Sam reviews Gideon the Ninth & Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the NInth

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For Pride this month, I’m going to treat myself a little bit—I would like to talk about Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, the first half of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir (the half that’s been released, at time of writing). Now, if you like to read books about lesbians and also spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably been told to read these books already. They’ve gotten very popular over the last two years, and for good reason! But the ubiquity of Gideon the Ninth recommendations amongst queer women online is almost a meme at this point, and there are perfectly good reviews for both these books up on the Lesbrary already.

And yet, like everyone else I know who has read the Locked Tomb, I can’t stop thinking about it. But it’s not the goth-Catholic space necromancy worldbuilding, or the twists and turns of Muir’s buckwild mystery ride, or even the shockingly good humor peppered with actual internet memes that has its hooks in me. It’s something I don’t see a lot of people talking about, actually. It’s the fact that clearly, and yet so surprisingly, series deuteragonists Gideon and Harrow are written to be butch and femme.

Okay, granted, many people have called Gideon butch in the last two years, usually in regards to her being a strong, crass, bullheaded woman who is extremely and unapologetically into other women. And don’t get me wrong, this alone is worth celebrating—I read a lot of lesbian books, especially lesbian science fiction and fantasy books, and it is still painfully rare to see a lesbian protagonist that is undeniably masculine. But that isn’t all Gideon is. Gideon Nav is thoughtful and observant in her own way, and she has a surprisingly strong sense of justice for the society she grew up in. She also has a deep well of compassion and pity hidden beneath her anger and sarcasm. She wears irreverence and irony like armor to protect this emotional vulnerability, but cannot stop herself from leaping to the aid of others when they need help.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Despite her objections to playing Harrow’s knight, Gideon slips into the role of protector and confidante naturally and quickly. No matter how much Gideon claims to hate the Reverend Daughter, her mind is constantly considering Harrow’s emotional state, her well-being, and her safety. And as they grow closer, Gideon starts taking her armor off. No one else gets to see the softness of Gideon’s heart—no one but Harrow.

On Harrow’s part, there’s a lot more to the vicious, uptight necromancer than meets the eye. This is my more contentious point by far, a realization that felt obvious to me but I rarely hear mentioned. Harrow is aptly named for what she has had to endure in life; she is a scarred, starving rat of a girl, deeply traumatized and burdened with unbearable expectations, dreadful ambitions, and untreated mental illness. She isn’t exactly the classic image of a femme lesbian.

And yet, there is so much about her that complements and contrasts with Gideon. Where Gideon is bold, brash, and courageous, Harrow is careful, resilient, and tenacious. Like Gideon, Harrow has a steady moral compass that points slightly off from what her parents, her peers, even her God says is right. Harrow, too, wears armor—not of dumb jokes and a fuck-you attitude, but of protocol, of social cues and cultural symbols, of robes and veils and make-up masks. But beneath it, just like Gideon, Harrow cares, more than she dares let on. The depth and intensity for how much she feels for Gideon, for her house, for even a sacred corpse is shocking when it finally comes out. She’s been forced to bare her steel all her life, but there is a vulnerability in her that only Gideon has the lived context to understand.

This is reinforced in the second book (slight spoilers ahead), when we get to see what a Harrow without Gideon would look like. She feels lost at sea, missing a vital piece of herself through which her resilience and determination slowly drains away. I know many people are into the perhaps-romantic tension between Harrow and Ianthe, but to me the main narrative purpose of that story thread was to showcase exactly why Harrow needs Gideon. Gideon and Harrow make each other better people, whereas Ianthe would make Harrow a far worse version of herself. And when it’s finally time for Harrow to admit her feelings for Gideon, it’s the heretical skeleton-raising goth space witch who has the softest, most tender and romantic passages in the series.

All in all, Gideon and Harrow are different in the most complementary ways, covering for the other’s shortcomings while encouraging each other’s strengths. They’ve both been through terrible experiences, but are also uniquely equipped to help each other process and move past them. In a horrific, hostile universe that seems corrupted to its very core, their love feels like the one light strong enough to defy it. And you can’t convince me that’s not butch and femme.

Content Warnings: violence, gore, character death (including murder and suicide), unstable/unreliable subjectivity. If you want to know more about the rest of the Locked Tomb’s content, I recommend you look up our other reviews of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.

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

Vic reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth cover

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Ever since I discovered Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I have hesitated to read it for the sheer fact that it could only be a book that I loved or that I hated.  It looked so tailored to my own personal tastes that if it did not deliver, it would have actively made me kind of angry about the wasted potential.  But fortunately, this book was everything I hoped it would be and more.  Funny and brutal, it was absolutely wild from start to finish, but in the best possible way.  I laughed and I gasped and were I capable of expressing normal human emotions, I probably would have cried.

To start off, the review on the cover describes it as “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space,” and I mean, what’s not to love about that?  More specifically, it centers on Gideon Nav, a skilled swordswoman and ward of the Ninth House who has already tried to escape numerous times.  After yet another foiled attempt, she agrees to pose as a cavalier to Harrowhark Nonagesimus — the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer who has made Gideon’s life hell since childhood — in order to help Harrow survive a trial that could end with her ascension to immortality serving the Emperor.  

Between the necromancers and the cavaliers, this book does have a fair few characters to keep track of, but they are so distinct that it does not take long to learn who is who.  And though they are many, I loved every single character in this book — as a character if not necessarily as a person.  The morals are, after all, somewhat questionable at times.  In particular, I have never understood the appeal of the damaged-asshole-hot-guy trope, but I have officially been won over by damaged-asshole-hot-girl Harrow (and, in all honesty, every other woman in this book).

On that note, Gideon Nav is one of my favorite protagonists I have ever had the pleasure to read about.  Her narration is amazing, and her dialogue is hilarious (I think I could have read this book in half the time if I didn’t stop every five lines to read aloud every funny thing Gideon said or thought), but she’s also so much more than that.  She surprised me constantly, though I always felt like I understood why she did what she did.  Chaotic as she is, there is such specificity to her that she felt like a real person from the very first page.

Really, that is true in just about every aspect of this book.  I have heard that this book is confusing, and while I will admit that I don’t think I ever quite grasped all of the fundamentals of necromancy, I also don’t think that was to the book’s detriment. Because we receive this book through Gideon’s perspective and because she understands necromancy in this world about as well as we do, I was able to follow along easily and trust that if she did not understand, I did not need to either.  Anything I did need to know would be revealed eventually, but whatever questions I was left with, the author did have an answer.

The thing about this book is it’s so out-there that it very easily could have been a mess, weird for the sake of being weird, but everything about it is so specific that it always felt completely intentional.  Even at its most wild, everything fit together perfectly in a way I can’t quite describe.  I would trust Tamsyn Muir with my life (or at least my next read!).

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Danika reviews The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

the cover of The All-Consuming World

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Fun fact: the first Cassandra Khaw book I read was a paranormal romance called Bearly a Lady, about a bisexual werebear fatshionista. I really enjoyed it! But I found out later that this is very much not Khaw’s usual genre.  They usually write horror and sci fi, and pretty brutal horror and sci fi at that. Although those aren’t my usual genres, I decided to take a chance on this one.

The All-Consuming World is a little bit heist novel, a little bit noir narration, a hint of Lovecraftian, and a whole lot of gritty sci fi. Maya is a rabid dog of a mercenary clone who is ready to fist fight with god. She is entirely, illogically, wholeheartedly devoted to Rita, a mad scientist type. Rita is cold, withholds affection, and is always pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme. She’s manipulative, even cruel, and always five steps ahead of anyone else.

They both used to be part of the dirty dozen (at least, that was the most polite name for them), a group of criminal women. It’s been 40 years, though, since a job went bad and left two of them dead — permanently. Maya is used to waking up in a vat of goo, newly regenerated from her most recent grisly demise, but there are some deaths you can’t come back from. Now, they’ve got to try to get the band back together for one last job.

The universe is ruled by AIs, and Maya and her fellow clones are the last dregs of what passes for humanity. Rita says that the AIs are ready to wipe the last of them out and start fresh — but who knows if you can trust anything she says.

This is a fairly short book at 275 pages, but it packs a ton in. The narration style is distinct. Maya’s POV chapters — which are most of them — use the word fuck about once a paragraph. Throughout the book, Khaw uses really distinct metaphors and similes — sort of like a noir detective story, but with a bloodthirsty futuristic perspective. For example, “the sound unspooled between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White.”

Also, either keep a dictionary on hand or just bask in Khaw’s superior vocabulary. I kept rediscovering words I haven’t encountered in years, and then bumping into a good chunk I’ve never seen before.

This is definitely a story that throws you right into the world, trusting you’ll pick it up as you go. There are factions of AIs, each with their own values. AI Minds interconnect in a grand conversation. AI have elaborate rules for communication, sampling lines and voices from all of recorded human history: a laugh from Audrey Hepburn, a line from Leonard Cohen. Ageships are sentient ships of unfathomable size and power, capable of swallowing stars.

It’s also got some… unique visuals. Needless to say, the Butcher of Eight’s appearance is just as intimidating as the name. Also, we get a lot of detail of being awake during eyeball surgery, so definite content warnings for gore.

Most of the book is spent in the “getting the band back together” plot, which is good, because it lets us get slowly introduced to a big cast. They are all queer women and non-binary people, with very different personalities. There’s an ethereal, worshipped pop star that literally glows and has multiple mouths trailing down her neck, and a disembodied woman in code corrupting the conversation from within — just to name a few.

But the relationship between Maya and Rita is at the core of the story: Maya can’t seem to control her loyalty to her, even when Rita hurts her and everyone else in her life. It’s also just fun to be in Maya’s head, because she is so out of control: the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s in a deadly fight.

It’s a story about the defiance and audacity of humans, of never knowing when to give up.

This isn’t one every reader is going to love, because it is very gritty and sometimes stomach-turning, but I really enjoyed it, despite it not being a genre I usually gravitate towards. If you can handle nonstop profanity and gore with your existential heist stories, definitely give this a try.

Danika reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

the cover of The Luminous Dead

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I read this in one sitting during the October 24 hour readathon, and it was exactly what I was looking for. This is about Gyre, who has taken a job to explore a planet’s cave system. She had to lie a bit on her resume, because she doesn’t actually have the experience required for this kind of job, but she needs the money. Soon after she descends, though, she learns a few new things about this solo expedition: her handler, whose voice she hears in her suit, is the only one guiding her. Usually, there would be a whole team, but instead, she has Em. Also, many cavers before her have died in these tunnels.

Em is obsessive about this mission, and she will stop at nothing to get it done, including overriding Gyre’s suit, locking her out or injecting her with chemicals to make her sleep or make her alert. This is, of course, on top of the already existing horror of this situation. It’s a claustrophobic space, and it includes underwater caving, which is deadly in the best of circumstances. Then there’s the tunnellers: giant tunneling monsters who will hunt down any humans they can. Gyre’s suit should protect her from being detected, but she has limited supplies to keep it functional, especially when things quickly begin to go wrong.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyre begins to suspect she’s not alone down here. She thinks she sees evidence of someone without a suit surviving down here, but that’s impossible. And there’s also a non-zero chance she’s hallucinating after stumbling on some mysterious spores…

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so it’s also queer. Gyre and Em have an… interesting relationship. She’s in the cave system for weeks, dependent on Em’s guidance to keep her safe, while also completely distrusting her. As they spend more and more time together, though, and get to know each other, Gyre finds herself reluctantly becoming attached. This is, to be clear, a toxic relationship, but wow was it compelling. Despite Em’s manipulation, I ended up rooting for the two of them, which just shows how well written their dynamic was. If you like the kind of Killing Eve dynamic in F/F relationships, you’d probably appreciate this one.

This is an engrossing blend of psychological horror and survival story. By the time Gyre realizes how deadly this mission is–all caving comes with risks, but this one has more than she was informed of–she’s unable to back out. She is always on the edge of running out of supplies, especially oxygen. As if being trapped underground wasn’t confining enough, the suit becomes claustrophobic after a while, with her desperately wanting to feel anything against her skin, to breathe air freely, or to eat naturally instead of having nutrients injected into her digestive system.

This ticked every box for me, and reading it in one sitting made me feel immersed in this unsettling story. If you’re looking for a creepy, claustrophobic, psychological horror sapphic read, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Sash H reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

Meanwhile, Elsewhere cover

Science fiction shows us worlds of great technological advances and sweeping social changes. It shows us worlds similar to ours where a few fundamentals have changed, or lands beyond the stars vastly different to our own. But it does not always show us what it is like to be trans or queer in those worlds.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere compiles 25 stories from trans writers in a contemporary anthology so amazing that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

Each story has a trans protagonist and often queer/lesbian/sapphic relationships are a significant point, though not always. Sometimes those relationships are just in the background, but they’re still as vital to the characters in making them who they are. Sometimes a character is just a lesbian in passing, but the narrator isn’t part of that relationship. This collection affirms so many ways to be queer and interact with other LGBTQIA+ people in our communities and around us. It’s a delight to read.

“What Cheer” is a soft, half-sad but half-hopeful story about being with yourself (who sort of isn’t yourself) for a day. “Delicate Bodies” is a darkly humourous take on coming to terms with one’s body and getting over your exes during a zombie outbreak. “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura” deals with its surreal events in a matter of fact way that it takes you along for the ride. “Heat Death of Western Human Arrogance” is a love story between an alien and her lover dealing with their very different paths through life.

There really is something for everyone. And it all feels incredibly thoughtful, gripping and honest, with each writer in the anthology contributing a unique voice and prose style. Nothing feels same-y and, with the massive variety of stories, there isn’t a weak link in the bunch.

Of course, queer sci fi isn’t entirely new. The lesbian vampire novel Carmilla was written in the 1800s, and Melissa Scott has been writing LGBTQ sci-fi since the 1980s. As television and movie visibility for queer characters in these genres increases, so does the variety of stories we are able to tell, experience and see ourselves in. Meanwhile, Elsewhere contributes something of excellent quality to this list.

For anyone who is some flavour of queer and is feeling underrepresented in this genre, for anyone who wants to read more work with a non-cis, non-straight, non-male protagonists, for anyone who simply wants more science fiction with a refreshing variety… read this book.

Rating: *****

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

Susan reviews Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

Eve and Eve by Nagashiro Rouge

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I believe the entire summary I gave of Eve and Eve on GoodReads was “This is the level of weird horniness I usually find in m/m manga and I almost respect it for that.” The actual summary is that Eve and Eve is Nagashiro Rouge’s single-creator anthology of f/f manga, and this is honestly a first for me! I usually have an easier time finding anthologies like this of m/m manga! … But I am seriously not kidding about it being weird and horny. The stories are mostly scifi, but there are a couple of slice of life stories, and the tones range from serious to incredibly silly. The art is mostly fine, but I have two major quibbles with it. The first is that the anatomy is notably out of proportion, especially when it comes to hands – I’m not saying that there’s panels where characters have hands about the same size as their eyes, but it’s close. The other is that all of the characters have invisible vulvas (presumably as the distaff counterpart to invisible cocks, a known hazard of m/m manga), so the sex scenes are dangerously close to mashing Barbies together.

I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love — I am unbearably amused by Nagashiro Rouge cramming every single possible apocalypse scenario into one page. When I first read Eve and Eve in 2019, that was just a funny joke, but here we are in 2021 and I’m just like “Yeah, actually, that sounds right.” As for the story itself: two women in Japan who barely share a common language fall in love after at least five apocalypses, which they are the only survivors of! I found it quite odd, tonally! The motivations of Sayu, the POV character, confuse the daylights out of me, because she is specifically pre-occupied with having children with Nika so that whoever dies first isn’t leaving the other alone with no record of their relationship. I appreciate that this is the thin veil of causality that’s excusing the sex scenes, but the specific fixation on having kids instead of any other form of record-keeping or looking for other survivors baffled me.

(If you’re wondering what the pay-off is for that narrative thread, I’m just going to tell you that one of the apocalypses involved technologically advanced aliens leaving their human-creating tech behind, and you can fill in the rest. Just know that the invisible vulva aspect is especially egregious here.)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of stories where people fall in love because they’ve got no other options, and between the language barrier and Sayu’s point of view so I felt like we don’t get much about Nika at all. So I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love wasn’t necessarily bad but I really wanted more build up of the relationship than it had space for in a short story.

The Case of Eko and Lisa — Eko creates erotic manga and uses her sexbot, Lisa, exclusively as a model and art assistant, much to Lisa’s dismay. The story pretty much follows your expectations for a romance between a human and a robot, especially one where the robot is the instigating partner. Lisa’s cheerful pursuit and reaction to rejection is what I’d expected, but Eko’s profound discomfort with the idea of sex that involves more than one person (both in her work and in her own life) was honestly the thing that made this story stand out for me! She’s not put off by the idea of having sex with a robot, but she hates the idea of sex without emotion behind it, and that got me right in my grey-ace feelings. The Case of Eko and Lisa isn’t doing anything I haven’t seen before in terms of robot/human relationships, but for the most part it’s fun and I enjoy how done Eko is with everything, so it’s worth a look! … Although the visual distinction between humans and robots literally just being one seam line at the neck feels like such a cop-out.

Top or Bottom? The Showdown! — Okay, so much about the premise of this story was going against it; it’s school girls who move on from arguing about their RPS shipping of boys in their class (one of my squicks) to arguing about who in their group of friends would be a top or bottom (which I am done with as a fandom argument, because I did my time on this back in the 00s!) However, the end result is mostly cute and silly, and gets a little meta with the two main characters trying to fluster each other with the tropiest moves from romance manga, so I came away really fond of it!

An Infidelity Revisited — Two women who cheated on their high school boyfriends with each other meet up again as adults… And immediately cheat on their girlfriends with each other. The glimpse of the messy relationship the two main characters have is interesting, especially when one pushes back on any attempt to make it less messy. I would have really liked more of that aspect, although the level and drama and ambiguity is pretty solid.

[Caution warnings: infidelity]

Heir to the Curse — A web designer returns to her home village to see her childhood best friend announce her marriage – only to discover that her (cis) best friend has inherited a family curse that all women in her family must marry and impregnate a woman, regardless of their own feelings on the matter.

Oh boy, where to start with this one.

Okay, so, first off, there are parts of the relationship between the two protagonists that are really sweet at the start and the end, where they’re shown as loving and supportive and able to have fun together. Those bits are cute! I like how much they care about each other! But one of them is being held prisoner by her own family (grim), who drug the protagonist so that the love interest can rape and impregnate her (also grim), until they confess their love and have consensual sex as a follow-up. The shift from rape to a romantic relationship is in line with some of the genre conventions, but the nature of it being a short story rather than a series means that the switch feels really sudden and highlights how the problem could have been solved by them talking to each other. … I would also like more explanation of the origin story of this curse, because I feel like there were a couple steps that got missed out in the initial explanation, and in why the family continued the tradition! An explanation is suggested in the final panel, but it’s a bit slight. Heir to the Curse could have been my thing, but I’m very tired of stories where “Well it’s okay apart from the rape scene” is a valid response.

[Caution warnings: imprisonment, homophobia, drugging, rape, magic pregnancy]

Eternity 1 and 2: Eve and Eve — A loving couple decide that the best way to immortalise their love is to… Become a living akashic record… By becoming the heart of a pair of satellites…? Look, I told you this was weird scifi, I have no explanations for you. It circles back around to the theme that I Want to Leave Behind a Miraculous Love suggests; leaving a record of yourself so the future knows that you were there and you were loved! Eternity 1 and 2 giving up their human lives and bonds specifically to lock their bond to each other in place is such a different answer to the one Sayu thinks of in the first story. I think I enjoyed it, but I will say that it has one of the most unnerving two-page spreads I’ve seen in a comic in quite a while. I promise, you will know it when you see it.

[Caution warnings: suicide]

Eve and Eve: Epilogue — One of the things I liked about Eve and Eve was the way that the stories interweaved. Between Eternity 1 and 2 spying on the relationships from other stories, or Sayu and Nika finding newspaper articles about the satellites, it gives the anthology a sense of unity despite the vastly different tones, settings, and storylines. This epilogue rounds that out really well, and I appreciated that it has the characters considering a similar dilemma to Eternity 1 and 2, and making a different choice.

[Caution warnings: implied suicide]

… So you see why my summary is that Eve and Eve is a weird anthology. It wasn’t my thing overall, but I think at least half the stories are worth a look – and I had a lot of fun overthinking its narrative structure, so it was worth the price of entry for that alone!

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Marieke reviews Down Among The Sticks And Bones by Seanan McGuire

For any of you not familiar with Seanan McGuire’s work, she is a veritable master of remixing fairy tale tropes and patterns (and other genres too), on the same level as someone like Neil Gaiman, while of course giving it her own twist every time. In this case, the main two characters are twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian, who later take on the names of Jack and Jill. In this review, the name used for each character is the name they used at that time in the story. I personally am not familiar with the nursery rhyme and so can say with full confidence that you don’t need to know it in order to enjoy this book, but I expect many of its strands are woven in throughout. On top of that, McGuire draws from classic horror fare, as the main chunk of the story sees the two siblings in a world ruled by a vampire and a mad scientist facing off in a personal rivalry from across the Moors. And so the stage is set.

McGuire is excellent at invoking specific visuals and scenes we are all familiar with: the castle in the marshes, Dracula’s brides, the lightning coming down from the thunderous clouds to power the scientist’s experiments in his remote and ramshackle wind mill. She manages to ensure these classic elements don’t overpower the story by providing the two main characters with a very modern world background: their parents wanted a classic son and daughter. When they ended up with two daughters, they forced the twins into extremely strict binary gender roles. This means that both sisters could just embody half of their identity, with Jillian only being allowed tomboyish behaviours and Jacqueline always being dressed in extravagant dresses she is warned stringently against dirtying – to the point of developing germophobia and mysophobia.

When they fall through a portal into the world of the Moors, they are for the very first time offered a choice on this aspect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader that they choose the opposite of their experience so far, with Jack joining Dr. Bleak as his apprentice in resurrection and Jill staying with the Master to become his eventual daughter / bride. This still feels like a choice between two strict gender roles though, and it’s hinted throughout the text that the only way for both sisters to fully become themselves is to be allowed through their own choice to embrace their whole selves rather than mashing these two sides against each other.

Another way that McGuire manages to set this work apart from more traditional pastiches and celebrations of the horror genre is by humanising the genre’s traditional background stock characters: the villagers. During her apprenticeship under Dr. Bleak, one of the creatures Jack helps to resurrect is the inn keeper’s daughter, Alexis. During her second chance at life, the two grow close and form a romantic attachment to each other.

This is an important point in Jack’s character development, as it’s a type of love she hasn’t experienced before. One character does describe the relationship between the two girls as unnatural, but it isn’t made clear what their thought process is in context: instead of low-key homophobia (mixed with the usual worries around not being able to have children – an argument swiftly put down by Jack as she refers to her resurrection skills), they could also be referring to any type of love being unnatural in their eyes, or to the fact that technically Alexis is undead. This is the only overt negative comment directed at them – Jill quietly isn’t happy about the relationship either, but that’s mostly because she feels possessive of Jack’s attentions.

Jill’s unhappiness is an important counterpoint to the relationship between Jack and Alexis, because on top of the romantic upheaval their attachment also introduces Jack to Alexis’s village life. She meets the inn keeper and his wife, as well as other shop keepers and tradespeople as she accompanies Alexis on various errands. In contrast, Jill is denied this type of socialising during her education under the Master, who instead nurtures her jealous and possessive tendencies. It is this difference in upbringing that serves as the catalyst at the end of the tale, bringing the strands together.

This story really serves as a prequel to the first book in the Wayward Children series, which I will be re-reading to see how the relationship dynamic between the two sisters develops as they are forced to rely more on each other. As it stands, I would recommend Down Among The Sticks and Bones to anyone interested in the remixing of genre tropes and gender roles within the horror / SFF genre.

Content warnings: murder, death, blood, toxic relationship, emotional abuse (most of these are the result of the story featuring a vampire)

Marieke reviews And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

And Then There Were (N-One) is included in this collection.

It seems this year I have read more than my usual share of science fiction (murder) mystery: The 7 ½ Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, Jane, Unlimited, and Gideon The Ninth all fall into this category in one way or another. And in my scramble to find a novella that I could finish in time for this review, I came across And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker. In the tradition of short genre stories, this one saw the light in an edition of a genre magazine (Uncanny in this case), which means you can read it online and for free here.

With the whole work clocking in at just under 20,000 words, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story other than the very basic premise it opens with, otherwise it becomes too easy to share the whole tale. First, the main character’s name is the same as the author (I will refer to her as ‘main Sarah’ to avoid confusion where possible). Second, the multiverse is real and recently discovered by another Sarah Pinsker, who then (third) contacted multiple other Sarahs to a Sarah Convention. The kicker is: one of the many identical-but-not Sarahs is murdered on the first evening, before the keynote even officially kicks off the weekend’s proceedings. Luckily, main Sarah is an insurance investigator, which is deemed close enough to a homicide detective for the convention’s organisation to request she investigates the death. And so the story begins.

At this point, the story follows the similar pattern of most murder mysteries, with the detective character noting down possible murder weapons a la Clue, and interviewing possible suspects a la Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I use games as a comparison here, because that is how the plot comes across: you can almost picture the video game prompting you to respond with one of two or three options, and there is a desire to keep track of the various clues main Sarah comes across (although I personally have yet to give into this when reading a detective novel or other murder mystery). This worn in pattern is reinforced later in the story, when a character references Agatha Christie, who wrote the murder mystery novel that served as source for this story’s title.

The existence of the multiverse becomes increasingly mindbending as the story plays out, with a deluge of Sarahs pondering its various ripple effects. The prime angle of the convention was to dig into the various differences and overlaps of the various worlds and their various Sarahs, ranging from the serious (why do water scarcity and climate change differ between versions of Earth and how can we use this knowledge to improve the situation on our home world?) to the mundane (why did we choose the pets we did?). Main Sarah repeatedly compares herself to the other Sarahs, as would only be natural, but she also notes this often turns into her making assumptions about the other Sarahs that are only proved wrong through discussions. It seems to me you don’t need to meet a near-clone for this pattern to occur–we all assume similar backgrounds about people who seem mildly similar to ourselves–but when faced with those near-clones, it does become more obvious.

Another important aspect of the multiverse is its divergence points: the points at which the lives of the Sarahs (and the courses of their worlds) start to differ, e.g. through a hospital visit or a returned phone call. While most of these divergence points are relatively small in scale, they can have huge consequences for the Sarahs who made those decisions and possibly for the worlds where those decisions were made. Main Sarah is almost tempted to start questioning her own decisions as a result of comparing herself with the others, but that way madness clearly lies. There are worlds where some decisions are delayed or happened earlier, and if one Sarah made a certain choice there is a world where another Sarah made the opposite choice or a completely different choice or did not choose at all. Every Sarah is a different side of a multi-faceted coin, with plenty of sides not visible (yet). And that doesn’t even touch on the multiverse versions of each Sarah’s loved ones–who are all relatively similar as well.

One of those loved ones is Mabel, main Sarah’s long-term girlfriend. She is ever present in Sarah’s thoughts, and is a recurring partner of other Sarahs we meet (although some decided to stick it out with one of main Sarah’s previous ex-girlfriends). We only meet main Sarah’s Mabel at the start of the story, where they discuss the veracity of the convention and whether Sarah should accept the invitation to attend. Even though we as a reader don’t get much of a sense of Mabel during this scene, she returns in Sarah’s thoughts at various points, always coming across as a calm point or safe haven for Sarah to return to (which makes sense, as she is also serves as Sarah’s main connection to her own world, being the only person in that world who is aware of where Sarah went).

The connection each Sarah has with with her loved ones is a main theme for this story, leading towards the main morale / message: love, be it platonic or romantic or some other variation, trumps all other options in the pursuit of happiness. While it may be a bit saccharine, it’s a message that I readily accept at this time of the year, even if it does come wrapped in a murder mystery as weird as this one.