Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Emily Joy reviews Nottingham by Anna Burke

Nottingham by Anna Burke

“They will remember when Nottingham’s daughters rose up against you when no one else dared.”

Let’s talk about medieval queer women. Okay, actually, let’s talk about Nottingham by Anna Burke. This is the fourth lesbian Robin Hood retelling I’ve read, and I think this one is my favorite. All of them had some things I liked, and others that I didn’t. Nottingham is no exception. What I loved most about this particular retelling was the effort the author made to represent medieval queer women as they may have really lived and felt.

For me, I feel it’s a disservice to our LGBTQ ancestors to represent them in a contemporary fashion that doesn’t reflect the actual realities of their lives in historical context. I have a hard time with queer historical fiction that invents or overwrites queer history rather than representing it. Of course, other readers may feel that there’s too much sorrow in the past and prefer to read fiction that is more optimistic and uplifting. I get that! I think Anna Burke understands as well, and Nottingham walks a fine line between representing queer history and also providing a positive, hopeful, and mostly believable narrative for these historic and fictional characters.

I have previously researched queer women in the middle ages, and there are several passages that reference specific medieval beliefs and practices concerning homosexuality. It was exciting for me to read those parts and sit up and think, “I know this reference!”

Here’s one familiar reference that I was particularly excited to find:

“[E]veryone knew that women needed stimulation to prevent suffocation of the womb. Unmarried women could seek out a midwife to do the job for them until they could find a husband.”

I loved how much effort Burke put into her research as it relates to queer women in the medieval period. I did feel, however, that it fell slightly short in the overall representation of medieval women on the whole. Often, this book fell into the familiar misconceptions that women were relegated to an upper room to embroider or weave and wait to be sold off into an advantageous marriage. The plot heavily leans on this stereotype of women being helpless chattel and sometimes it acts as the primary influence for character decisions. It was disappointing to find a lack of representation of real historical women, especially when the research into queer history was so apparent. Of course, medieval women were not afforded the same rights that women are today, but they were also respected and powerful persons in their households and in society.

I love talking about history, but let’s talk about the story too!

Nottingham creates a truly original Robin Hood retelling, including some classic scenes, but also incorporates original and exciting content. When we meet Robyn she lives with her brother and sister-in-law in Nottingham. Together they struggle to make ends meet until things take a turn for the worse, and the only way forward in which Robyn can support her family is to turn outlaw. Gathering a group of other outlaws and fugitives, they work together to bring justice to Nottingham.

Robyn’s group is wonderfully queer and full of LGBTQ characters, including Little John, who is a trans man. At first, I was nervous about how the narrative would treat a trans character in a medieval setting, but I found it to be gracefully done and didn’t have any issues with it. It’s so much fun to read about a gang of LGBTQ outlaws fighting against the system! By recasting the story, it gained a little more social relevance in our contemporary world, as well as making for a fun read.

Without spoiling it, I want to add that Robyn’s character is primarily driven by a desire for revenge, and the progression of her goals in this book is excellent. I absolutely loved seeing her grow and develop throughout this book.

Elsewhere in the story, we have Marian, the sheriff’s daughter. As an interesting contrast between our two main characters, Robyn is well-aware that she is a lesbian and very comfortable with her attraction for women, but Marian is the opposite. Her story follows her experiences as she explores her newly recognized attraction to women. Although coming out stories are plentiful in LGBTQ fiction, I think the historical context offered through Marian’s perspective was both interesting and necessary to create a believable medieval social landscape. It might be a difficult read for some as she works through her religious beliefs and internalized shame. This section also includes some self-harm, so please read carefully if that is a difficult topic for you. But fear not! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Marian’s journey does not end in heartache.

In fact, I spent much of the book really rooting for and eagerly awaiting the inevitable meet-cute between Robyn and Marian. I haven’t been as invested in a couple while reading in a long time, and this one was a real pleasure. Their relationship is subtle and takes time to develop, which gave me plenty of time to become truly invested. It was exciting to see them get to know each other and begin working together as the story progressed. It certainly helped matters that I’m a sucker for the trope of a love interest being somehow off-limits to the other, and casting Marian as the sheriff’s daughter provides a special brand of friction and drama that I enjoyed.

If you’re looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, I can wholeheartedly recommend Nottingham as your very first stop. While I’m disappointed that medieval women as a whole were so harshly stereotyped, the relationships and historically sensitive LGBTQ representation were enough to make me love this book despite a few misgivings. It has earned the number one spot on my list of lesbian Robin Hood retellings.

If you’re interested in reading up on LGBTQ medieval history during Pride Month, check out this resource page on medievalists.net, one of my favorite online resources for medieval history.

Emily Joy reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

Marian by Ella Lyons

Trigger warning for sexual assault

Marian by Ella Lyons is the very first lesbian Robin Hood retelling I read back in 2017, and I thought it was time to share my thoughts, after reviewing two other retellings for the Lesbrary. This book spurred me into reading as many lesbian Robin Hood novels as I could find, searching for the ideal book for me. Marian was the perfect place to start that search and promised a female Robin Hood and a lesbian romance.

Marian Banner is a young girl of fourteen, living in a small village where her father is revered for his earned position as a knight in King John’s retinue. As her father ascends in his position, Marian and her father move to Nottingham, where Marian meets Robin, a girl who dreams of becoming a knight and serving the king. The two quickly become friends, and after a short time begin to have deeper feelings for each other.

As a Robin Hood retelling, this novella acts as more of a prequel, and we see Robin and Marian develop into the heroes we’ve heard about in childhood. The familiar characters are few, limited to only Marian, Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, and King John. (Typically, Robin Hood stories are set during King Richard’s reign, and John is still a prince. However, Marian is set after John has become King.) Notably, there is no Sheriff of Nottingham, and most of the Merry Men are not present either.

Rather than historical fiction, I think this book is best enjoyed as historical fantasy. The “historical” elements of this book stop with the names of the previous and current king. I don’t think the book suffers from this, however. Without the weight of being historical fiction, we are given two young queer girls who can freely determine their sexuality without the constraints of medieval society. Robin is forthright about her lack of desire for a husband, and Marian at once recognizes that she is the same.

Marian looked at [Robin] in surprise. It was something she’d long thought but never articulated; taking a husband sounded ridiculous. So many of the girls in Abyglen talked constantly of finding husbands and making babies, but to Marian it seemed like such an absurdity.

Without the limits of history, neither of the two girls ever express apprehension because of their attraction to each other, and the two have a very sweet adolescent romance, which is a pleasure to read. Several people around them even pick up on their attraction and are secretly pleased and supportive.

The only slightly odd thing about their young romance is that Robin and Marian kiss for the first time while bathing naked in a river, at the ages of fifteen (Robin) and fourteen (Marian), which feels a bit young.Shortly after this encounter, they are separated for three years, due to outside circumstances, and Part One of the book finishes.

Part Two begins when they reunite as older, more mature teenagers. Marian has learned how to use her femininity and place in court to her advantage and to the advantage of the poor, to whom she brings food, medicine, and money regularly. Meanwhile, Robin has achieved her dream, and will soon become a knight.

The problem for me is that I don’t understand who the target audience is for this book. While Part One makes up the book’s majority and feels very much aimed at younger readers, the second part of the book, which is much shorter, contains more graphic and mature content.

Marian is (somewhat graphically) sexually assaulted, and the same man physically abuses her. She also suffers verbal abuse, and he calls her a “whore”, and falsely accuses her of “fucking the knights in their beds”. While this kind of content certainly has its place in literature, I felt it was out of place in what otherwise felt like a middle-grade book.

I also didn’t appreciate Robin’s treatment of Marian in Part Two. When they meet again, grown up and much changed, Robin is very cold and cruel to Marian, because of a misunderstanding, and because she doesn’t approve of Marian’s new lifestyle. Robin’s treatment of Marian is not resolved until the very end, and the resolution made me uncomfortable in its execution.

Part One felt much younger, both because of the characters’ ages and the writing style. Part Two is much more obviously YA. These two vastly different types of story left me confused. I enjoyed both but having a more concentrated narrative in one style or the other might have made for a smoother reading experience.

In the end, I’m on the fence for this book. If you’re looking for a historically inclined Robin Hood retelling, or medieval historical fiction with a lesbian relationship… this is not it. If you want a sweet historical fantasy with two girls falling in love, give this a try! It’s short and sweet, and a quick read.

Emily Joy reviews Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane

Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane cover

Another lesbian Robin Hood retelling has arrived on the scene of my favorite niche. Usually, my Kindle does a poor job making recommendations for me, but in this particular instance, it was absolutely correct in advertising this book to me. As a self-professed amateur Robin Hood scholar and enthusiast, anything that combines my favorite English myth with queer ladies is something that I will read. My congratulations to my Kindle for its successful marketing algorithm.

In Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane, Robyn of Locksley flees into Sherwood Forest after the Sheriff of Nottingham wrongfully takes her family’s manor and lands for himself. Disguising herself as a boy, she joins an outlaw gang and soon leads them into a new charitable cause. Meanwhile, Marian is an agent and spy for Queen Eleanor, keeping an eye on the Sheriff and Prince John and their doings in Nottingham. Together, the two young women work to help the queen acquire the funds to pay King Richard’s ransom, and stand against those who would use the poor for their own benefit.

This book is fairly straightforward as far as Robin Hood retellings go. Which is to say that it doesn’t act like a prequel or stray too far from the basic premise of the traditional story preserved in popular imagination: Robyn and her band of outlaws rob from the rich and give to the poor, Maid Marian is Robyn’s lady love, their chief enemies are the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, and they are staunchly supportive of King Richard the Lionheart. If anyone is looking for a traditional Robin Hood novel with lesbians, this one will probably satisfy.

While it is traditional, it also does some new and interesting things with the story. I particularly enjoyed how Marian acted as a political spy for Queen Eleanor. She definitely had her own agency and a role to play within the story. Not only did she help provide information as a spy, but she also had parts in the bigger moments of action. I liked that Marian was allowed to play a feminine role, while still being involved and important in the action and plot. Often in more recent Robin Hood retellings, Marian’s character tends to be cast into the “not like other girls” category so she can be “one of the boys” instead. While that isn’t always a bad thing, I definitely enjoyed a Marian who used her status and power as a woman to her own advantage and the advantage of her cause.

Robyn and Marian’s relationship moves quickly, and although I would have enjoyed a bit of build-up, I liked that they are established as lovers early in the story. It makes room for the more politically-minded plot to take its course without being too encumbered by the romance.

There were times that the writing didn’t feel very polished. Some run-on sentences were clunky enough to disrupt my reading flow, and the research often felt extremely one-note, without much depth. But in my years-long pursuit of a good lesbian Robin Hood retelling… I forgave it.

Speaking of research, historical anachronisms somewhat deterred the overall more historical feel of this book. Notably, during a scene where Catholic Mass is being said, the characters use the post-Vatican II English Mass. I was raised Catholic, so the call-and-response on the page was almost laughably echoed in my head in perfect cadence, even though I haven’t been to church in years. I did find it very odd though, that this scene used English, rather than Latin, as it would have been in this time period. It also felt odd that the scene took a few pages to go through the service step by step, describing each significant part, despite not having any obvious connection to the plot. It felt like I took a break from the story and went to church.

Later, in the book Robyn goes through the process of trying to find equilibrium between her Catholic faith and her relationship with Marian. I think having religious LGBTQ characters is definitely important, but I did not expect to find it in Heart of Sherwood, and perhaps that is why I found the scenes dealing with Robyn’s internal struggle with religion more of a distraction than anything else. Despite any of my own misgivings, I do think that it resulted in a very positive portrayal of someone who can both be gay and still feel valid and accepted in their chosen religion.

Overall, I’m happy to recommend this book to anyone looking for a lesbian Robin Hood retelling. Although slightly clunky at times, it was a solid retelling with some particularly nice additions. It’s not going to earn a rank among my favorite Robin Hood retellings overall, but it’s definitely a wonderful addition to the growing number of lesbian Robin Hood books out there. I enjoyed this!

Mary reviews Cinders by Cara Malone

Cinders by Cara Malone

Since she first moved to Grimm Falls, Cyn Robinson has lived in the shadow of her stepmother’s disapproval, her stepbrother’s resentment, and her father’s inability to fully accept her mother’s death. She has also lived with the unrequited love for Grimms Falls royalty, Marigold Grimm. For a long time now, Mari has been trying to prove to her father she can take over the family business on her own, without a partner.

Now a string of fires brings them together, and sparks fly in more way than one. Cyn is a firefighter determined to find the arsonist, and Marigold’s late mother’s garden is destroyed in one of the fires.

This is a modern retelling of Cinderella that put a really interesting spin on it. I love that Cyn is a firefighter, playing on the original fairy tale’s section where Cinderella gets her name from sleeping in the cinders. It also made her a more active part of the story. I also liked that they changed the evil stepsisters into one stepbrother whose evilness is explored a bit more deeply.

I like a good mystery, and this was a fun one. A few small chapters are from the arsonist’s point-of-view, which added to the tension.

The mystery also played well with the romance, and the two didn’t detract from each other. They both grew naturally and enjoyably. Cyn and Mari were believably infatuated with each other. It’s a little bit of a love-at-first-sight story, but it’s made believable by their well written chemistry and their history.

My one gripe is that the story felt a little rushed. I would have liked certain parts to take longer, to really amp up the tension.

Overall, it’s a nice short and sweet modern fairy tale with an interesting mystery. I recommend this if you’re looking for a quick read.

Danika reviews Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines edited by Sangu Mandanna

Color Outside the Lines is a YA romance anthology of interracial love stories. (I’m not sure if the LGBTQ+ stories are also all interracial.) Perhaps it was unfair of me to pick this one up: I’m not a huge romance reader, especially when it comes to straight romance stories. I’m definitely not the teen romance reader this is aimed at. As with all anthologies, some stories stuck with me more than others, but for the most part, I didn’t find this collection particularly memorable. Some stories stood out, but I often felt like stories dropped off suddenly without a satisfying conclusion, or that I didn’t get a good sense of the characters before it was over.

Most of these stories are M/F, but there are three sapphic stories included. (The ARC I received was missing at least 2 stories including Anna-Marie McLemore and Adam Silvera’s, so the final collection will likely include more queer stories.)

“Your Life Matters” by L.L. McKinney: I wasn’t sure how to feel about this one. It is about two teenage girls in a relationship. It begins with a fight: Candace, who is Black, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to dinner at Ari’s house. Ari is white, and Ari’s dad is an “all lives matter” cop. Ari is angry that Candace “started a fight” by wearing the shirt to dinner. Mild spoilers: it turns out that Candace is also a superhero, and she ends up at the same Black Lives Matter protest as Ari’s dad. [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Despite Ari’s father almost shooting her unprovoked, Candace rescues him from what would have been a fatal situation, and from his hospital bed he reluctantly admits she might have a point. The story doesn’t let him off the hook by completely redeeming him, but Ari’s defense of him at the beginning of the story and this ending had me feeling on edge–which may have been the point.  [End of spoilers]

“Death and the Maiden” by Tara Sim: This was probably my favourite story in the collection. This is a Hades and Persephone f/f retelling–perfect for fans of Sarah Diemer’s The Dark Wife. This time it’s Parvani who goes into the underworld, though, making this not only a queer retelling but also a switch of cultural context. This is a rich, encompassing fantasy world that made me wish that it was a full novel. The relationship between Parvani and Hades is much more consensual than most depictions of this myth, and I liked how it built. Parvani also goes through a lot of growth and change. This was an exceptional story.

“Gilman Street” by Michelle Ruiz Keil: This story follows a Latinx girl who spontaneously decides that instead of taking the bus to school that day, she’s going to head down to Gilman Street, following in her mother’s hippie past. She is sick of her best friend’s obsession with her new (racist) boyfriend. She is instantly swept up in a stranger’s world: she bumps into a girl and gets invited to her concert, complete with a mini-makeover, where they celebrate their shared Latinx culture. Tam is immediately attracted to this girl, and they flirt and bond over the course of the night. [Spoilers] She soon loses track of the girl, though, and ends up flirting with a boy by the end of the story as well–with the recognition that her school may have more possibilities than she originally thought. [End spoilers]

Honestly, I think this collection is worth picking up just for “Death and the Maiden” if that story interests you, and I’m sure McLemore and Silvera’s contributions are great. But for all the stories averaged out, this was not a favourite of mine.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

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.

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 Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]