Julie Thompson reviews The Dark Wife audiobook by Sarah Diemer, narrated by Veronica Giguere

BEFORE. I am not my mother’s daughter. I have forfeited my inheritance, my birthright. I do not possess the privilege of truth. The stories told by fires, the myth of my kidnap and my rape, are all that remain of me. Forever I will be known as the girl who was stolen away to be the wife of Hades, lord of all the dead. And none of it is true, or is so fragmented that the truth is nothing more than a shadow, malformed. The stories are wrong. I am not who they say I am. I am Persephone, and my story must begin with the truth. Here it is, or as close as I can tell it.

*Trigger: rape, incest

Welcome to the world of “alternative facts”. The administration on Olympus controls the flow and shape of information. Fear undercuts the bacchanalian veneer of the ancient Greek pantheon. Elsewhere in the world, gated away in her mother Demeter’s earthly paradise, the Immortals Forest, Persephone frolics and dreams with her girlfriend, a nymph named Charis. The most fraught moment of her life is learning that she has to move to Olympus and leave everything she loves behind. In a desperate bid for freedom, the young goddess and nymph hatch a plan to runaway. And then it all falls apart.

In The Dark Wife, author Sarah Diemer recasts the Grecian myth of Persephone, goddess of Spring and Rebirth, and Hades, ruler of the underworld, from abduction and forced marriage to a kick ass romance. What starts as an escape from Zeus’ escalating machinations, transforms into a greater mission to dissemble his aggressive and destructive hold on humanity and the gods/goddesses.

While falling in love (they don’t seem to make an issue of being related; though Hades knows of this connection before she reveals it to her niece), Persephone and Hades also endure smear campaigns and risk shunning in order to take down the kingpin. They take a stand against bullying, misogyny, complicity, and rape culture. This is evident in the simple ways in which they live their lives (for example, helping bridge the gaps between the afterlife in the Elysian Fields and the village of the dead), as well as how they make a stand.

Diemer sets most of the novel in the underworld, showing us the underworld and Persephone’s evolving sense of self and purpose as she explores it with Palais, Hades’ best friend. The final face-off against Zeus feels anti-climactic, taking place within the last twenty minutes or so. Although, the other confrontations are more indirect; Zeus channels his passive aggression through manipulating the souls of the dead, in hopes that this will be enough to tear down his sister goddess.

There are a few key differences between Diemer’s version of the Greek myth and older incarnations:

  • Pomegranate: In older versions, Persephone eats the seeds and must stay with Hades for six months of every year, hence winter. In Diemer’s version, the pomegranate takes on romantic implications. The fruit is a precious reminder of Persephone’s idyllic earthly life. She uses it during her marriage ceremony with Hades to seal their commitment.

  • Older versions: Demeter becomes depressed by her daughter’s abduction; nature withers and the first winter occurs. In Diemer’s story, Zeus twists Demeter’s arm and forces her to freeze the world, threatening death to all creation.

First published in 2011, Diemer released the Audible version of The Dark Wife in February 2017. The audiobook, at its best, enhances Diemer’s storytelling and immerses listeners in the world she re-envisions. Veronica Giguere’s narration is pleasant overall. The tone she assumes for much of the story reflects Persephone’s emotional lens, though Giguere’s delivery does not always convey the heightened sense of drama during key scenes.

Persephone and Hades garner the most distinct characterization. Giguere invokes the vitality and innocence of Persephone’s youth and sheltered existence. Hades reminds me of a lower, breathier version of Linda Griffin, mother of Lawndale High’s fashion club president, Sandi (Daria). Zeus comes across as the petulant, whiny bully that he is. Plus, his creepy, inappropriately jolly laughter after he rapes and deceives makes your skin crawl. Secondary and tertiary characters garner less clear representations. The younger cohort of gods and goddesses, including Hebe (daughter of Hera) and Harmonia (daughter of Aphrodite), and to a lesser extent, Palais, are similarly voiced. Charon, ferryman of the river Styx, holds potential for super disturbing representation by Giguere. Given how Diemer describes the various personages embodied in Charon’s shifting frame, I expected the editing to layer different pitches and personalities that Persephone encounters on her ride across the Styx to her new life.

After finishing this quick, enjoyable eight hour audiobook, you may find you need a Daria and Xena: Warrior Princess fix.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Danika reviews The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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I have to start this with my Goodreads status update from 5 pages in:

I literally cannot handle how much I like this book. I can’t get through a page without cackling or exclaiming. The art! The narration! The surreal worldbuilding! The f/f couple in the middle of it!!! The feminism! The cleverness! Like, I actually can’t handle it. I have to read it a couple pages at a time or I get overwhelmed. I don’t think this has ever happened??

I don’t think I’ve ever been so giddy from the first pages of a book. I was already hooked from the premise: a graphic novel retelling of the Arabian Nights featuring a woman who has fallen in love with her maid. Once I had it in my hands, I was stunned by the cover alone. It looks even more gorgeous in person, with the text in shining gold letters. And best of all, the two women reaching for each other: no attempt to disguise the queer content.

I’m a sucker for experiments in story telling, and I love how this book is structured. From the page layouts to the narration, the design and writing of this book perfectly fits its story, even when it deviates from the norm. A book that starts with a creation story of “In the beginning there was the world / And it was weird” is going to immediately jump in my estimation. I haven’t read the previous book, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, but this book stands on its own–while dropping enough hints that I want to pick up the earlier book to get an even richer understanding of this story.

The framing device here is that Cherry’s husband has made a bet with another man, Manfred, that he can’t seduce Cherry in 100 nights. In order to save Cherry from being forced into this arrangement, Hero (her lover and maid) tells Manfred stories over the course of these nights, with the promise that once he seduces Cherry, the stories will end. These stories are engaging in themselves, and resemble folk tales. They revolve around women, often sisters, and as those characters tell their own narratives, the nesting story structure grows.

Although there’s a timeless, folk lore feel to the story, there’s also some moments of great, clever humor thrown in, including the narrator cutting in for commentary, and Hero and Cherry using vocabulary I was not expecting! Mostly the humor is dry, feminist wit.

And, of course, there’s the romance. The unapologetic, unshakable love between Cherry and Hero. The moment that really made me trust this story was when it describes the two women getting into bed together and then cuts to after, with the narrator interjecting “No! Of course I’m not going to show what happened then! What kind of a book do you think this is?” It was setting up for a voyeuristic look into two women’s sex life, then makes a hard left and questions the reader’s expectations.

This a beautiful, epic love story that centres on two women. That fundamentally respects women and their love. This is a story that respects storytelling, that believes that stories can change the world.

This is the queer feminist mythology we deserve.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.

Danika reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

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How’s this for an elevator pitch?: Lesbian YA Robin Hood retelling. If you’re anything like me, that immediately added Marian by Ella Lyons to your TBR. There’s just one problem: that’s not exactly what Marian is.

This novella (135 pages) follows Marian, a daughter of a knight, who finds herself thrust out of her country home into the opulent castle of the king. She feels completely out of place attending balls and taking embroidery lessons, until she meets Robin Hood: a small, redheaded girl with a big personality.

This is cute lesbian historical fiction, but other than the names, it doesn’t have much to do with Robin Hood. She learns archery, but she’s trying to become a knight. And there’s no sense of mystery or disguise about that: her given name is Robin Hood, and she’s openly trying to be a knight as a woman. I feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities for shenanigans. There’s a Little John, but there’s no merry band of any gender. Robin doesn’t even steal from the rich and give to the poor, though Marian does a little bit of that.

I think that there were two ways that this book could have succeeded. One is if it didn’t bill itself as a Robin Hood retelling. It’s a good story! It’s bittersweet and deals with court politics, and I enjoyed Marian learning her way to scheme and use gossip/contacts to survive and even flourish in a restrictive environment. The romance between Robin and Marian is heartwarming, and their personalities are vibrant. I liked seeing Marian mature and make sacrifices while still remaining true to herself. But because I was expecting Robin Hood, I was always impatient for the “real” book to start. I wanted hijinks and medieval heists. I wanted Robin competing in the trials in disguise, and pulling off her hood theatrically to reveal herself as a woman when she won. I wanted a queer merry band! Those things are not present.

The other way I would’ve enjoyed this story more is if it were a prequel. It’s fairly common now for successful YA series to have ebook-only novellas to fill in backstory and offer bonus material, and this reminds me of one of those. It feels like the origin story of Marian and Robin Hood, not the story itself.

I would blame myself for having the wrong expectations for this book, but it does bill itself as “lesbian Robin Hood”. This isn’t a bad novella, but calling it lesbian Robin Hood and referencing that story didn’t do this story any favours.

Danika reviews Lost Boi by Sassafras Lowrey

LostBoiI don’t even know where to start in describing how much I loved this. I am tempted to just tell you “This is a queer punk retelling of Peter Pan.” If that intrigues you (as it did me), don’t hesitate. It will be all you dreamed of and more. And if that doesn’t interest you–if a D/s leather queer homeless youth interpretation of Peter Pan complete with sex worker mermaids, pigeon fairies, and Leather pirates doesn’t sell you on it–then it probably won’t be your cup of tea. But because I have a lot of feelings about this book, I’ll elaborate anyways.

Just from first impression, Lost Boi is a beautiful book. With the black cover, gold framing, and deckle edges, it looks reminiscent of a bible. I also was immediately struck by the perspective of the novel: it’s told by one of the lost bois, Tootles. The whole time I was reading, I was considering whose story this is. Is it Wendi’s? Pan’s? Tootles? I think you could argue for any of those convincingly, but having it from a lost boi’s perspective gives a lot more weight and consideration to their circumstances, to their real experience of living out Pan’s vision of Neverland.

Sadly, I haven’t read the original Peter Pan (but now I want to just to re-read Lost Boi and get even more out of it). But even without an intimate understanding of the original text, it’s obvious how much has been incorporated into this interpretation. Every adaption feels completely natural, even one-off lines like “second streetlight on the right and straight on till Morning street!” work equally well as references and as in their own context.

What made fall in love with Lost Boi was how much it caught me off balance. I loved the variety of pronouns and identities, and how Lowrey doesn’t explain everyone’s gender identity to the reader. It’s incredibly queer, and though I would like to think that I don’t assume people’s gender identities or expressions, I would find myself surprised when descriptions of bodies or clothes didn’t match up with what I imagined. “Huh, so that character wears a sports bra!” “Oh, so one of the bois uses she/her pronouns.”

Beyond the gender and sexuality aspect, there’s also the whole question of the D/s dynamic between Pan and the bois. Pan is significantly older than the other bois, maybe close to twice some of their ages, and consent and safety are not top of his priority list. At times I was uncomfortable with Pan and wondering whether he was a positive character–and then I realized that this is an interpretation of Peter Pan! He’s not supposed to be a perfect person, or even someone you always like. That’s part of the refusal to grow up: his refusal to consider the consequences, or to necessarily take responsibility. Pan/Peter Pan have magic to them, and wonder, and definitely an attraction, but they’re also dangerous and reckless. He’s supposed to be a character that the reader has a complicated relationship, I think, and that makes perfect sense considering the complicated relationships he has with everyone else.

It also made me think about the association of queer identity with youth–how little representation there is for being a queer grown up. And the further you are along the scale of GLBT+, the fewer representations you’ll have of being an adult, or god forbid being elderly. That makes it difficult to know how to be queer and an adult at the same, suggesting that you have to choose one. And of the course the term “boi” itself, a gender identity, is dependent on that association with youth. I loved Sassafras Lowrey’s look at the difficulties of this, and hir acknowledgement that there are things you lose growing up, magic you lose. But ze still offers a glimpse of alternative kinds of adulthood, that you don’t have to lose your identity to become an adult.

The first book I read by Sassafras Lowrey was the collection ze edited about and by queer homeless youth, Kicked Out. That is also an excellent book, but it’s interesting to read Lost Boi with that in mind, because although the Pan and the lost bois’ story is told through the interpretation of Peter Pan, it doesn’t use their homelessness as just a prop in the story, an interesting setting for Neverland. Lowrey cared about the kids who have to live this, and that really shines through when we get glimpses of the lost bois’ lives before Neverland and why exactly they “fell out of the pram”.

This was one of my favourite books I read this year, only the second 5 star rating I’ve given since January (The Color Purple was the first). I highly, highly recommend this one, though do be warned that this has a lot of D/s and the “battles”/scenes can be pretty brutal. In conclusion: “Queer punk Peter Pan reimagining.” Go read it.