Rachel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow cover

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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.

Rachel Friars is a 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 lesbian 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 @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Kayla Bell reviews The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

The Fallen cover

Remember last month, when I said that I love the publisher Angry Robot and the book that made me fall in love with them was Ada Hoffman’s The Outside? Well, manifesting works, because this month, I get to review The Fallen, The Outside’s sequel. This review will include some spoilers for The Outside, so I recommend reading that before reading this review! 

The novel picks up where the last book left off, with Yasira recovering from her trip to the Outside while her girlfriend, Tiv,  takes care of her and leads the rebellion against the Gods. We also see the return of the vengeful AI Gods and their legion of warriors, out for revenge against Yasira. I don’t want to include spoilers for the plot, so I will just say that another space opera adventure ensues. I loved returning to the world of the Chaos Zone because of the truly unique worldbuilding. The combination of spirituality and artificial intelligence is such a fascinating premise. It makes the more technology-focused parts of the novel still interesting to read about. In this novel, we see the angels struggle with balancing their emotions, their roles in the divine system, and their technological nature. We also see the toll taken on the resistance fighters, and their desire to press on despite it all. This story is engaging and fast-paced.

The only part of the novel that I didn’t love as much were the constant time skips. It was interesting to see the characters at different points in the narrative, but, especially combined with all of the new information presented about the world, it did feel overwhelming to me at times. I could still easily follow the story, it just felt a bit all over the place. Despite that, I really liked the interludes between chapters, where we get to see the diary of Yasira’s old mentor Evianna Talirr. These streams of consciousness really underpin the themes of the novel and breaks up the story nicely. 

Once again, just like in The Outside, we see representation of autism and mental illness. As a neurodivergent person myself, I love seeing this experience valued and centered in a science fiction story. Neurodiversity is explored not just in Yasira, but in different cultures throughout the world, which was amazing to see. Moreover, I love that there are emotional consequences to the events that happen in this world. Yasira is truly changed and impacted by the scary, traumatizing things she’s seen and been through, both mentally and physically. Tiv is also impacted by the things she’s seen, and carries the weight of the primary caretaker role in the relationship. This is all while the couple is still in danger, facing the ire of some of the most powerful beings in their universe. In general, I am always impressed by the exploration of mental and emotional health in this series.

Another part of the book I really liked was learning more about what happened to Old Earth, our world, in this series’ universe. There is a scene where Tiv visits a museum detailing everything that happened on Earth, focused mostly on the people’s suffering. This part felt very prescient and also made me truly understand why people in this universe relied so heavily on the Gods despite their destructive, controlling natures. It built upon the worldbuilding of the last book in a detailed way. The Fallen is another adventurous foray into the technotheocratic world that Ada Hoffmann has created. It definitely lives up to its predecessor and represents characters that are usually not included in science fiction, much less space opera. This book was released on July 13th, so you can pick up a copy now. Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC.

Kayla Bell reviews The Offset by Calder Szewczak

The Offset by Calder Szewczak cover

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Cards on the table, Angry Robot is one of my favorite publishers. Ever since I started getting into science fiction and fantasy, they’ve consistently published some of my favorite books. The Outside by Ada Hoffman, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, and Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng are all some of the best books I’ve read in the genre. So when I had the chance to read an ARC of The Offset, I jumped at the chance. Luckily, this book continued the streak of being extremely entertaining!

In the future, as climate change ravages the earth, survivors are hyper-aware of their impact on their environment. Because of this, they’ve created the ceremony of the Offset, where, to counteract new birth, one parent is selected to die. While this is happening, scientist Jac is working on using genetically engineered trees to make Greenland habitable and protected. Meanwhile, her wife Alix is dealing with their daughter Miri, who is extremely depressed and angry about being born into a dying world. Things get worse when Miri is selected to choose who dies for the Offset. She must decide between one parent, who is emotionally distant and saving the world, or her other parent, with whom she loves and has a close relationship.

This book kept me reading. In a lot of apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, I get bored by the misery and hopelessness of it all. Not so with The Offset. Don’t get me wrong, the world is extremely dark and upsetting. But the heart of this book was the difficult, complicated relationship between Miri and her mothers. I saw a lot of my climate anxiety-riddled self in Miri. This book was a science fiction version of an argument I have in my head all the time: is it truly ethical to have children knowing the problems that the world will face due to climate change? Will future generations hate us for subjecting them to the worst consequences of our and previous generations’ actions?

[This paragraph contains vague spoilers.] I wish that the book’s ending had kept up this focus on familial relationships rather than going fully into grimdark territory and being, in my opinion, unnecessarily brutal. I also didn’t fully grasp why Miri made the choice that she had made; it felt like she just chose who she did to be dramatic. Other things that bothered me about this book were how one-dimensional the anti-natalists, those who oppose reproduction of any kind, felt and some of the time skips. I found the book to be paced exceptionally well, but I did feel a little confused when the narrative would move into the characters’ memories without warning.

Other than that, as I said, I found the book to be quite entertaining. The world was rich and the authors did a great job of establishing worldbuilding. Even without a full understanding of the science, I definitely felt the importance of Jac’s work. This is a book that I would classify as part of my favorite genre of sci-fi: climate fiction (sci-fi novels that explore climate change and how humans adapt to it). I also loved, and honestly don’t see this often enough in SFF books, how casually the lesbian and nonbinary representation was handled. Queer people were just a normal part of the world. In the future, I would definitely read another book set in this same universe and hope that the two authors collaborate again. If you’re looking for a quick, dark, science fiction exploration of an interesting ethical question, pick up The Offset.

Mo Springer reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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Seven years ago, the voyage of the Atargatis ended in death, tragedy, and mystery. The ones left behind, watching the footage from their conference rooms and research labs, can only do thing to avenge the death: solve the mystery.

Are there really mermaids in the Mariana’s Trench?

Will they kill us?

The horror of the mermaids was very well done, and I was genuinely on the edge of the my seat reading this at certain parts. It did a good balance of physical, external horror of there being creatures hunting down the point-of-view characters while at the same time, there was excellent psychological horror of waiting for the monsters to find them, having death all around them, and trying to come to terms with their own actions in this crisis.

This an ensemble cast with a lot of characters that get their fair share of time to tell their story, history, and version of events. Tory is a scientist whose sister died on the Atargatis and is on this voyage to try to prove mermaids are real to bring some sense of justice and peace for her loss. Olivia is the personality in front of the camera to explain the science to viewers and investors back home. There is a wide range of more characters, but it would take too space to review all of them and I would rather focus on the sapphic content.

The romance between Tory and Olivia managed to feel engaging and heartwarming while in the shadow of the ongoing fear and horror of the situation. The book is realistic in that they aren’t going to have much time to grow close and intimate in the face of death. At the same, it is believable that the shock and grief of their shared experiences would bring them closer together.

The ending was not a huge bang, which I honestly appreciated. A lot of time in science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. there’s this feeling that there needs to be a big, huge, bombastic climax that you would have in a Hollywood blockbuster. But I don’t think that’s always necessary for a book that’s in genre fiction. And here that works so well, because the book is so scientific and gets into the nitty-gritty details of the science that is being fictionalized. That scientific foundation went hand in hand with the more toned-down ending.

I enjoy horror about 50% and thankfully this book was part of the half of the genre I liked. The ensemble cast was big, but not too big that I couldn’t become invested in their individual arcs. The world building was magnificent, and the science was clearly well researched. I also love information about the ocean, so that was another fun part for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any horror and science fiction fans.

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: *****

Danika reviews Space Battle Lunchtime Volume 3 by Natalie Riess

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I adored the first two volumes of Space Battle Lunchtime. It’s an all-ages graphic novel of a cooking competition(!) in space(!!) with a cute F/F romance (!!!) What more could you want? The first two volumes felt like two halves of a whole story. It finished with a happily ever after that made me sigh contentedly when I closed it. I wanted more, sure, but it had wrapped up. I accepted that this was a precious gem of a self-contained two volume story.

And then! I randomly stumbled on a third volume! I didn’t know this was coming out! As someone who obsessively tracks new sapphic book releases, this was a shock to me. How could I have missed that this was getting a sequel at all, never mind one that was already out? I could hardly believe my luck.

This volume has everything I loved from the first two. There’s no baking competition this time–instead, Peony is baking for a fancy jubilee hosted by a space empress! It’s crucial that everything goes perfectly. Of course, that’s not what happens. In fact, the empress is poisoned, and now it’s a murder(-ish) mystery! This is a fun little puzzle set on a spaceship that is part plant.

I also really enjoyed Peony and Neptunia’s developing relationship. We get a glimpse into Neptunia’s past that explains why she’s so guarded and secretive. There is no drama here, though; they continue to be a happy, adorable couple.

If you are looking for a cute, cozy, comforting queer read, I can’t recommend Space Battle Lunchtime enough. Will this be the real final volume? I can’t find any information on there being a volume 4, but there was also 3 years between volumes 2 and 3, so that’s not saying much. Whether this is a charming epilogue to the original story or the beginning of an ongoing series, I am a big fan.

Carolina reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston [Out June 1, 2021]

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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Casey McQuiston’s first novel, Red, White and Royal Blue, changed the new adult literary romance genre with its compelling love story of the prince of England and First Son, cementing queer stories’ places on bestseller lists, bookstore shelves and the general public’s hearts. Their follow up, One Last Stop, lives up to all the hype surrounding the release and surpasses it, crafting a beautiful romance in the heart of New York City, all tied up in that beautiful pastel cover.

August rides the Q Train to and from her minimum wage job at a local pancake restaurant as she wades through her senior year of college and comes to terms with what lies ahead in her future. One day, she locks eyes with a kind, handsome butch named Jane Su on the train and falls in love with this stranger’s gentle kindness and fierce devotion to her fellow commuters. After a series of casual conversations, August realizes Jane’s vintage protest pins and Walkman aren’t just a commitment to a retro aesthetic; she has become unstuck in time from the 1970’s and is doomed to ride the train in 2020 for the foreseeable future. August decides to help Jane go back to her own time, trying every Groundhog Day style idea they can think of, falling in love all the while. Can August let Jane go back to her own time, losing the girl of her dreams, or can they find a happy medium?

One Last Stop was a delightful page turner, chock-full of McQuiston’s signature laugh-out-loud dialogue and biting wit. They’re able to pinpoint the pulse of New York City’s magic, and the hidden gems and mom-and-pop shops that make the city so special, warning against the insidious gentrification plaguing the city and turning special oases into yet another Starbucks. Not only is this novel a love letter to a city, but it’s also an ode to the mixed-up magic of a twenty-something discovering themselves, and the different kinds of love we make and find that last a lifetime. One Last Stop is a microcosm into your early 20’s, complete with every late-night roommate conversation, every doubt and regret and hope for your future, and every heated glance with a hot subway stranger, filling the gap in the literary market for people in their early to mid-20’s.

It also stresses the importance of queer friendship, community and history. August’s roommates are a fun, ragamuffin bunch of queer individuals sharing a space and a life with each other, there to the bitter end. Jane devotes herself to preserving the memory of her gay friends in the past, and making sure the world she and her friends fought for does not forget their contributions. Jane offers a window into little-known facets of gay history, focusing on the role of Asian-American leaders in the gay liberation movement, and on the much-overlooked Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans.

One Last Stop is part campy time travel comedy, part sexy romance, part lesson in queer history, part murder mystery, and part coming of age story. This gem of a novel will stay with readers for a long time after the last page, leaving a lingering scent of sugary pancake syrup and a feeling of nostalgia and rightness.

Thank you for the publisher and Edelweiss for the advanced copy!

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism

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)