Check Out This Intricate and Fast-Paced Sapphic Fantasy: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover

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After I finished devouring this year’s stunning fantasy murder mystery The Tainted Cup over the course of about three days, I knew that I had to dive into Robert Jackson Bennett’s back catalog immediately. Foundryside happened to be the one my library had the shortest hold list on, and I was delighted to find out that not only was it as well crafted, but it was also queer. In Foundryside, Bennett combines intricate world-building, nonstop action, and surprise sapphic feelings into a thrilling first book of a fantasy trilogy that I can’t wait to finish.

We open in the slums of Tevanne, where Sancia works as a highly skilled thief with a hidden power to read objects she touches to earn a living. Despite being so highly skilled, Sancia lives in a ramshackle, poorly-furnished room by herself. I was immediately interested in Sancia because she was so highly skilled but also, unusually for a thief character, she wasn’t too cocky. She didn’t take unnecessary risks because she simply wanted to save enough money to escape her Tragic Backstory that gave her the unique sensing ability. Not even the accepted magic users in universe can do what she does, and what she would really like is to turn it off. Bennett has created an entire intricately-crafted society around his unique magic system, called scriving. Scriving uses symbols and their relationships with each other to cast a new state of reality on objects. For, example one could scriv a wall to believe it’s a strong as the day it was built or a door to only open if it meets the correct key. It’s a system that can be dangerous: scriv with gravity in the wrong way and suddenly a body turns into paste. With such a system, Tevanne has come to be ruled by a series of Merchant Houses, each with its own proprietary scrivings. No government can be allowed to exist that could puncture the Merchant Houses’ sovereignty, and so if you are not attached to the Houses and live in their campos, there is only slums and scraps for you, which is where Sancia operates. I found the implications of scriving—limited only by ones imagination and logic—to be fascinating and compelling, and it made for a series of Mad Max-esque heist and action scenes, as various characters had tools, weapons, and abilities that were essentially welding together from unpredictable elements, which I found very fun.

When Sancia is hired to steal an artifact from a safe, she is dropped into the midst of a vast conspiracy that will change Tevanne forever, if it survives. What I enjoyed about this story was the dramatic flip: after her semi-successful theft, Sancia runs up against Gregor, a Merchant House man with a burning desire to actually bring justice to Tevanne, and it’s a typical cop/thief dynamic. However, circumstances force them to flee back to Gregor’s campo together, and Sancia comes to meet Orso, the campo’s head scriver, and Berenice, his ultra-competent and practical assistant. Suddenly, we’re in a split in the Merchant Houses, trying to expose who wants to steal power and illegal scrivings for themselves. Sancia, being an outsider, at first doesn’t want to work with any of them—any more than they trust her as someone from the slums instead of the campos—but they have to if they want to both stay alive and prevent magical catastrophe. It was such an interesting dynamic for a band of protagonists, and Berenice’s immediate interest in Sancia was even more welcome.

Berenice, unlike the men with more obvious status, never dithered and quickly established herself as out to get things done. When she meets Sancia and is attracted to her both looks and talent, she expresses her interest with a kiss and then makes it clear that the next move is Sancia’s. Sancia, traumatized and operating on the edges of society, has not had a lot of opportunities to think of love or sexuality in relation to herself, but is pleased with this development. Being the first book of a trilogy, there isn’t a ton of time devoted to their budding relationship, but it does provide absolutely critical and adorable motivation to Sancia at a pivotal action point.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a well-crafted and intricate fantasy book with a rules-based magic system and girlfriends instead of a straight romance, you can do worse than Foundryside. I found it to be an engaging and speedy read, and I put the second book on hold right away.

A Painfully Oblivious Lesbian Love Story: Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream audiobook cover

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Your enjoyment of Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream will depend heavily on how you feel about reading hundreds of pages of a truly oblivious queer main character. The kind of character who googles, “Can you be straight and have a sex dream about your female best friend?” “Can you be straight and have sex dreams about a woman every night?” “Can you be straight and want to kiss a woman?” Personally, I had a lot of sympathy for Cash’s heteronormativity-poisoned brain, so I had a great time listening to the audiobook narrated by E. A. Castillo.

This is set in the same small town as Mejia’s 2023 bisexual F/M romance Sammy Espinoza’s Last Review and has some cameos of characters from that book, but I didn’t read the first book and didn’t feel like I was missing anything major, so you can definitely start with this one.

At 17, Cash Delgado shaved her head and joined a punk band, and then her controlling parents kicked her out. She thought she had a found family in the punk scene, but when she got pregnant, her support system (and the father) disappeared. She was on her own.

Since then, she’s built a life for herself by running Joyce’s Bar, a rundown bar that nevertheless is a community hub, especially on Karaoke Night. It isn’t glamorous, but the job comes with major perks, like free housing and health benefits. The hours are also flexible so that she can drop off and pick up her daughter Parker. (Parker also plays a fairly significant role in the book, and she’s an adorable six year old with a big personality.) Another big advantage of Joyce’s is working with her best friend, Inez.

Inez is the closest thing Cash has to family now, other than her daughter. She helps out with laundry and dishes when Cash falls behind. Parker adores her. Cash is so grateful for Inez’s support. Sometimes she worries that Inez is going to get a serious girlfriend one day and they won’t be as close, but she tries not to dwell on that.

We meet Cash as she faces two major shake-ups to her life. The last guy she slept with visits town, and when she goes on a date with him, he casually reveals he’s there to open a bar that will almost certainly drive Joyce’s out of business. After ditching him, she begins frantically trying to hatch a plan to save the bar, including trying to convince the out-of-town owners to pay to renovate. Of course, she and Inez work closely together to plan, which leads to the next shake-up: Cash has a… steamy dream about her best friend.

Cash reassures herself that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but she continues to have these dreams every night, and soon she can’t look at Inez without picturing them playing out. Even as her attraction to Inez becomes harder and harder to explain away, Cash worries about endangering their relationship. As you can imagine, this denial combines with miscommunication between Inez and Cash, causing the tension to just keep ratcheting up until the final chapters.

There were some aspects of this that didn’t land with me. For example, the ex turns out to be such a mustache-twirling homophobic villain that he felt cartoonish—though of course people like that do exist. On the other hand, Inez sometimes felt too good to be true, but she feels more realistic later in the novel. It was also hard for me personally to be too invested in fighting for a bar. Still, I found Cash’s obliviousness to her own queerness charming, and I felt for her, so I was invested in seeing how her and Inez’s story wrapped up.

If you’re a fan of friends-to-lovers romances, useless lesbians (affectionate), small town romances, single mom main characters, and coming out to yourself stories, I recommend this one, which comes out on July 2nd.

A Manga About Love of All Kinds: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon by Shio Usui

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vol 1 cover

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Last month, I raved about She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Sakaomi Yuzaki. It was a pretty solid guess that I would also enjoy Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon by Shio Usui, as they’re both slice-of-life manga about adult women who fall in love while eating plenty of food (with less of a focus on cuisine in Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, to be fair). Both titles also explore the characters’ family lives, develop a strong ensemble, and feature asexual characters discovering who they are and who they love. Possibly my favorite shared aspect, however, is how each series presents the theme of acceptance. That isn’t to say the two series are the same—in fact, having some overlap in topics can make contrasts in execution stand out—but nonetheless, I would happily read other slice-of-life manga in this vein.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon is a complete four volume series following Uno Hinako, an office worker who fixates on being “normal” in hopes of attaining the acceptance of her coworkers, her mother, and herself. To her, this means maintaining both her makeup and her smile, as well as finding a boyfriend. Despite this, she doesn’t develop feelings for any men, nor does she experience sexual attraction to anyone—but when she grows closer to her seemingly aloof coworker, Sato Asahi, she develops romantic feelings for her. Asahi, however, has been too focused on raising her little sister to foster her own relationships. After the first volume, an additional wrinkle occurs when Asahi’s long-time friend shows up out of the blue.

My favorite part of this series was definitely how the relationships unfolded. Even when the characters don’t understand their own wants, or when their desires conflict, they wade through those murky waters. This series celebrates love of all kinds, demonstrating that no type of love is lesser than any other, while acknowledging the heartache and complexities that love brings. Conflicts between characters are not introduced and drawn out for the sake of pointless drama, but exist to explore these complexities and push the characters to grow more fully into themselves. Without spoiling anything past volume one, I wasn’t initially sure whether I would enjoy the addition of the final character I mentioned, but her arc ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the story. 

As I said, this series focuses on the idea of acceptance. While She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat uses the motif of cookie cutters to represent that people come in all forms, Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon posits that like both doughnuts and phases of the moon, people don’t have to seem whole in order to be worth cherishing. As also stated, both series feature asexual protagonists. In She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat, the words asexual and lesbian are used and defined on the page. While of course there is a place for works that explicitly label and describe sexuality, I appreciated how Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon manages to show the characters working through their feelings without having to break out an infographic. Having words for your identity can be incredibly important, but it can be equally important to show characters simply experiencing these feelings and being able to create their own happiness, regardless of what terminology they have access to. 

To be clear, none of these comparisons are meant to undermine either work. I do, however, have to say that after reading Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, I had renewed appreciation for how the art and storytelling in She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat managed to feel grounded in a way that suited the maturity of its characters, while maintaining those classic shoujo blushes and warm fuzzy feelings. At times, the execution of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon didn’t feel particularly distinguishable from a high school manga. The mangaka even mentions in one author’s note that the characters are almost like teenagers at times, so perhaps it was intentional to bring this youthful feeling to a story about adult characters. 

Ultimately, this series may have based its motifs around the idea of not being whole, but it certainly didn’t leave me feeling empty.

Content warnings: one instance of homophobia from a family member, depictions of pressure for women to conform to femininity and heteronormativity, and an occasional appearance from a boss who is a bit of a creep

A Sapphic Sherlock Series in Space: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is Malka Older’s second novella in the Mossa and Pleiti series, set in the far future, when the last of humanity is in a thriving colony on Jupiter amidst an expanding series of platforms and rails. Like the the first novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, Unnecessary Obstacles is a murder mystery, with the inscrutable but brilliant detective Mossa taking the lead on investigating a series of disappearing persons cases and her girlfriend Pleiti filling in the vital gaps with her academic connections and slightly superior people skills.  

This novella series perfectly fits the cozy mystery niche. While there is a little danger for spice, Mossa and Pleiti spend most of their time hunting down leads and deciphering what they find, letting a reader sit back and enjoy the ride. As a second book, I really enjoyed that Mossa and Pleiti are working to settle into their relationship. I also like that this book fills out their characters a little more. There’s a fun field trip to Jupiter’s moon, where Mossa grew up, which fills out a little of Mossa’s character and a little of Jupiter’s society. It was interesting to see the sentiment towards a shuttle ride and driving their own vehicle versus the ubiquitous rail cars of the planet. And Pleiti, who in her role at the university is attempting to reconstruct an Earth-style garden, is dealing with the political fallout of the first novella. I enjoyed seeing them work together again, more deliberately this time, and I enjoyed that their search led them to different areas than the first book. They also take a long distance railcar trip, which I found a delightful idea and I can’t believe isn’t a romantic novelty trip on Jupiter.

Although I did ultimately enjoy this novella and have a fun time reading it, I did feel like this one was a little slower compared to the first—the mystery didn’t seem as urgent, and although we did get some new environments on the moon and in the student clubs, I found that this book had fewer of the really cozy world-building details from the first one—or maybe it’s that there were more locations but we passed through most of them fairly quickly. I also felt like, while Mossa had taken their new relationship status to heart and was intent on improving upon her own shortcomings, Pleiti felt stuck in her past mindsets. Mossa was strangely the one doing the best communication in this book, which Pleiti should really think about in my opinion. However, I still liked this book and would read several more in this series —hopefully with more world-building and relationship development each time. I think this Jupiter colony is so fascinating, and this is a series that could sustain an whole progression of mysteries without being too repetitive. 

In conclusion, this series is one of my favorite recent sci-fi developments. I love that the recent trend towards really developing novellas has given scope for amazing authors to present us with fun little stories that aren’t doorstops. Sci-fi and mystery is also a pairing of genres that I love. If you enjoyed The Mimicking of Known Successes, this book is a nice treat, and if you’re looking for a short cozy read, you should definitely add this to your list. 

A Thrilling Elemental Fantasy Debut: The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbair

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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Nehal has practically everything that a woman could ask for: wealth, a prestigious name, an engagement to one of the most eligible men in Alamaxa. What she doesn’t have, though, is the right to join the Weaving Academy on her own and learn how to control her waterweaving—not without the permission of a male guardian or a husband.

Giorgina doesn’t have any privileges of the wealthy. Her impoverished family relies on her income to stay afloat, so she can’t afford to rock the boat by joining the Daughters of Izdihar too publicly in their fight for the right to vote, nor can she afford the tuition to learn how to control her earthweaving. Her heart is further broken when she learns that her love is being forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat named Nehal.

These two women live worlds apart, but soon they find that their fight for the right to determine their own futures will throw them together.

I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it came out about a year ago, but after a slew of sapphic fantasies I found myself putting it off. Now, at least, I get to read it with the second book already out (no spoilers, but you’re definitely going to want to have access to the second one shortly after finishing this book). I do regret taking my sweet time because this book was such a fun, fast-paced adventure.

I heard The Daughters of Izdihar described as a sapphic, Egyptian-inspired version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The similarities with Avatar the Last Airbender are obvious with magic powers tied to the elements, but I think that is where the comparisons end. Elsbair expands upon the ways in which weaving is a metaphor for how entrenched institutions impose on marginalized groups, how it’s a way to weaponize the group against itself by creating a sense of “other” framed as dangerous. In one scene, the women working to get the right to vote consider casting out the weavers in their cause in a way that echoes how women’s rights groups have continually excluded other marginalized identities for the sake of being more “acceptable” or “tolerable”. Weaving is a skill that only the privileged classes are able to afford training, an example of how money can justify outliers and reclassify people who deviate from the norm as merely eccentric rather than dangerous.

If you’re mostly looking for an adventure story, there’s plenty of that too. I was surprised at how fast-paced the book was. At times I felt like we were speeding along in scenes that I’d prefer to linger, especially as Nehal learns more about her abilities and what the Daughters of Izdihar do. It also means, though, that there’s never a dull moment. It’s also a duology, so I remain hopeful that the characters I wanted to see more from will feature prominently in the next one. It’s a wonderful debut and I’m looking forward to whatever Elsbair puts out next.

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

A Queer Futuristic Take on a Classic Mystery Setup: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles By Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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I love sapphic novellas with an unconventional blend of genre elements—so of course, after reading The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older last year, I eagerly awaited the sequel, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. I had the sense I’d enjoy it even more as a series, with the chance for the lead investigators, Pleiti and Mossa, to deepen their relationship as they uncover further mysteries in space. I’m pleased to report that I was right.

I can best sum up this series’ mashup of elements with the following detail: At one point in the second book, Pleiti, who lives on a platform attached to the rings of Jupiter, sends a telegram to Io. As a series of standalone mysteries featuring a Holmesian duo, the books’ narrative style evokes the classics. As sci-fi novellas, they explore a future where humans were forced to leave Earth centuries ago due to a climate apocalypse. The compact page count lends itself to tight plots and focused theming, as well as worldbuilding the reader can easily absorb. As a sapphic love story, Pleiti and Mossa’s tale is one of college girlfriends who went their separate ways, only to come back together in a high-stakes environment that reignites their tender partnership.                   

These elements are tied together through the narration of Pleiti, who works at a university’s Classics department, combing old literature from Earth for details that might help the scientists recreate its ecosystem in a long-term project to make it habitable once more. As the Watson figure in this duo, she records the investigations that Mossa, a high-standards whirlwind of an investigator, drags her along for. The dynamic and style bring in that classic element, but they also make the sci-fi worldbuilding surprisingly approachable—it’s not difficult to justify the narrator going on a brief aside to explain an aspect of humanity’s life above Jupiter when she’s a professor recording the events in an old-fashioned narrative voice. The duo’s banter and history lend a coziness to the books that lighten the post-apocalyptic setting and threats of murder.  

With it being easy to disappear over the edge of the platforms and be lost forever, both books so far have dealt with missing person cases, where of course the plot thickens as murder and politics get involved. While I’ll try to avoid major plot spoilers for the second book and for the first book’s mystery, note that as I focus in on the sequel, the rest of the review will necessarily spoil the status quo at the end of the first book re: the main characters and their relationship.

In this second installment, Mossa and Pleiti are investigating the disappearances of a wide array of seemingly unconnected people at the university where Pleiti works. Their investigation takes them all the way to Io, where Mossa was born, and the reader learns more about the history of humans leaving Earth as well as some of the current politics. 

In the meantime, though Pleiti and Mossa rekindled their romance in the last book, Pleiti’s yearning remains in full force, as the characters are in a tentative stage of their relationship. Pleiti is still unsure where she stands with Mossa, and the same overthinking that helps her uncover mysteries proves to be counterproductive as she ponders the subtext of their interactions, not aided by Mossa’s intense personality. While investigating, they are able to fall back on their partnership as a source of security, but the hesitancy in their relationship maintains tension even in those quiet moments. This is my favorite stage to read about in a romance, as the characters share fondness, domesticity, and trust, but still have to navigate uncertain waters. 

One theme that lends itself well both to the book’s small scale and large scale concerns is the concept of home. Being from Io, Mossa has dealt with the preconceptions people have about her. Meanwhile, having been born on a platform, Pleiti is unmoored both by the openness of space travel and the solidity of a chunk of land. Her awkward attempts to prove to Mossa that she can nonetheless be open-minded about Mossa’s home provide a relatable human element to the bigger questions explored. As humanity as a whole has not been to Earth in centuries, the planet feels unreal to Pleiti, with all the classic Earthen literature she studies taking on a fairy tale quality. The idea of the very goal of her research—a return to a place she’s never been—actually happening in her lifetime thus unnerves her. 

This book also touches on themes of classism, as due to the current politics at the university, Pleiti is confronted with the fact that once again a rich man who did horrible things will be venerated. Meanwhile, nobody had noticed over a dozen people disappearing from that same university, in part because many of them had low-paying jobs. At one point, Pleiti wonders with some shame if she had subconsciously thought of a porter as enough of a person to be the subject of a missing person case. This subject is also touched upon on Io, with the discussion of which people had the means to escape Earth to begin with, and some families still being concerned with the supposed status of that lineage. 

As the plot unfolds, Mossa and Pleiti must confront the question of why humans impose unnecessary obstacles on their lives, whether it’s within a relationship or the very structure of society. Thankfully, with this book being just a little over 200 pages, there aren’t many obstacles to getting lost in its vision of the future.

Content notes: In addition to the obvious topics related to a climate apocalypse and (off-screen) murder, this book contains one homophobic microaggression and a brief discussion of eugenics. 

Jamaican Joan of Arc: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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I first saw Kamilah Cole describe her debut, So Let Them Burn, as a Jamaican Joan of Arc, which was enough to grab my attention even before the book had a cover. To be more specific, So Let Them Burn is the first book in a YA fantasy series that follows former chosen one Faron Vincent and her older sister, Elara. Five years after the war for their island’s independence, Elara inadvertently forms a bond with an enemy dragon, while Faron determines she will stop at absolutely nothing to save her sister from the threat of both the bond and the empire itself.  

Like I said, I was sold on the concept the minute I heard about it, but even the coolest concept can turn out to be a let down in the wrong hands. Kamilah Cole is not the wrong hands. It took less than half a page for me to determine that I was going to love this book, and as the story unfolded, I only got more invested. Every time I had to put the book down, I was just a little bit resentful that I couldn’t keep reading.

Something that I thought was really fun is that while I knew this book follows a chosen one after she’s done her duty, Faron is not the only one who fits into a popular fantasy archetype. One dynamic I found particularly fascinating is the one between chosen one Faron and Queen Aveline, who spent the first seventeen years of her life on a farm with no knowledge of her true identity and now resents Faron a little bit for the fact that when the war ended, Faron got to go home and Aveline didn’t.

Literally all of the relationships were wonderful, though. The romantic relationships had me hooked, as did the friendships, but the central relationship between the two sisters just felt so real. They both loved and admired each other so much that, despite the hints of jealousy on each side and the expected annoyances, they were both so determined to keep each other safe, whatever the cost. I loved them both, and I am terrified for what the next book will bring for them.

I also really enjoyed the narrative voice, which was the first thing to win me over. It made me laugh throughout, though it never detracted from the more serious themes. Since this was third-person, I’m much less inclined to be annoying about how distinct the perspectives did or did not feel from each other, but there was at least enough difference that I never forgot which sister’s head I was in, even when they were in a scene together, so I’m quite satisfied on that front.

I already know I’m going to miss these characters when the series is done, but fortunately I’ve got some time until then. (Less fortunately, it also means I have to somehow survive that cliffhanger until then.) Even more fortunately, this series is not the only thing I have to look forward to from Kamilah Cole. Not every book that sounds amazing ends up living up to my expectations, but this one definitely exceeded them. I recommend it with my whole heart.

A Lush Fae Romantasy Series: Faebound by Saara El-Arifi 

the cover of Faebound

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I have recently become deeply entrenched in the lands of fantasy romance fiction, and when I heard that Saara El-Arifi, author of the fabulous The Ending Fire trilogy, was releasing a new sapphic fantasy romance, I was eager to read it! Faebound (2024) is the first book in a lush and exciting trilogy with the well-crafted worlds that we’re used to with El-Arifi’s fiction. 

Faebound follows Yeeran, a warrior in the elven army, and her younger sister, Lettle, who is a diviner. When Yeeran miscalculates in battle and makes a terrible mistake that costs lives, she is exiled from the Elven lands. Cast out into the wilderness beyond civilization and beyond safety, Yeeran and Lettle must fend for themselves—that is, until they encounter the seemingly impossible presence of the fae in the lands beyond Elven territory. The fae have been in hiding for a millennium, but Yeeran and Lettle are thrown into their world, and they find themselves embroiled in a plot much larger than themselves, but one that affects their loyalties and their desires. 

I enjoyed this novel overall, but there were parts of it that left me with mixed feelings. My primary genre lately as a reader has been fantasy romance, and El-Arifi’s latest is a unique and absolutely individual contribution to the genre. The world is complex and fascinating, and Yeeran and Lettle’s characters are vividly articulated. As a first book in a trilogy, this book is doing a lot to set up the larger plot and the world of the later books. I do wish that perhaps this had been a bit longer in order to fully immerse the reader in the world, but at no point was I lost or confused. El-Arifi makes use of the worldbuilding space to make the stakes of the plot clear for the reader. A slower development might have been useful—I’m thinking of the kind of pace of The Final Strife

I do think that some of the nuances in the romance suffered as a result of the length. I loved the sapphic romance element, but it felt so rushed, and I wasn’t seeing the transition from enemies to lovers as anything but abrupt. It just didn’t feel exciting to me, despite starting off so well in the beginning. The other romances in the novel were stronger, but I did want more. 

Plot-wise, Faebound was fun. I did immediately figure out the main reveal in the novel, so it was a bit maddening to watch the characters struggle to figure out what was obvious, but I was very much along for the ride throughout. 

Overall, Faebound is an interesting addition to the fantasy romance genre and it’s got lots of great BIPOC and queer representation, barring some of the clunky elements related to the pacing and the romance. 

Please add Faebound to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Saara El-Arifi on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

An Enemies-to-Lovers Miami Romance: Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias

the cover of Fighting for Control

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Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias was published on November 11, 2023 and is the second book in the Dominion series. While I highly recommend reading the first in the series, Losing Control, because it’s a truly amazing book, it is not absolutely necessary to read before this one. It does, however, introduce one of the main characters, and several recurring characters. Fighting for Control follows Lola Barros and Carmen Vargas on a deeply rich and satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance. Lola is a talent agent trying to make a name for herself in an agency run by someone that deals in no nonsense. Carmen is an attorney working for her family’s firm and trying to forge her own path while honoring and carrying the legacy of those who have come before her. The two women work in the same building and cross paths occasionally… and sparks usually fly in one way or another. After a particularly intense encounter, involving a race to the parking garage and a nearly injured janitor, the owner of the building gives Lola and Carmen an ultimatum: attend anger management counseling with her “spiritual guide” or risk eviction. What follows is a journey for two strong women to explore feelings that, for better or worse, are incredibly intense and unlike anything they have experienced before. 

In the last year I have come to the conclusion that I love an enemies-to-lovers trope. Especially when it is done well. I don’t like cruelty, and I don’t think that can be easily forgiven, but a good old fashion feud that is largely propelled by ideas one person has of the other, and vice versa? A feud that is also propelled by a confusion at how you could find someone so hot it makes you do absolutely irrational things?? That is what I like to see. And in Fighting for Control, J.J. Arias absolutely nails it. Both Lola and Carmen are three dimensional characters who each have such strong backstories and development. What could be a surface level enemies to lovers based on physical attraction is instead a story about two people with different backgrounds each fighting their own internal battles and trying to find the bravery to trust. 

I adored Lola and Carmen, both individually and as a pair. Everything in Lola’s life has been transactional. She has never been given anything without the expectation of something in return. She searches for an angle in everything because there have only ever been angles. Lola’s backstory and home life leave you both heartbroken and exhausted on her behalf. You fully understand why she acts the way she does, and J.J. is truly one of the best at character development. The way Lola starts to open up to Carmen, and the way Carmen receives that, is a beautiful thing to watch unfold. Carmen walks around with the weight of the world on her shoulders, made even heavier with a family legacy her mother insists she upholds. There is a gentleness to her, and I think that is what Lola is drawn to… in addition to finding her infuriating attractive. Carmen is like no one else Lola has met, and that is both appealing and confusing for her. They both offer each other a safe place, and a protectiveness over the other that was one of my favorite things to watch unfold. 

With any J.J. book, you are going to get heat and passion, and you are going to feel those things deeply as you read. I think she is one of the best at writing love scenes that are layered, and so beautifully written they leave you a little breathless. But with J.J. it is never just those scenes that get you. She writes love stories that make you need a glass of water one minute and a tissue the next. Her range is incredible, and I believe her to be one of the best at portraying a myriad of emotions, sometimes all at once. There is one scene in this story that was truly so powerful and well written, I get teary eyed just thinking about it. That only happens when an author has written characters you truly care about, and J.J. has done that with this book. 

The premise of this book leads to some truly hilarious (and steamy) set-ups, and I am anxiously awaiting the third in the Dominion series—the focus of which will be Lola’s icy and incredibly successful boss, Natalia. Fighting for Control is J.J. Arias at her best, and I cannot recommend it enough.