Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

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Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Larkie reviews Finna by Nino Cipri

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I first came across this book when I was looking for a Christmas gift, and even though it didn’t quite fit the gift idea that I had in mind, I knew that I had to read this book. Finna is an absurd little story that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of working a low wage corporate retail job. The plot is simple: Ava and Jules work in definitely not IKEA, and a shopper’s grandmother has wandered off into a wormhole and gotten lost in the maze of multidimensional Scandinavian furniture store hell. Their supervisor sends them after her. Also, they just broke up.

The premise is a little ridiculous, but it feels totally plausible. Of course corporate downsizing eliminated specialized teams who used to handle interdimensional recovery! When has any large corporation cared about the safety of their workers? And training naturally consists of watching a single VHS tape that was filmed decades prior, before you’re expected to just…do whatever it is the company needs you to do. Capitalism is bleak, but we live in it, and we have to play by its rules. Some people, like the manager, embrace these rules because they think that playing by the rules will get them somewhere. Others, like the main duo, are just trying to get by, and try their best to create the best out of a bad situation.

This brings me to the relationship between Ava and Jules. As readers, we come into the relationship at its worst. Ava is anxious and overbearing, constantly thinking of how things can go wrong and trying to mitigate every possible disaster. This includes managing Jules, who is adamant about being their own person, despite the soul crushing job and their difficult past. The relationship wasn’t an inherently bad one: Jules managed to ease some of Ava’s tension, while Ava was more on top of things like dishes. But Ava’s need to fix anything grated on Jules’ desire for independence, and their reluctance to open up just made her worry harder. I really appreciated how there wasn’t any blame or fault assigned to the breakup, it was just a bad thing that had happened. But we also see the good parts of their relationship, how they started as work friends with fun little injokes, the kind of bonding that only happens in work situations. Their relationship is probably the reason why they both stayed in the bad job in the first place, and it made a bad situation bearable. And sometimes, what you need to work out your problems is some quality time together to talk about your feelings, while also escaping carnivorous chair plants and fighting off creepy clones.

This book was fun, and also really heartfelt. It’s about deciding what’s really important and the kind of people you want to spend time with in your life. It’s about queer love and the many forms that can take. There’s so much packed into such a little package, and even more that I haven’t touched on here. I had a hard time putting it down, which meant it was good that it wasn’t that long, because I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done if it was any longer!

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

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

the cover of She Gets the Girl

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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.

Nat reviews D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins

the cover of D'Vaughn and Kriss Plan a Wedding

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One of my favorite romance tropes is the fake relationship – I just can’t resist it. So there was little doubt that watching D’Vaughn and Kris plan a fake wedding would be absolutely delightful. 

The story is centered around a reality show called Instant I Do and told through the first person perspectives and solo camera interviews of D’Vaughn and Kris. The premise of the show is to convince your closest friends and family that you’re getting married to the person you’re paired with — in six weeks. Framing the book in the context of the show means we also experience our main characters in a sort of vacuum, removed from their everyday lives and jobs while they focus on their goal. 

Curvy, femme and very closeted D’Vaughn is hoping to diversify the cast of this season of the show with her presence as a queer, Black, full figured contestant. Her main motivation for going on the show is to come out to her family, which she’s never been able to bring herself to do. She just needs to convince her conservative, judemental mom that she’s about to get gay married! Bold move, D’Vaughn.

Kris is a social media influencer, a stud who’s got a rep for being a bit of a player. She’s looking to find true love and a real connection, and thinks going on this show will help her do just that. She’s been out to her big, boisterous Afro-Latinx family for ages, but the trick will be convincing them she’s serious about settling down, and with someone they’ve never met or even heard of. 

As a couple, D’Vaughn and Kris are adorable, and I love the support Kris gives to D’Vaughn as she comes out to her family even though they’ve just met. I really enjoyed the narrative expressed in the Jitter Cam sections, giving us a bit of an extra perspective on what the characters were thinking and feeling. The story has great pacing, and you experience things in the moment, a bit like it would be if you were watching the show. 

The only real problems for me came from consistency issues surrounding the technical reality show aspects that I think should have been caught by an editor. Obviously in Romancelandia we are opening our minds and hearts to things that prooobably would not happen in real life. That’s why those little world building details are so crucial. Mentions of the mics and cameras that clarify some issues are provided later in the story, but would have better been served at the beginning of the book. At some points it kind of felt like the author was figuring things out as she went along, but didn’t go back to shore up any leaks that may have been caused in the story. I even had to go back a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. These were the sort of details that kept pulling me out of the book. 

So while I can get behind our characters falling in love in six weeks, I’m totally chafing about not being able to tell when they were on film or being recorded vs when they were alone having private moments. I personally don’t have much experience watching reality shows, so I don’t know if that helped or hurt my perspective on how that was shown to us on the page. My writer’s brain understands how these problems developed, but a fresh set of editing eyes could have caught these little inconsistencies. 

Despite those few hiccups, this is a fun romance with lovable characters and definitely worth a read! 

Larkie reviews “The Effluent Engine” by NK Jemisin

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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)