Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Mallory Lass reviews Homecoming by Celeste Castro

Homecoming by Celeste Castro

CW: family trauma, homophobia, minor character deaths (remembered), alcoholism

Homecoming is like a fireworks show: it starts with a boom, but everything leads to the grand finale. This slow burn romance is full of unexpected adventure and forced self reflection for the main character, Dusty and love interest Morgan.

Destiny “Dusty” del Carmen is a successful author and activist who has made a habit of avoiding her own emotions and relationships in favor of one night stands. She has spent 15 years trying to avoid her hurtful past. When Dusty is forced by her agent to return to her home state of Idaho, an unexpected situation presents her with an opportunity for self reflection and healing.

Morgan West is self proclaimed workaholic and actual over achiever. Department Chair at Boise State, she has her hands full with work commitments and ensuring her students success. She spends her time taking care of everyone but herself, and her on again off again relationship with a colleague is hardly the relationship of her dreams.

Dusty and Morgan meet unexpectedly and then are thrust together in a high stakes crisis. This might be just the thing they need to get out of their own way.

Castro’s storytelling style offers the reader intrigue and anticipation. Dusty’s life and family history unravel slowly as the story goes along, allowing the reader to put the puzzle pieces together in a meaningful way alongside Morgan. Additionally, the reader is privy to some information before the characters themselves know it and that creates a wonderful sense of excitement. These style elements and shorter chapter structure make Homecoming a page turner.

Castro has spun together a romance full of situational tension and excitement on top of the sparking sexual chemistry. She expertly weaves in location based details that really bring the story to life and capture that small town feel.

Mallory Lass reviews Blurred Lines by KD Williamson

Blurred Lines by KD Williamson cover

Blurred Lines is a slow burn, cops and docs contemporary romance that simmers just below the surface until you can’t stand it anymore. I found it very much worth the wait. The dialogue is funny, the plot is engaging and well thought out, and the cast of supporting male characters are highly likable.

Detective Kelli McCabe is a strong, reliable, resilient detective that was recently injured on the job. She is the glue that keeps her family together after her father died and the found family for her partner on the force when his own family wasn’t there for him. She makes you want to hold some of the water for her. At times she can be vulgar and headstrong and also stubborn, much like her love interest.

Dr. Nora Whitmore is a self assured, self protecting, thawing bisexual ice queen and I just wanted to give her a good shake and then a big hug through the entire book. She comes from a wealthy family and enjoys organic food and fine wine, but isn’t pretentious. She cares about her craft and judges people on their intellect and competency on the job and in life. She has her quirks, like keeping a Kunekune (domesticated pig) for a pet, and eating the same breakfast everyday—but in my opinion it just makes her more likable as the story unfolds.

Kelli and Nora meet at the hospital where Kelli is being treated and Nora works as the Chief of Surgery. Sparks fly, and not of the love at first site variety. Their initial barbs turn into a mutual respect and understanding. While both women’s pasts have made them emotionally stunted and commitment phobic, they can recognize their own positive qualities in one another: dedication to a job well done, intelligence, and strength under pressure. They realize they can lean on each other, and that opens up a complicated world of opportunities and fears for both of them.

The main plot revolves around a sexual harassment allegation levied against Nora, and some complicated family situations Kelli is trying to get her arms around. It was pleasantly surprising to me that the mostly male supporting cast is lovable, complex, and helps move the story along in meaningful ways. Kelli’s cadre of cops: her partner on the force Travis, her ex partner Williams, and her brother Sean, are all fleshed out in meaningful ways and I ended up rooting for all of them.

Blurred Lines features some of the most emotionally charged and revealing interactions between two characters that I can recall reading in a long time. As Kelli and Nora try to untangle their own lives and their own shit, they peel themselves back like onions and expose their most intimate thoughts. They ultimately have to decide if they want to do the work to move past their shortcomings, away from their past and toward a future together.

Mallory Lass reviews Liquid Courage by Hildred Billings

Liquid Courage by Hildred Billings

Liquid Courage is about two people coming together through a comedic course of events. It has been a long time since these leading ladies have had a steady relationship…but, have they found the one in each other?

Vivian “Vivi” is a legal secretary who is recovering from a serious illness that has left her weak and emaciated. Vivi has been in recovery for six months, having spent the last week texting with Shari, a woman she met on a dating app – she decides she is ready to dip her toe in the dating scene again. But, she still lacks confidence about her appearance and self-worth which even a few racy messages can’t shake.

Kat is the head bartender at a local women’s bar, she also works part time down at the docks sorting fish. She hasn’t been serious about anyone in years, not since Sheri broke up with her for looking “too masculine” and shattered her self esteem.

Shari, local lady killer and serial dater likes to frequent Kat’s bar. Kat’s long ago ex, and Vivian’s first attempt in the dating pool knows how to leave a mark, and not in a good way.

This story takes place primarily in a the bar Kat works at, and unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere from there.

I enjoyed the characters, and it is nice to get a butch/masculine of center female main character in Kat. The sex between Vivi and Kat is hot, and there was even mention of safe-sex, a plus in my book.

Unfortunately none of the characters really experience much growth. I found the plot a bit boring and it suffers from weak conflict points and an unredeemable antagonist. Overall I found it really hard to get into Billings style, the narrative is filled with too many rhetorical questions, exclamation points, and colloquial language for the characters to believably be in their late twenties/early thirties.

Mallory Lass reviews Killer Instinct by Barbara Winkes

Killer Instinct by Barbara Winkes cover

Content warning: violence against women, murder of women, homophobic father, abandoned by father, alcohol abuse

Unsolved serial murders committed by one, or maybe two people, will keep you guessing in this thriller that takes place in the dead of winter. Nothing like solving a murder over Christmas. It is low on holiday feels, and high on intrigue.

Joanna, an ex-cop who served time for killing a serial offender in cold blood, just can’t seem to let her old life go. Or maybe, her past has a way of catching up with her. Her life after prison is simple, if not boring. She works in a warehouse and spends time with her two straight female friends: a former fellow inmate, Kira, and the IAB cop that sent her to jail, Vanessa. Her and Vanessa spend most of their time together getting drunk, arguing, and picking up respective one-night stands. An attempted murder in her hometown, with a profile like one of her old cases, forces her to navigate her relationship with her former partner on the force, Theo.

I went through a Patricia Cornwell phase where I read about twenty Scarpetta novels in a year, and I’ve watched my fair share of crime shows, but crime thrillers are not my go to genre, and I haven’t read many lesbian ones. This was a good entrée into the genre.

Killer Instinct is an entertaining read. I didn’t personally like the snippets into other character points of view—it happens infrequently and with different characters points of view being told throughout the book that it seemed more distracting than beneficial. I would have preferred finding out plot points and relevant case information at the same time the protagonist Joanna does. But, as a reader, knowing outside information did increase the suspense factor. My other critique is that the supporting cast was not developed enough to be really invested in them. I wanted to know more about their back story and certainly more about Joanna and Venessa’s road to becoming friends.

Overall, there were enough twists and turns for me to consider this book a “page turner”, and at 165 pages it is definitely a quick read. This is a thriller, but there is also a romantic undercurrent, and despite Joanna’s penchant for one-night stands (the sex throughout is of the fade to black variety), she might have finally met a woman worth having a relationship with. Will her past will keep coming back to bite her, ruining her chances at a longer term relationship? Will she help her old partner solve the case and finally exercise her demons? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.

Mallory Lass reviews America by Gabby Rivera, Illustrated by Joe Quinones and Annie Wu

I only recently (in the last 18 months) got into reading comic books. Honestly, I never understood the appeal, and no one I knew read them when I was younger. But, I am so glad I started. They are a little intimidating to figure out (I still couldn’t tell you their naming/numbering system, it makes no logical sense), so when you first get going, I suggest starting with a solo series, collected issues devoted to single characters.

This review will focus on the recently completed origin story of America Chavez aka “Miss America”, written by Gabby Rivera. America is Marvel’s first Latin American LGBTQ character to have her own ongoing series. Rivera is also a queer woman of color, and their shared identity really makes America’s story shine. America previously appeared in Young Avengers and the Ultimates, among others, before landing her own story. There are 12 issues in this solo run, which have been compiled into two trade paperbacks, so I’ll discuss the series overall and then briefly both volumes in turn. Hot tip: a lot of public libraries have tons of trade paperback comics in their Teen collection, which is were I get 95% of the comics I read.

This comic doesn’t shy away from establishing America’s queer and Latinx identity. This comic is written partly in Spanish, which I found really authentic to her character, and having “Spanglish” in the book is something Rivera pushed for. I wanted to look up translations, and had fun doing it, but the plot is totally understandable even if you don’t want to spend time translating. Found family is a major theme in America’s origin story. America doesn’t have a relationship with her family, for a variety of reasons, which are revealed a little bit in Vol 1 and more in depth through Vol 2. America puts in the emotional energy required to create and maintain friendships and mentorships that serve as her found family. Getting to witness America and her friends showing up for each other again and again is where this series shines. My minor complaint is that I don’t find the villains, the Midas Corporation and La Legion, all that compelling. Though, I often find the villains in superhero stories to be boring, so maybe it’s a me thing. Exterminatrix, the main villainess is an over the top fun and sexy character, so while some of the “evil” plot lagged, it was always visually appealing. Speaking of the art, diversity is front and center. America is drawn very curvy and muscular. There are characters of all body types, races, orientations and planetary origins. In fact, America’s bff Kate Bishop, a white woman, is often the odd one out.

America Vol 1

America Vol 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

America’s series opens with her relationship falling apart just as she is getting ready to head off to college at Sotomayor University. The first six issues feature two ex-girlfriends, one with questionable motives, and a few amazing best friends. One thing that shines through in this series is how in touch with pop culture Rivera is, and how culturally relevant she wanted this series to be. It’s America’s story, but it is also an every woman story. Struggling to adapt and adjust to young adult life is relatable and America’s superhero duties create compelling complications in her life. Based on the story arc and Rivera’s letters to readers, I think Rivera wanted young women to see America succeed and conquer obstacles in her own life and for that success to provide inspiration and hope to her readers. To know we are all fighting the bigger battles together.

America Volume 2

America Vol 2: Fast and Fuertona

This second half of her series is a beautiful origin story. Turns out, not only was America born to two queer women, her home planet was created by two goddesses. The space art in this series is a feast for your eyes. Watching America come into her own and deal with her family trauma and baggage is where this story shines. At one point we get her thoughts and she thinks “I have the right to be joyful. Despite all the sad, hard bits…” and it really resonated with me both from a queer experience mindset, but also in navigating the world we live in.

Ultimately, America will need to use all her life skills she’s been building over the series and enroll all of her friends to help her defeat the Midas Corporation. The world and character building Rivera does in the first half of the arc pays off and cements America’s place in the Marvel-verse as one of the most powerful female superheroes around.

While America’s solo run ended in April 2018, if you need more, she just joined the West Coast Avengers team in August. My only hesitancy in diving into that series is the difference between how Gabby Rivera writes America Chavez & Kate Bishop in her solo run and how Kelly Thompson who is at the helm of WCA writes them in Kate Bishop’s solo series Hawkeye. Rivera writes America with her queerness in the forefront. I feel like Thompson writes queer characters as if their queerness is the least relevant thing about them, rather than central to the way they move in the world. For me there is an experienced difference as a queer reader and it’s why #ownvoices really does matter. I still enjoy Thompson’s work (it’s very feminist), but not nearly the same way I love Rivera’s.

15 year old Mallarie Chaves wrote to Gabby Rivera about the impact the character America has had on her (her letter is reproduced at the end of Vol 2) and she specifically calls out that they look alike. Representation matters, a lot. While I think the run is clearly aimed at younger women, America’s message, never stop fighting for what you believe in, resonated with me, and I hope you are inspired to pick this comic up.

Mallory Lass reviews Broken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Broken Trails by D Jordan Redhawk cover

Trigger Warnings: Suicide of a minor character (occurs in the past and is recounted), and alcoholism.

Spoilers marked separately at the end.

A gripping adventure romance, set in “Big Sky Country” Alaska at the famous Iditarod dog sledding race, features a swoon worthy protagonist and a driven but out of control (at times) love interest.

Scotch Fuller is the eldest of 4 kids and winning the Iditarod is not only her dream, but her family’s life work. The Fuller family runs and operates a dog racing kennel and dog sledding tourism company. Scotch is hard working, independent, disciplined young woman. Her family is everything to her and they are her biggest cheerleaders. She has a great head on her shoulders and soft butch vibe that will make you weak in the knees.

Laney is a successful nature photographer who just finished a long assignment in Africa. She reluctantly agrees to go on a quick assignment to Alaska as a favor to her friend Ben, a magazine editor. She is physically ill equipped for the Alaskan elements and emotionally blindsided by an up and coming Iditarod star who catches her eye. Laney is dealing with personal baggage that has manifested into a drinking problem.

Scotch has an amazing rookie run to set the stage but the real adventure starts when Laney convinces the magazine (against her own better judgement) to do a series of stories about Scotch’s training for her sophomore run at the Iditarod. Ben agrees, as long as Laney trains to run the race as a rookie. Laney isn’t sure if she wants to go back to Alaska, and Scotch isn’t sure she wants the distraction of training someone. Despite Laney being a decade or so older than Scotch, they both have a lot to teach each other about life and love. The age-gap is mentioned but is not a big part of the story, nor is it a source of consternation.

I really enjoyed this book, and I am definitely not a dog person! Ever since I saw a documentary series on the Iditarod via the discovery channel over a decade ago, the sport has fascinated me. Add a lesbian romance and I was immediately drawn to it. This is a great story for someone who likes long, slow burn romances. At nearly 400 pages you really get the complete Iditarod experience from couch to finish line. Redhawk really makes you feel like you are on the sled with Scotch and Laney, sleep deprived, bitter cold hitting your face, danger at every turn.

Ultimately, I think this story is about laying yourself bare. About finding out that another person can still love you, despite scars, secrets, or shortcomings of character. That is really how Scotch and Laney stole my heart.

***Spoilers***

I am a sucker for letters, and was excited when Don gave the letter to Laney from Scotch when the race started. I was kind of disappointed it took to nearly the end to discover the contents, and given the structure of Scotch being ahead, they were only one sided.

The Tonya storyline was important to Scotch’s growth, but I felt could have been developed a little more before the reveal. It felt like she needed something to be going through, some scar to match Laney’s but it kinda felt dropped in rather than lived in.

The sex scene, the long awaited sex scene, was too short for how late in the book it came. And to fade to black when it was Scotch’s turn to be pleasured just blew the wind out of my sails. Their exchange was emotional, and their speeches at the end nearly made up for it…nearly.

Mallory Lass reviews Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant cover

A semi-autobiographical comic about what a successful queer poly love story can look like and an offering on how one might go about navigating the complicated feelings that can accompany this journey.

Hazel is our main protagonist, a cute and shy nerd who wears her heart on her sleeve. She lives in New York City and works as a comic book artist. She is home in Portland visiting her family over the holidays.

Gregor is a fellow New York City comic artist that Hazel is dating. He is also dating a girl from out of town named Rebecca, and they are set to meet in NYC while Hazel is home in Portland.

Argent is a longtime resident of Portland, experienced in the poly community and also a dominatrix that goes by the name “Hazel Hawthorne”. Argent and Hazel meet at a dance party when she first arrives home and Hazel cannot believe her good fortune.

Over four beautifully illustrated issues, we get to be voyeurs in Hazel’s life as she works through her feelings toward Gregor: jealousy, love, and confusion. Argent becomes Hazel’s guide into polyamory, consensual committed non-monogamy. Over their first date Argent asks Hazel about her boyfriend, Gregor, and also shares about her own long distance relationship of 9 years with fellow comic booker and tattoo artist, Chloe.

Hazel is also on the receiving end of a few pointed but gentle lessons from Argent, like when it’s appropriate to speak about/our someone as a sex worker in public (spoiler alert, never). Hazel figures a lot out about herself, who she wants to be, and how to navigate her romantic relationships moving forward.

This comic is a visual feast. The colors are a mix of pastels and warm oranges and it’s beautiful work you can fall into. The characters are diverse and sexy. Argent is curvy and confident and full of unique style. Other minor queer characters Argent and Hazel interact with over the course of the story are masculine of center, people of color and more.

Despite Gregor (more acurately, Hazel’s feelings about him) being a significant part of the story, the romance captured in these collected issues is focused on Hazel and Argent. I couldn’t be happier with how the story ended, and I hope you check it out. A must have for indy queer comics fans.

Check out a preview of the comic here.

A page from Sugar Town, showing Hazel seeing Argent across the room, hearts in her eyes

Mallory Lass Interviews Elle Spencer

Elle Spencer is finally living her dream job as a romance novelist. She is the author of the best-selling, Goldie-nominated Casting Lacey. Her next release is Unforgettable (Nov 2018) – a collection of two novellas that each start with one-night standsElle and her wife love to travel and split their time between Utah and California. When I caught up with Elle she was enjoying some quality time with her in-laws.

Q: What is something people would never guess about you?

I don’t swear nearly as much as my characters do. According to my sister, I’m not as funny as my characters are either. But she talks with her mouth full, and we all know you can’t trust someone who talks with her mouth full.

Q: You often post hilarious outtakes from your life on twitter. What is the funniest thing to happen to you recently?

When my wife puts her clothes on inside out. It happens more often than you would think, and it absolutely makes my day. One day, I’ll get a picture of it and post it on twitter.

Q: What was the last thing you watched on TV/What TV shows are you into?

We’re finally caught up on The 100 and Handmaid’s Tale, and we just started watching The Americans.

Casting Lacey by Elle Spencer coverQ: Who and/or what has influenced your writing?

My writing is influenced by every book I read and every movie I watch. Did it stir my emotions? Did it keep me spellbound? Great storytelling is what influences me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, song, book or someone’s grandma. If it’s 1 a.m. and I fall asleep mid-story, is it the first thing I think of when I wake up? I love stories that stay with me, and I want to give other people that experience too. 

Q: Your characters always have really cool jobs: high end art dealer, cancer researcher, actresses (who play nurses and lawyers). What kind of research goes into making these characters feel so authentic?

Sometimes I know people who have some knowledge of the world I’m writing about. I had some help on the details around Casting Lacey’s TV shoots and the way actresses think about things. Mostly, though, Google is a wonderful thing. I choose something that interests me and then research it as much as I can and hope I get it right.

Q: Casting Lacey is about to be republished by Bold Stokes Books (August 2018) after you self-published it earlier this year to rave reviews. How has the experience been moving from self-publishing to one of the biggest publishing houses in lesfic?

It’s been an amazing experience. I went to the 2018 GCLS conference as a BSB author and the welcome I received from other BSB authors was incredible. It’s a very supportive group of people, all rooting for each other’s success.

Q: What is your biggest challenge in writing your next book?

Finishing it!

Q: What is your favorite romance trope?

Well, I do love the fake girlfriend trope, which is why I wrote Casting Lacey. I’m also a sucker for second chance romances, which is what my next book is about. I can’t think of a trope I don’t enjoy. As long as there’s a compelling story, interesting characters and a bit of happily ever after, I’m happy.

Unforgettable by Elle Spencer cover

Q: Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?

It’s so important that we LGBTQ people tell our stories, because for so long, no one did. If you have a story inside of you, write it, because odds are someone out there will want to read it. Maybe it will give them a few hours of entertainment or maybe, it will change their lives forever. Don’t assume your words don’t have power. The only time they’re powerless is when you don’t use them.

Q: What is something you enjoy doing other than writing?

One thing? Ha!

I love travelling. Eating great food. Listening to music. Building things. Also, I’m learning about baseball because my wife loves it so much. In fact, I often write about beautiful women while watching baseball players do gross stuff like spit and adjust themselves. It just reinforces my gayness.

Q: What is something sweet or funny or both you have heard from your readers/fans?

I have the best fans in the world. It’s such a huge compliment when a reader takes the time to write a review or send an email or a tweet expressing their appreciation. I recently got a review for Casting Lacey where the woman said she felt like “a wrung out dish rag.” I loved that because to me it meant she was highly invested, and that’s everything.

Q: If you could replicate one meal or dining experience from your past, what would it be?

We went to New York for my birthday a few years ago, and my wife (she wasn’t my wife at the time) took me to this very fancy restaurant called Le Bernardin. The whole experience was special from start to finish. The food was incredible. The service was outstanding. And the company… well, I ended up marrying the company 16 months later, so it must have been pretty good!

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.