that stuck out to me. The real heart of the book is Shizuka’s story of what happened to her during Shefali’s time away, and how she became empress. After that story ends, however, the book still has a good many chapters left to go, and it’s almost all exposition setting up the last book in the trilogy. These chapters didn’t undermine the emotional weight of Shizuka’s tale, but I can’t say that they built upon it either. Despite still being good writing with good characters, I don’t think the ending served The Phoenix Empress quite as well as it serves the trilogy as a whole.

Overall, The Phoenix Empress does a better job of being part of a fantasy trilogy than it does at being a novel. However, it is still very good, and as a follow up to The Tiger’s Daughter it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it can be very intense at times; none of the content warnings listed below are lingered on for very long, but if even a mention is too much for you, you may want to pass this series by. But if you read and loved the first book like I did—well, then I can’t imagine much is going to keep you from reading every book that follows.

Content Warnings: body horror, drowning, gore, cannibalism, mind control, vomiting

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.