Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.

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.

Marthese reviews Pegasi and Prefects (Scholars and Sorcery #1) by Eleanor Beresford

pegasi

“I take my questions and shining little badges with me”

Keeping in line with my recent reviews, I read another short fantasy book. This time, I read Pegasi and Prefects which is the first in the Scholars and Sorcery series. I found it to be a somewhat good introduction but it focuses more on the main character, Charley rather than world building. At times it seemed slow but I quite enjoyed that. The book is only 138 pages so a quick read overall.

The story is about Charley, who attends Fernleigh Manor, a school for gifted people which are people that possess talents that are somewhat different from each other as no gift is the same. Charley has an affinity to communicate with fabled animals. Her family has a business in raising fabled beasts and in fact, Charley has a pegasus named Ember. She is friends with Esther and Cecily who are quite popular and so by default but not only, is Charley. They are in their last year of studies and Charley wants a quite year but her year is anything but that as she is made a senior prefect and a games captain- a sort of peer trainer for all the years and hockey teams.

Charley’s year is also rocked when two new girls transfer in their last year at the Manor. She has to share a study room with Diana, who many people are charmed by but not Charley. Moreover, She has to be friendly to Rosalind, a very shy girl but in the end this would not be a problem as Charley develops feelings for Rosalind after the two girls take care of an animal together since it turns out that they both share an affinity to fabled beasts.

Charley is what could be called a tomboy and we see some gender relations and how different people treat her because of this- namely Esther, Diana and her brothers. Charley learns not to fall into prejudice and also learns to be less selfish. This seems also a theme about her love life, where she assumes things about Rosalind and is jealous but at the same time wants to be selfless.

World building is slow and sometimes confusing but things eventually got clearer. We get to know more about different animals and about the history of the reality that the characters live in. When reading fantasy I tend to assume that it’s a different world and so I was surprised when things like cars or hockey got mentioned but when they were, it helped me understand and relate better.

Despite it’s slowness, I found it to be a calming book and it also kept me interested and as such, I read it very quickly. I recommend it to people that like fantasy books but that are looking for something different from the usual epic battle or action theme. It is also suitable for young audiences and more focused on Charley’s self-reflection.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.

Danika reviews Hellebore & Rue edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff

I’m going to be honest: the only thing I was really looking for in Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic was for it to live up to its cover. I mean, look at that cover! It’s definitely one of my  favourites.

The good news is, it does! It seems like every review of an anthology has a disclaimer that all anthologies have varying quality between stories, which is true, but Hellebore & Rue had a much, much higher standard of writing in the stories collected than I am used to in most anthologies. There was only one story where I felt the writing didn’t compare to the other stories, and it turns out that it is the first story published by that author, so that makes sense.

There are all kinds of “magic” the stories, from fabulism to whole fantasy worlds, but they all manage to establish their reality well in a short story.

I think this anthology will especially appeal to readers who are looking for “incidentally” queer stories.

Overall I highly recommend Hellebore & Rue, especially to reader who enjoy the fantasy genre. And since I noticed a higher standard for their stories than I’m used to, I’ll be keeping an eye on the editors (JoSelle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff), as well as the publishing company (Lethe Press).

Danika reviews Love Spell by Karen Williams

Okay, so it may be a little late to pick this up for Halloween, but still!

I’ll admit, I picked up this book entirely because of Rie (Friend of Dorothy Wilde)’s review, so you should probably check that out.

I’m going to go with the negatives first, in a convenient bulleted list

  • There definitely is a cheese factor. The beginning seemed cheesy and kind of sudden (their meeting).
  • There are two characters in the novel that are little people. They are referred to as “dwarves” the entire time, which I understand as being reflective of the 90s, but they are often referred to as “the dwarves” instead of their names. Plus, they are equated with fantasy dwarves.
  • I have a pet peeve about excessive italics, and the dialogue has some.
  • There’s a long party scene with a long conversation with tons of characters that I thought was mostly unnecessary.
  • Pretty much half the women in this small town are lesbians…?

That’s not the whole story, though! Despite the list of issues I had with Love Spell… I also really liked it! I can definitely see the rereadability factor. The characters are likeable and natural. Other than that party scene, the story seems concise and it’s a quick read.

The best for me was the chemistry between the characters. The romance really seemed natural. You could see why they would fall for each other, and their relationship seems to unfold naturally. [spoilers] The one part that seemed odd/unnatural for me was when she finds out that Allegra is green, she instantly thinks that Allegra has cast a love spell on her. It seems like a big leap to go from green -> real witch -> she can do magic! -> she did magic on me! all at once. [end spoilers] 

The chemistry is enough to overrule most of the problems I had with it. I may not be picking it up to reread, but I could definitely see the appeal.