Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.

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.

Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Yên is a rural scholar, who offers herself up to a dragon in her mother’s place to repay her village’s debts; Vu Côn is the dragon in question, trying to fix the world that the Vanisher’s destroyed and then abandoned. Together they live in the dangerous Escher-style nightmare that is the Vanishers’ palace, trying to raise Vu Côn’s teenage children and change the nightmare that the Vanishers left this world in.

The world-building is really cool; In the Vanishers’ Palace is set on a world that was modified beyond the inhabitants’ understanding by the Vanishers, who abandoned it when they grew bored – and people are actively trying to fix it. The scale of the problems are huge, and compounded by people like the leaders of Yên’s village, who are power-hungry monsters, but people are still trying, and that is something I need right now. And for all that the story is fantasy, it has science fiction elements woven in really well – yes, Vu Côn’s palace has impossible geometry, nonsensical architecture, and death lurking in every corner, but it also has a library that can just generate books, and a distinctly scifi room for Vu Côn’s patients. Plus, the magic of In The Vanishers’ Palace is language based, and the story gives Yên space to explore what is known about magic and the ways that common understanding isn’t always right made me happy!

The story itself takes the basic premise of Beauty and the Beast and focuses on it as a story of agency and independence. Vu Côn’s arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have valuable knowledge and opinions of their own, and her romance with Yên is explicitly about them negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person starts as a prisoner/employee of the other. Vu Côn’s children are specifically trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what role they can have in this world. And Yên is explicitly finding a role for herself after the danger of her village, where those not deemed “useful” and in danger from the village leaders. I enjoy the ways that motherhood, familial duty, and folklore are also woven into this story as integral threads as well, it really worked!

In conclusion: In The Vanishers’ Palace is the queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t know I needed, and it’s excellent. Definitely recommended.

[This review is based on an ARC from the author.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cover

This is a book that I will be processing for a long time. It is beyond almost anything I’ve read before. I’m not proud to say that I have very little knowledge around ableism and disability activism, which is part of why I picked up Care Work (The other being that Bodymap, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.) This work is about disability justice: disability activism that centres queer and trans black, indigenous, and people of colour. It encourages leadership by the most impacted, people who are experts in ableism and the other interlocking oppressions that they live with every day, and who have spent years fighting a system that works against them. Disability justice sees ableism as intertwined with colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and all of the others ways that bodies are policed and evaluated.

I am having trouble writing this review, because there is so much here to think about. I will muddle through and share some highlights, but I definitely recommend picking this up for yourself.

Care Work is a collection of essays, and it’s packed full of ideas, ranging from theory, history, memoir, advice and tips, and more–that I have to stop frequently to digest it. Here are just a few ideas that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think:

  • Piepzna-Samarasinha refers often to her “bodymind,” which seem to relate the mind as part of the body, an integrated whole–it reminded me of The Body Is Not an Apology, which discusses how policing of the body is a commonality of many types of oppression, including ableism against neurodivergent people.
  • The concept of “crip doulas” to guide disabled people into the community and share resources and tips for navigating the system. This is such a powerful idea, and I see the echo of it in queer communities, where many people would have loved to have a queer elder to provide wisdom in navigating their new identities. This is a beautiful vision of a future where interdependence is celebrated, and community is guaranteed.
  • Care Work talks about Octavia Butler’s books as disability justice narrative, which really made me think about that story in a new light.
  • I love the idea of “prefigurative politics:” acting as if the revolution has already happened. . Spending more time building than attacking, and focusing on power and not powerlessness. I think this is a powerful idea in activism, to not spend all of our time and energy criticizing a terrible system, and instead using some of those resources to build our own networks.
  • I was intrigued by the way that parents are talked about in this text, as not being directly targeted by ableism, but being restricted by much of the same system. Disability justice includes accessibility not just for neurodivergent and disabled people, but also for parents (by making sure that child care is provided).
  • A quotation by Qwo-Li Driskill, which says that one way ableism works is that disabled people “are not even present within the imaginations of a supposedly radical future,” really stuck with me.
  • Care Work does not present a monolith of ideas or opinions. Although these are all essays by Piepzna-Samarasinha, she pulls in works and ideas from other disability justice activists, and details differences in opinions. For instance, she advocates for strong personal networks of care while also recognizing the difficulties in maintaining them, and mentions a friend of hers who explains not wanting to rely on a personal network because she doesn’t want to have to be well-liked in order to use the washroom.

Reading Care Work required me to sit with some discomfort, because it helped me to face my own ableism and try to confront that. It reminded me in how many careless, thoughtless ways I prioritize abled people and fail to consider people whose bodyminds differ from my own. When I came across a mention of the “ugly laws” and looked into them, I was appalled that I had never heard of them, which from the mid-1700s to the 1970s across the United States and other cities and countries around the world made illegal “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view.” This such an obvious and horrific injustice–to dictate which bodies are allowed to be seen in public life–that it is a profound statement to me of how much I have to learn when I didn’t know this basic, crucial piece of history. I am angry at myself for not learning this, but I am also angry that this was never taught to me in my education.

Another takeaway I have from this book is how much disability justice is fighting a world that would be better for every single person. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s love letter to femmes made me think about how everyone should live in a world where we can feel safe and valued no matter what. It made me think of Elana Dykewomon’s quotation:

Almost every womon I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.

It made me think of how that fear is driven by the way we treat the “mad” or “crazy.” About how Piepzna-Samarasinha refers to the “not(yet)-disabled.” I think about all the disabled and neurodivergent people who are being prevented from living their lives, through denial to care and inaccessibility and stigma. And also those people who don’t have a label for who they are, or who hide that idea even from themselves. And the people who are constantly afraid that they are “crazy” or not enough or too much, and that if they are found out they won’t be loved or valued or supported. Disability justice doesn’t have to benefit abled people to be worth supporting, of course, but I am inspired by this movement that is fighting tooth and nail to try to inch towards the future we all should be aspiring to, and am infuriated by the system that counters them at every turn.

In case it isn’t already obvious, this is a powerful, brilliant book. I can imagine it would be life-changing for so many people, and even if it isn’t directly applicable to your own experience, I highly recommend giving it a try and absorbing what you can. I’m grateful that Care Work exists, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

Danika reviews This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

I’m grateful that we are finally starting to get YA (New Adult?) books like this. Queer YA in the last few years has really grown, including having more queer people of colour represented (although there is still much more needed). This Is What It Feels Like is so different from the kind of queer YA that was coming out just 5 or so years ago. It follows three teenage girls who have just graduated from high school. A few years ago, they were inseparable, and they played in a band together. Then, Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, Dia’s boyfriend, who she was just starting to get close with, was killed in a car accident. Weeks after the funeral, Dia finds out she’s pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Hanna and Dia walk away from each other, and Jules sides with Dia. Now, their city is holding a music competition that includes a $15,000 prize, and they just might have a chance to win it–but it means getting the band back together.

Who doesn’t love a “getting the band back together” book, especially when it’s literal? Dia, Jules, and Hanna are all complex people, and the conflicts they have with each other are nuanced and understandable. Dia told Hanna that she couldn’t be around her baby because she couldn’t be trusted–but the real reason they drifted apart was because Dia was terrified to lose anyone else after Elliot died, and it’s the same reason she isn’t dating the boy she’s in love with. Hanna has been sober for over 400 days after going through rehab, but she’s lonely and feels like she can never be good enough for her parents. And Jules is caught in the middle, while she’s also trying to figure out a new relationship while carrying around the damage from her last one.

The three of them have a lot to work through, but I was relieved to see that they do talk about their problems. They air their grievances in a reasonable time frame–this isn’t one of those “Why don’t they just talk??” books where the only conflict is miscommunication. The problem is that they have a lot to work through, and it takes time, and more than just one conversation. They have to keep bumping up against these ghosts from the past and processing it again. I loved the realism of their relationships with each other, which are flawed and difficult, but also are the grounding forces in their lives.

This also has a great f/f romance (and a good m/f romance with Dia, to be fair). Jules meets her new coworker, Autumn and immediately has an all-consuming crush on her. If you’re allergic to instalove, you might not like that, but I think you’ll come around if you stick with it. Autumn has never been attracted to a girl before, so she’s working through that a little bit, but mostly they have an adorable beginning to their relationship. Unfortunately, Jules is working through her own issues: her last relationship was not great, and she’s a little too fixated on trying to have the perfect relationship with grand, romantic gestures instead of concentrating on what’s in front of her. Although they fall for each other quickly, they have to work at their relationship. (I have to share this cute line: “All she could see and feel and think was this girl and maybe she wasn’t really in love yet, but oh, maybe she was.”)

I am gratified to find a YA book with a teen mom where it isn’t the main focus of the book. My sister and my mother both had their first kids young, at 19 and 20 (which isn’t as young as Dia was). They also both went to an excellent school for pregnant teens, so that’s been something I’ve been acutely aware of since I was young. It is a very difficult and challenging thing to do, but it’s nice to see a depiction of a teen mom who is balancing raising her kid with school and being herself. Like Dia, my sister lived at home when my niece was young, and we all helped out. I liked seeing Dia able to be a young mom who still was pursuing her dreams and planning for her future.

I highly recommend this to anyone. I appreciated how layered and complex the relationships all are here, and I felt like I really got to know Hanna, Jules, and Dia. There’s also, of course, the thread of music running through, which is what they are all passionate about, so there’s another entry point into this story. Also, there’s an adorable toddler who is a fan of a dog named Waffles, so what more could you want? Of course, this whole review is for naught, because you should all be picking it up based on that gorgeous cover alone.

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.

Babusha reviews Falling Into Place by Sheryn Munir

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir cover

HALLELUJAH !HALLELUJAH! THERE IS AN INDIAN LESBIAN ROMANCE NOVEL!!!

First of all, this review will contain rapturous joy on just the existence of such a book. It may even be half of this review and to everyone who points this out to me, deal with it idc.

In the last year or so, India has made such amazing strides when it comes to LGBTQ issues. First of all the Supreme Court stated homosexuality is a fundamental right and then within months legalized it by striking down the old colonial rule that originally deemed it illegal, Section 377. So for me, reading this novel written by a native Indian author with such genuinely compelling writing and relatable characters was the best chocolate chip cookie on the side of a piping hot brownie with vanilla ice cream cheesecake that was the last year.

Okay rapture over, to the review.

After a super unconventional meet-cute involving an actual car hijack in the streets of Delhi, Sameen Siddiqui and Tara Dixit become carpool and foodie buddies. Tara, who is my kind of introverted and cynical lesbian is initially is a little standoffish, mostly because Sameen is too cute and sweet to not have a crush on and unfortunately also too seemingly straight for it not to go wrong.

Sheryn Munir does such a vivid job of describing and showing Delhi around- both from a native Tara’s eyes and also from the Bangalorean Sameen’s using both locations and food. Honestly, Falling into Place uses food in such an intersecting way–like a connecting string and aesthetic between the two characters; it’s almost like a third protagonist of the story. Also, like most desis, I have a special place in our heart for North-South Indian romances and this book is definitely no exception.

As an Indian, in most LGBTQ romance novels I’ve ever read that are centered on Indian or Middle Eastern communities, the elephant in the room is the shadow of physical danger due to a backwards law. The level of fear and cynicism that comes with living under such a law is both realistic and a trope present in this book as well.  Tara’s cynicism has marred her romantic past and also creates obstacles in her initial friendship. But the story does a great job of also deconstructing Tara’s fear when she realizes she has fallen in love with Sameen. She is afraid–of heartbreak, of life-changing love-as are we all.

I swear this book is like every single one of my fave Hayley Kiyoko songs.

Relatable and empathetic characters in a familiar setting with cute and light humour, Sheryn Munir tells a story using all my catnip–grounded, flawed character with a ‘disaster run away’ setting at pretty girls near them lol, a joyfully familiar setting and a story that is grounded in its characters and their personal journey rather than of the struggles and oppressions of the outside world bring with it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that!

Four stars all around!

Please note: This does involve “toaster-oven- converting the straight girl” plot-line.

Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Quinn Jean reviews The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee cover

[Warning: this review contains plot spoilers and discussions of violence and bigotry depicted in the novel; namely major characters experience misogyny, racism and homophobia in 18th century European and North African settings. Also this book is a sequel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue so beware default spoilers for that book too].

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the treat it is due to the three main women at the centre of the novel. Felicity Montague is a well-travelled young white noblewoman in 18th century England who is in exile from her wealthy family and desperately trying to find a school or mentor who will let her train to be a doctor. Of course her gender precludes her admittance to anywhere in the country, or even Europe, despite the fact that Felicity is fiercely committed, highly intelligent, and hardworking. She is led to team up with Sim, a mysterious young black sailor travelling with mutual friends who offers to help Felicity pursue a promising opportunity that’s in continental Europe. Sim has the tenacity to match Felicity’s and both women acknowledge and appreciate the other’s intelligence and individuality. Rounding out the trio is Felicity’s childhood friend, Johanna, a fellow white European noblewoman who loves feminine fashions and frippery as much as studying natural sciences, though her family values her only as someone to marry off. All three of these women exemplify strength, cunning, kindness, creativity and intelligence, and their burgeoning respect for each other, and subsequent friendships, are nuanced and gorgeous.

Sim is a black Muslim woman from Algiers who identifies as attracted to women while Felicity decides she doesn’t like romance with anybody, though she loves her friends passionately. Both women, but particularly the former, are important and beautiful representations in a story set in a colonial 18th century world, and both the WLW and ace/aro themes are very sensitively portrayed. No one meets a grisly end due to their sexual orientation but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of high stakes and adventure, and it’s refreshing that having the one doesn’t mean sacrificing the other. The heroines travel through no less than five or six countries in the course of the book, and have encounters with pirates, dragons, mercenaries, cannon blasts, and menstrual blood stains on ballgowns (surely more terrifying than anything else on that list). The novel consistently feels breathless and urgent while never rushing through plot points and the high stakes always feel legitimate when the women are fighting for what they want and need. The central bond between the three main characters is most of what grounds the action and provides deeper resonance than just a fun “swords-crossed, indignant damsel” sort of caper.

Petticoats is a great book because the women get to drive their own stories, both by being the focus of the book in the first place and because they take charge of their destinies within the narrative. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking that two of these women, at least, are also not straight and this side of their identities is included as an important part of their arcs, but it is. And Sim and several other characters of colour in the story, in addition to multiple disabled characters, are further very welcome evidence that period pieces have no excuse to be exclusively white, male, straight and abled when it is historically accurate and incredibly simple to include diversity. A sequel portraying more of Sim’s adventures on the high seas, with or without Felicity and Johanna, would be another stellar contribution to historical fiction about WLW.