Sam reviews Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

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I don’t want to spoil too much about Burning Roses by S.L. Huang, because first and foremost it is short. It is a proper novella, clocking in at just over 150 pages long. If you can get your hands on this little volume, I recommend you slap on some sunscreen and take it out to a nice park bench for an hour or two. That’s what I did, and I had a lovely time with it.

Burning Roses asks the question, “what if Little Red Riding Hood and the mythic archer Hou Yi were traumatized, middle-aged lesbians?” World-weary and with most of their stories already behind them, Rosa (Riding Hood’s actual name) and Hou Yi are practically the only characters in this book, and spend most of it slowly teasing out of each other just how badly they’ve messed up their own lives. I found both characters fairly compelling pretty quickly, and I didn’t have any trouble turning pages to see more of them. The worldbuilding is slightly less strong; set in a fairy-tale version of Europe and China, Huang mixes vague but evocative fantasy staples like sorcery and rampaging monsters with the more specific novum of grundwirgen, talking animals or human-animal shapeshifters that stand in for all Grimm- and Lang-style bestial characters. Thankfully, the book just isn’t long enough for this mismatch of specificity to become jarring.

In that respect, the length of Burning Roses does a lot of work both for and against it. I got the feeling that if it were longer, Huang might have been tempted to spiral out into unnecessary worldbuilding, where instead what we got is really all we need to serve the story. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be rereading Burning Roses for the thrill of experiencing the arc of Rosa’s romance again. Not that it wasn’t heartfelt, it certainly was—but in a slightly shorthanded, “you lesbians reading know the feeling” kind of way. What stood out to me most, however, is that there really isn’t a single chapter—or even a paragraph—out of place in this book. It’s been edited down to a strong, streamlined story; fantastical for sure, but with the very human issues of self-deception and the difficult working of making amends at its core.

When something like that comes along in such a quick and easy package, how could I not recommend it?

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

Kelleen Reviews Three Novellas to Marathon This Summer

Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant

the cover of Caroline’s Heart

I read Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant for the first time this month and it blew my mind. It’s a queer trans historical western fantasy novella and it’s just so GOOD. I don’t read a lot of fantasy and I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I love a queer historical, so I jumped in with both feet. I don’t want to give too much away, but it follows a bi trans witch who’s trying to resurrect her lost lover and the bi trans cowboy who has her lover’s heart in his chest. And then, they fall in love. The stakes are so high, the world building is so precise, and the romance is so addictive. It’s tender and raw and absolutely electrifying. It’s the perfect Pride read for historical and fantasy lovers alike!

Representation: bi trans heroine, bi trans hero, bi trans author

Content warnings: death of a loved one, blood, violence

Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Can't Escape Love

Alyssa Cole writes the most dynamic, diverse, relatable romance worlds and this little novella is no different. The fourth in her Reluctant Royals series, this novella follows Reggie, the badass CEO of the nerdy girl media empire Girls with Glasses and the video creator she used to have an internet crush on. When Reggie’s insomnia has made it impossible for her to keep working, she turns desperately to Gus, whose puzzling livestreams are the only thing that ever soothed her enough to fall asleep. And then, they fall in love. Reggie never actually names her identity on page, but she’s polysexual of some kind. She is also a wheelchair user. Both Reggie and Gus are neurodivergent and the way their brains work together is so lovely. These two understand each other better than anyone else does and they make something so beautiful together. The book is sexy and smart and nerdy and hilarious and absolutely delightful. Alyssa Cole is always a must-read, but this novella is EXCELLENT, and perfect for the second half of your Pride TBR.

Representation: queer, neurodivergent, wheelchair using Black heroine, neurodivergent, Vietnamese-American hero, queer, neurodivergent, Black author

Content warnings: roofies (off-page, mentioned), discussion of hospital stays

Wherever is Your Heart by Anita Kelly

the cover of Wherever Is Your Heart

Anita Kelly has given us a gift for us in the Moonies series, a series of novellas that center around a queer karaoke bar. This one, the third and final in the series, is sapphic and is my favorite of the lot. It’s a soft novella about blue collar soft butch lesbians in their late 40s, early 50s who are ready to settle down and fall in love and I love it with everything that I am. And then, they fall in love. I don’t really know how to describe it, but this book is about soft butches but it also feels like it IS a soft butch? Like it’s an embodiment of soft butchness in book form. It’s so tender and gentle and beautiful. The book takes place during Pride at a karaoke bar so now’s the perfect time to read it! My predominant feeling when reading an Anita Kelly book is warmth—I feel warm and safe and seen and celebrated, and what more could you want from Pride?

Representation: middle aged, plus sized, butch lesbian heroines, chronic pain, nonbinary author

Content warnings: Drunk driving, alcoholism, death of parent, weed

Sometimes, in my life existing as a twenty-something butchish queer disabled woman and experiencing different aspects of my community online and in the world, I worry that I am not cool and hip and irreverent enough. And sometimes, this makes me feel not only like I’m not connected to my community but that I have no business calling it my community. But all three of these books never fail to remind me that queer people are also silly and awkward and quiet (I’m not quiet) and soft and nerdy and dramatic and complicated, and that there is not one acceptable way to be queer.

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

Danika reviews Spear by Nicola Griffith

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The first book I read by Nicola Griffith was Hild, a 560 page (for the first book in the trilogy) meticulously-researched historical fiction title that left me feeling like I was wandering through a dense fog of unfamiliar names and terms–and yet, it was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down. So although this is a standalone novella, I went in feeling a little bit intimidated.

That instinct wasn’t wrong: I was immediately confronted with Welsh people and place names I’ve never seen before, as well as vocabulary I’m not familiar with. This is a retelling of the Arthur legends, so if you’re more familiar with these stories (or with Welsh words!), you’ll probably be less lost than I was in that first chapter.

Still, I knew that I would be rewarded for hanging with it, and I definitely was. Reading Griffith’s books feels like an intellectual expansion for me: it’s clear how carefully she considers her words and how deeply the setting is researched. While that can feel like a barrier to get into it, it also means that there is so much depth and richness to the story, which more than makes up for me stumbling through the first chapter or so.

This follows an unnamed (at least, at first) main character raised in isolation, closely connected to nature, who disguises herself as a man and sets off to become a knight of King Artos’s court. This is a lofty goal for a girl in scavenged armor riding a bony horse, but she knows it’s her destiny. While she is assumed to be a man by most people she meets and she does sleep with women (who know she’s a woman), at first, this isn’t a major part of the story–but it only gets more queer as it goes.

She’s a fascinating character who has a synergistic relationship with nature: she has reflexes and senses that are beyond what humans are normally capable of because of it, which is what allows her to slowly make her way closer to the possibility of being one of the chosen few knights of Artos.

While I enjoyed the whole book, I thought the section that takes place at King Artos’s court is the most interesting. There, we learn about (spoiler) the Lancelot character’s relationship with both the Guinevere and Arthur characters. (end spoiler) Our main character also begins to question deeply for the first time her destiny, her upbringing, and her instincts. She enters this space feeling confident in herself, but she begins to wonder if she should feel ashamed, if she is somehow “unclean”. (Which not really about homophobia, aside from the metaphor.) There’s also an enthralling love story with a woman intertwined with her destiny.

This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that made me gasp out loud as I read it. I’m not usually an expressive reader, so that was a surprise. This novella is precisely plotted, both building up an expansive world and mythology while moving through a lean story that deserves its own spot among the most renowned Arthur legends. It feels timeless, but also has a depth that makes these people feel real and relatable.

I enjoyed reading the afterword, where the author both lays out her substantial research into the setting while also delighting in being able to create a mishmash of many different Arthur stories–with her own queer twist, of course. She describes how this is the great tradition of Arthur stories: they are all essentially fan fiction, remixing the versions that came before. Though Griffith borrows elements from many other stories, this narrative stands alone, feeling cohesive and layered, even if you (like me) don’t recognize the references or inspirations. (Oh, and I didn’t even mention the handful of gorgeous illustrations throughout!)

This is a small book that packs a big punch, and I was surprised how moved I was by the love story, considering that romance didn’t play much of a role for the first section of the book. I am definitely now on board for anything Griffith writes, and I can’t wait to explore her backlist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just read her Writer’s Manifesto, and I’ll be off fanning my face for a bit.

Til reviews Take Me Home by Lorelei Brown

the cover of Take Me Home

In Take Me Home, Keighley answers an ad offering a fake date for Thanksgiving, hoping to annoy her Conservative aunt. Thus she meets Brooke: a confident, outgoing, snarky tattoo artist to whom Keighley is immediately attracted. What starts as a single fake date escalates to enjoying one another’s company, caring for a hurt puppy, and intimacy—both physical and emotional.

I decided to give myself something of a new experience this month and try reading a romance. It’s a genre I have consistently avoided, in part due to a perceived prevalence of toxic tropes, in part because I struggle to feel engaged with the low-stakes question of whether two people will continue to date one another.

Take Me Home is a novella, with story beats hit so quickly they’re almost perfunctory. For someone not overly engaged with this sort of narrative, that was perfect. Yet, I think romance fans might enjoy this as well. Yes, the story moves quickly, but Keighley and Brooke are distinct characters with genuine chemistry and nice banter. The two bond over some casual things like dogs, and some deeper things, like their beliefs. I believed their interest in one another came from a real place.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, quick romance between two characters with genuine chemistry, with a cute puppy thrown in. Romance fans may want more—but as it’s part of a series, they’ll know where to go next. It didn’t make a convert out of me, but I found the read pleasant all the same.

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!

Cath reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

the cover of The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

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The Cybernetic Tea Shop has been one of my comfort reads for years now, one of those stories I can reread over and over. Clara Gutierrez is a technician for Raises — small, animal-shaped robotic companions with a limited range of intelligence and emotions. She doesn’t like settling down in one place, choosing instead to move on frequently, with her only consistent companion her own Raise, a hummingbird called Joanie. On a whim, she decides to move to Seattle.

In Seattle is Sal — a robot, which are specifically differentiated from Raises because of their developmental AI that makes them truly sapient. While the creation of robots has been illegal for quite a long time because of the ethical conundrums they present, Sal predates the law, as she is almost three hundred years old. Her owner purchased her to help with running a tea shop, but passed away years before the story takes place. Sal has continued running the tea shop, clinging to her memories of her owner Karinne.

Clara visits the tea shop at the suggestion of a new coworker, and she and Sal eventually become friends. After a while, Clara also offers to try and help Sal with mechanical problems she’s been having, and with that and Clara helping support Sal after the tea shop is vandalized, their friendship progresses to something different. Both Clara and Sal are asexual, though, and Sal is extremely grateful that she won’t be asked to provide sexual gratification for someone when she doesn’t want or need it herself.

The story is quite short, but it is so cozy and comforting, and it feels like coming home every time I return to it. Most of the story is tightly focused on Clara and Sal and their emerging relationship, which makes sense for a short story, but it’s also clear from their interactions with others that they are cherished parts of other people’s lives. The storyline is fairly straightforward, but definitely makes you think about the way we treat others who are different, even though we in our present day don’t have sapient robots in the world. Sal’s shop is vandalized, she faces discrimination both legal and personal on a regular basis — these are things that real people in our daily lives experience, even though they aren’t sapient robots, and stories like this can help us examine how we react to those real-life stories when we encounter them.

There’s also a big emphasis on memory and how it impacts us as we move forward, and what it means when memory starts to fail. As I am currently going through a family member’s experience with losing memories, this hits harder than it used to, but the calm seriousness with which the story treats it makes it feel like a hug.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago, when there were even fewer books with asexual protagonists than there are now. I likely would have enjoyed the story even if the protagonists were not both explicitly asexual (while the word is not used, they both describe themselves as not feeling sexual desire), but their asexuality is definitely one of the things that keeps bringing me back to this book. As with the use of the story to cover difficult topics in ways that make you think, the presence of asexual characters also makes me feel seen, as if I am also a part of the world.

I know I’ll come back to The Cybernetic Tea Shop many times in the future, as I have many times in the past, and I look forward to it every time.

Rating: 5 stars

Content warnings: discrimination, vandalism, sex that was technically consented to but was not wanted (in the past)

Kayla Bell reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

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Have you ever wished for a sapphic romance that isn’t all about angst and homophobia and actually focuses on the development and drama of the characters? Look no further, because Alyssa Cole’s excellent novella Once Ghosted, Twice Shy has you covered. This entry into the Reluctant Royals universe follows Prince Thabiso’s assistant, Likotsi, as she navigates a romantic relationship with another woman, Fabiola. It’s a second chance romance full of tropes, but the genuine connection between Likotsi and Fab makes it truly unique. 

A lot of people might avoid this book because it takes place as part of the Reluctant Royals series, so they might not want to read this without having read the first book. I can safely say that this is nothing to worry about. I haven’t gotten to A Princess in Theory yet (it’s on my list) and I could totally keep up with the story. Reading the first book will obviously give you a little bit of background into Likotse’s life and make the story richer, but you definitely can read this as a standalone and keep up. 

The best part about this novella, in my opinion, is the characters. Likotsi’s type-A, methodical mindset plays well against Fabiola’s more go-with-the-flow type personality. The banter between the two women was lively, natural, and fun to read. Personally, I love the second chance romance trope, so I thought the ups and downs of the relationship were very fun to read. As with most romance novels, I found the love at first sight, conflict, and lack of communication at some points in the novel to be pretty irritating, but that part resolved quickly and the two ladies returned to their healthy, loving relationship. I also thought that Fabiola’s plotline was very authentic and relatable. I won’t spoil it, but it rang very true for me as someone who has been through something similar. Overall, it is so fantastic to see a book come out about a loving relationship between two queer, Black women, rich characters, that isn’t about trauma or angst. 

Another thing that was really fantastic about this novel was the setting. I’m born and raised in New York City, so I can be pretty particular about books that portray New York in an extremely romanticized and unrealistic way, or that paint New York as some sort of Disneyland for other people to come to and pursue their dreams without examining the lives and struggles of those of us actually from there. Luckily, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy does none of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very fun, romantic moments at iconic places in the city in this book. But Cole’s New York felt incredibly authentic and alive. Far from using New York as a generic stand-in for any major urban area, as many romances do, in this book it was like this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. Plus, Fab and Likotsi end up at the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, which is one of my favorite places in the city. 

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy surprised me with how rich of a story it told in just ten chapters and an epilogue. I immediately became invested in Likotsi and Fabiola’s love story, and felt that warm, fuzzy feeling where most other romances make me roll my eyes. In the future, I will definitely be picking up more of Alyssa Cole’s romances and commend her for writing a book highlighting the experiences of two characters who wouldn’t often get the spotlight. 

Larkie reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Til reviews Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones follows twins Jacqueline and Jillian down an impossible staircase they find in a trunk in the attic. The staircase leads them to the Moors, a world of magic and horror, where the girls avoid werewolves and drowned gods. The Moors is a place these two unusual girls can find a home—but it’s a dangerous place, too, and that’s a very dangerous thing to forget.

It’s a quick read with sharp, distinct characters and lyrical prose that uses familiar figures and concepts in unique ways. The world feels very real. Seanan McGuire has a way of outlining just the right details that the imagery feels complete. I don’t know if this world has constellations. Like Jack and Jill, I would be too distracted by the huge, dripping ruby of a moon. The Moors is a world of horrors, werewolves, and vampires, and the humans that make up the bulk of their diet. Meanwhile, the doctor who revives the dead with lightning energy is a hulking figure with a scar around his neck. That made me laugh, a play on the common misconception that Frankenstein is the monster.

It’s also a world made up of people. Characters act in ways real people would. A well-meaning gesture by the protagonist might be harshly denied because a one-scene character has a sharper understanding of the consequences. Main characters can be thoughtless, vain, or impulsive. That level of flaw and nuance keeps the story feeling grounded despite the fantasy setting.

This is an almost incidentally queer book in a very meta way. The underlying concept of the series is that each child’s other world is their home. It isn’t always easy, but they can belong there. A queer girl like Jack wouldn’t feel at home in a world that rejected an essential part of her. I found it refreshing that Jack’s sexuality was a realization for her but never a reveal or a problem. Sometimes it’s nice that a girl can have a girlfriend without fuss being made.

The second book in the Wayward Children series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones can be read before or after Every Heart a Doorway, but I wouldn’t recommend reading only one. The ending will hit you like a sledgehammer.

Maggie reviews Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar

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Stone and Steel is a Black, queer fantasy novella by Eboni Dunbar that follows Aaliyah, General of Titus, as she returns home from conquering the southern lands in the name of the Queen. It should be a time of triumph for her, a homecoming after years of fighting and a reunion with her girlfriend, the Queen. But Aaliyah returns to find that the Queen, rather than fulfilling the promises she made the people and Aaliyah, has followed in the footsteps of the King they deposed and funneled all the kingdom’s money, magic, and power upwards for her own benefit, leaving the people worse off than they were before. Aaliyah has to grapple with her past and present relationships, her duty to the people, and her future path to set things right. I really enjoyed the premise of this novella, and I enjoyed Aaliyah as a character who struggled to chance her own circumstances and who is now struggling to correct her mistakes, but who is incredibly competent at her job and inspires loyalty among her troops. I also always enjoy fantasy where being queer is just a state of being and not one of the problems – sometimes you want to battle homophobia but sometimes you just want to battle the monarchy.

However, this novella is filled with perplexing relationships. Aaliyah rose out of poverty to depose a King and become a great general, and she has a complex web of relationships in both the palace and the streets. Aaliyah had no inkling that her longtime lover, Odessa, would prove to be a terrible queen, even though what we see of her memories makes it seem that she hasn’t changed much from childhood. There is the added difficulty that everyone sees them as sisters for some reason, even though they are not actually related, a detail that seemed added just to give the rest of the characters a chance to react to pseudo-incest. Aaliyah also reconnects with a former lover who is runs a crime syndicate, Mercedes, for help deposing Odessa, who we are introduced to while she is torturing someone. Aaliyah’s background as an orphan and the relationships she made on the streets are built up, but the reveals about her family make these circumstances seem suspect. I feel like additional length would have helped flesh out these relationships and make character motivations clearer, especially giving Aaliyah more depth and giving more emotional weight to the story.

The length also does not help what wants to be a fully fledged elemental magic system but is instead only seen in tantalizing glimpses. The details were good – I love that Stone mages create the city walls, for example. When Odessa and Aaliyah overthrew the old King they changed the ruling element as well as the actual ruler. I would like to see more of the kingdom’s relationships with its neighbors and with its own magic system. Aaliyah is successful as a general in spite of her lack of magic, which is a great detail, and there is the sense that she struggled hard to make herself a success to keep people from looking down on her. I would love to see the dynamics of magic and non-magic users in more detail than a novella permits.

In conclusion, there’s a lot to like about this novella. It’s Black, it’s queer, there’s a lot of tantalizing details. I love a main character who is a woman general and succeeding as someone without magic in a magical world. But the novella length hamstrings it, and there’s a sense that it is trying to cram itself into a box that’s not meant for it. I think I would have preferred this sat in development for a while to cook some more, but if you’re looking for Black queer fantasy, there’s enjoyment to be had and lots of ideas to think about. I would definitely read more from this author in the future.