Vic reviews The Wicked Remain (The Grimrose Girls #2) by Laura Pohl

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The Wicked Remain by Laura Pohl is the follow-up to last year’s The Grimrose Girls and exactly the conclusion this duology deserved, which is to say it was clever, full of hope, with a clear love of stories and rage at their prescribed endings. While I will try to avoid spoiling either book, The Wicked Remain continues right where the first one left off, with the girls now having to deal with the consequences of everything they did and everything they learned at the end of the last book. Along with grappling with the stakes of their relationships, new and old, romantic and familial, they also must try to save themselves (and every other girl at Grimrose) from the tragedies that await them.

When I read the first book in this duology, I knew that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t actually realize how much I liked it until I realized six months had gone by since I read it and I was still thinking about it. Book two was even better. Now, I will say I often enjoy the second book more simply because I already know I like the world and the characters, so now I’m along for the ride. It’s the difference between making new friends and spending time with your old friends. However, I also think in this case book two works better because while the first book was driven by a mystery that I didn’t find terribly shocking in its conclusion, the second book is driven by “how do we fix this?” On a personal note, I always find myself more invested in those stories than in mysteries, but I do believe character arcs are where Pohl excels, much more than in shocking mysteries. In setting up The Wicked Remain as she did, she was able to really lean into her strengths.

Everything that I loved about the first book was present in this book, but, as I said, even better. I loved reading about all of these characters again, and I loved how themselves they were all allowed to be. While the first book had to spend time on setup, this book was able to jump right in, which also meant it could dive deeper. Yuki’s descent into darkness contrasted with her desire to be loved and fear that she won’t be made for a particularly fascinating journey, and one that I can’t think of too many similar examples of, though I’m sure they must exist.  

And the relationships! The relationships introduced in the first book were explored more in depth here, and in interesting ways that I didn’t always expect (I’m looking at you, Nani and Svenja), but always loved. I am always here for gay princesses, which this duology more than delivers on, but that is not even all that I am talking about here. The friendships, both old and new, are the heart of this book, and they were just as fascinating, from the still-slightly-awkward newness of Nani’s inclusion in the group to the “I would kill and die for you” intensity of Yuki and Ella’s friendship. Even the complexities of the relationship between Ella and her stepsisters are given their due, and I loved this book all the more for it.

While this is a series about fairy tales, it takes everything so seriously, in the sense that nothing is treated as worthless. Everything matters. Everyone matters.  I won’t say much about the ending, but I thought it was the perfect end to the series. If these books had existed when I was sixteen, I would have been absolutely obsessed with them, and I know that for a fact because even now, as an adult with bookshelves full of the sapphic fantasies I craved in high school, The Grimrose Girls duology is still a favorite.

Nat reviews Errant (Volumes 1-3) by L.K Fleet

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I’m always impressed by books that are co-written, but a book with three writers?! A menage-an-author? The Errant series is written by L.K. Fleet, the pen name for a trio of writers: Felicia Davin, K.R. Collins, and Valentine Wheeler. For those of you who are very online and have perhaps pined for Touraine’s arms in CL Clark’s The Unbroken or Gideon’s very large biceps in Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, may I present to you: Aspen Silverglade’s well-muscled thighs. (Not that her arms aren’t also worth mentioning.) Aspen is a tall, dark, and mysterious do-gooder with impeccable swordsmanship but a troubled past. When Aspen meets Charm Linville, an actress whose skills extend to pickpocketing, she’s trying to protect the woman from a handsy fellow in a pub. This doesn’t go quite as planned for Aspen, but it does kick off the start of a series of adventures involving a secret organization called the Scale and a troupe of bawdy actors. 

One of the reasons this series gave me such warm fuzzies is its treatment of gender as well as  the casual introduction of characters with their pronouns. Gender roles are an interesting part of this book, but presented so subtly, woven into the world building, that you can’t help but appreciate the ease with which it’s done. Just about everyone gets some rep here: Polycule of domestic bliss? Check. Genderqueer/fluid, trans, and bisexual characters… triple check. Aspen, a tough but sensitive butch, is bisexual and has previously only had relationships with men/genderfluid characters, not following the stereotypical gender role script. Our curvy, secretive femme Charm is a lesbian. The people of the Sun have genders that change with the color of their scales! There are so many things to love about the book. (Including a horse named Mouse!)

My only minor issue was some confusion about the world our characters were living in. “Earth” people vs those of the Wood and the Sun (etc.) threw me off course a bit, thinking that perhaps there was off planetary travel, which seemed weird with the horses and swords, but who knows: it could have been a sci-fi mash-up or a Wheel of Time situation (where a once high tech world is thrown into the dark ages). This worked itself out for my brain about halfway through the book, where it becomes clear these are regions and the terms are more geographically based, but all on the same planet. 

This review is for the series as a whole, which reads quickly. As far as the romance goes, this is a slow burn, folks. We might have flirtation and heated glances, one horse, one bedroll and the like, but get cozy, because these lovebirds are going to take their sweet time consummating the relationship. It’s a bit like watching a TV series draw out the chemistry between the main characters until you are ready to throw something at the screen. In a good way, of course. 

Errant is relatively angst free; it does deal with issues of past trauma such as emotional abuse, but nothing incredibly heavy or triggering. These books are also meant to be read as a series. The authors do a decent job filling you in on a few details you might have missed or jogging your memory if you’ve taken a break between reading them, but you’ll likely feel lost if you don’t start from the beginning – although I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t want to read all three of these delightful novellas! 

Sam reviews Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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ʼTis at last that most frightful and morbid of months, a spooky season of ghosts and ghouls, the danse macabre we raise our jaded bones to join but once each year—October is here! And not a moment too soon, because it’s time to check in on everyone’s favorite lesbian necromancers from space. Three years ago, Harrow the Ninth managed to be both a hotly anticipated and shockingly unexpected followup to Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel. But after collectively turning our minds into pretzels trying to figure out what exactly was happening there, we finally have part three of the Locked Tomb series in Nona the Ninth.

Now, if you haven’t been keeping up with news of the series since you put down Harrow, you might be wondering—wasn’t the third book in the trilogy going to be Alecto the Ninth? And you wouldn’t be wrong. Alecto the Ninth is listed in all books published so far, and according to the author, the Locked Tomb was indeed intended to be a trilogy from the beginning. But Tamsyn Muir has since revealed that the first act of the novel ballooned while she was writing it, to the point that Muir’s editor forced her to break the manuscript into two books instead.

When I heard this news in the lead-up to Nona the Ninth’s release, I made peace with the possibility that previous protagonists Gideon and Harrow might not appear in this book at all. As it turns out, that was a very practical emotional defense to have going into Nona. If your only interest in these books is seeing more interactions between Gideon and Harrow, I don’t think you’ll like this particular novel. Which is a shame, because Nona the Ninth does a lot of other really neat things for the Locked Tomb quartet—and I say this as someone who has written extensively here about how much I love Gideon and Harrow! But here we get to see a side of Muir’s universe that we’ve only ever gotten hints at, and the characters she does choose to focus on definitely earn that spotlight. It’s not as surrealistically baffling as Harrow the Ninth was, but Muir doesn’t settle back into the comfortable foundations that I see now she was laying in Gideon the Ninth. I got a sense of Muir still pushing herself as an author, experimenting with form and narrative in exciting ways.

Because beyond the exposition and plot twists and preparation for the next book, Nona the Ninth grapples with some really compelling questions. What does it mean to love someone? Where do we look to find God, and what makes them worthy of our love—especially when God hurts us? What makes us worthy of the world’s love, after all we’ve done to hurt it? While Harrow the Ninth was unambiguously a book about grief, Nona plunges deep into the waters of family, faith, and forgiveness, all through the eyes of a girl who just wants one last birthday party before it’s too late.

I fully expect Alecto the Ninth to cast new light on the enigmas of Nona when it comes out. One of the really astounding things about the Locked Tomb series is how each book informs and illuminates the ones that came before. It makes them eminently re-readable, as each time through you see more and more pieces coming together to form a thematic whole. However, it also means that there is a lot of relying on faith that Tamsyn Muir will be able to cash the check she’s written with all this set-up, and I understand why some fans are looking at the looming end of the series with trepidation. Personally, I’m still safely on the side of eager anticipation for the series finale—though not as impatiently as I was between Gideon and Harrow. Even if the wait is long, I actually think Nona the Ninth provides exactly the kind of layered, thoughtful, yet charming company we need to make it through in the meantime.

Content Warnings: gore, violence, apocalypse

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.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Ready to cut loose from her life serving the Ninth House and a doomed future, Gideon makes plans to escape the planet, but Harrow has other plans for her. Harrow has been summoned by the Emperor to engage in a trial of necromantic skills and intellect. If either of them is to get what they want, they have to work together to discover the truth and survive it as a team.

Gideon uses her sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism to survive her servitude with the Ninth House. Throughout their lives, Harrow has made Gideon’s life a nightmare, manipulating her into getting involved with House politics. The evolution of their relationship as they become a necromancer/cavalier pairing sends them on a path to better understanding one another. Their antagonistic banter makes for a fun and funny romp of magical lesbians in space.

Gideon’s sexuality is established straightaway when she tries to bribe her superior with dirty magazines. Then, throughout the story, she grows close to Dulcinea, the Lady Septimus (of the Seventh House). While it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that Gideon is queer, it simply exists as part of who she is and is never questioned or condemned by characters around her, as it is a normal part of this world.

Muir’s world-building is intricate and complex. The story showcases necromancy magic more as a science, as well as part of the political structure of this world. Cavaliers and necromancers work together toward gaining power for their Houses, but within the events of this story, the characters start to learn their world and lives are not what they seem.

The narrative takes a turn as secrets start to come to light. The more the truth comes to light, the closer Harrow and Gideon become, pointing toward an enemies-to-lovers relationship in the works. The point where the tension breaks between them creates a satisfactory moment of letting go of the past so that they can move forward with a new kind of relationship.

I listened to this on audiobook as narrated by the animated and engaging Moira Quirk. Quirk truly brought each character to life, which helped in trying to keep track of all the different cast of characters throughout the story—although some kind of character chart/map would’ve been much appreciated.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting to read the rest of the series.

Susan reviews Above All Things by Roslyn Sinclair

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Above All Things is the second part of Roslyn Sinclair’s Carlyle series. Vivian and Jules have committed to each other, and now they have to find a way to stay committed to each other during upheavals at work, family drama, and the small matter of Vivian’s pregnancy.

To start off: this really feels like the second half of Truth and Measure, and it benefits from reading it as soon after as you can. Again, this is a 200k fic that’s been rewritten and split into two books, so this isn’t a surprise! But it’s still something to be aware of going in.

Above All Things does something that feels rare to me, in that the characters are out of the getting together phase. A lot of romances focus on how the characters get into a relationship and not how they stay in it, so seeing Jules and Vivian have to negotiate and renegotiate their relationship is really satisfying. There are so many obstacles – Vivian’s fame, Jules’ family, their own ability to communicate—but they choose each other, and they keep choosing each other in the face of all of them! It helps that the characters are still very much themselves as well. Being in love doesn’t soften Vivian at all; she is still ruthless and terrifying, and not always in a way that Jules enjoys. Jules desperately wants to prove herself, and that she doesn’t need Vivian’s help, despite how much Vivian would help her. They have to negotiate the power dynamics, the perception of their relationship, and their contradictory wants, and seeing the way it balances is glorious.

The scenes with Jules’ family are quite hard—well-written, but hard. Being understandably worried about your daughter in a relationship with heavily skewed power dynamics is fine, but the undercurrent of homophobia that her parents have carried from the previous book is there in force. There are some supportive and affirming reactions from other characters, but I thought it best to highlight that Jules’ parents are a whole thing.

For those who want to know how it compares to the fic version of Truth and Measure:

  • Above All Things doesn’t have as much of Jules being aggressively competent as T&M did Andy, but what we get is very good.
  • There’s an actual discussion of heteronormativity and the optics of Vivian and Jules’ relationship in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ve really appreciated how much more casually queer the New York of the Carlyle series is than that of The Devil Wears Prada, so I enjoyed that the characters could be out—even if only to have a media strategy in place to prevent abuse allegations. (Feel free to join me in feeling old because T&M came out in 2013.)
  • “Does [x] big confrontation still take place?” Yes and it’s GREAT. That is the least spoilery way I can put that.
  • If you were like me and appreciated that Miranda didn’t give birth on-page: I’m so sorry.

The long and short of it is that I enjoyed the level of drama and relationship dynamics in Above All Things. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as Truth and Measure, but I enjoyed the novelty of what it was doing and the finely tuned drama of it all. If you want fashionable queer women earning their peaceful ending, you should definitely pick up this series.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, pregnancy, birth, age gap romance, coming out

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

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.

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.

Sam reviews The Warrior Moon by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of Warrior Moon

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If there is one simple truth about writing that is not given nearly enough credit, it is this: endings are hard. It is far easier to begin a story than end one; it is even easier to continue a story than end one. Ending a story means answering any questions that deserve answers, completing any character or narrative arcs yet unfinished, and bringing the story to a definitive and satisfying conclusion. A good ending feels worthy of the time and effort the story took to reach it; a fantastic ending elevates what came before to new heights once the reader can view the complete work in its entirety.

But even putting quality aside, I believe that what makes endings so uniquely hard to write is that all endings (if true endings they really are) require the author to stop writing and finally let their work stand on its own. To end a story, the author must put down the pen and say, “It is finished. There’s no more—this is all there is. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Warrior Moon is the last book in her Ascendent trilogy, finishing the story began in The Tiger’s Daughter and continued in The Phoenix Empress. And it is the definitive end to the trilogy. While there is certainly enough imagination and and emotion in both the world and the characters Rivera has created that she could string this out into yet another who-knows-how-long continuing fantasy series if she wanted (and I would happily buy each novel as it came out if she did), she instead chose to give Shefali and Shizuka, Hokkaro and the Qorin, and this whole tale of gods and lesbians a proper ending. No matter how the final book ended up, I would respect K Arsenault Rivera for that.

As it stands, there is plenty else to like about The Warrior Moon, but also a few places where I feel it falters. With Shefali and Shizuka’s tales imparted to each other over the last two books, it is finally time for them to fulfill their childhood promise to ride north and slay the Traitor. The entire novel is spent on the campaign against him and his two remaining demon generals, but therein lies the book’s first issue. It has a bit of a “trek through Mordor” problem as the offensive has to trudge through miserable conditions and tragic delays just to reach their objective, and the first half of the book can feel like a bit of a slog. The tone is kept fresh by a much wider range of viewpoint characters, but as much as I enjoyed them all, it wasn’t a break from Shefali and Shizuka that I wanted—it was smoother pacing. Once the action picks up it really picks up, though, and I couldn’t put the book down after about the halfway point.

But how is The Warrior Moon as an ending? By my earlier definition, a good one, without a doubt. In a trilogy defined by tragedy, it manages to land just the right moments of hope and resolution, and wraps up everything it needs to for the story to end (which means no, we don’t get to see any of Shefali’s adventures in Sur-Shar, Ikhtar, or beneath the earth; it was the right call, but I’m still a little disappointed!). I’m not sure it manages to make a sweeping statement on the rest of the trilogy in retrospect, but The Warrior Moon certainly earns the ending that it has. During the last few paragraphs I was tearing up so hard that I couldn’t even read the words on the page!

Overall, The Warrior Moon is a good read, and the entire Ascendent trilogy is a great one. That the kind of epic fantasy trilogy I would have loved when I was younger now exists starring a lesbian couple feels like nothing less than a gift, and it’s one I will long be grateful for.

Content Warnings: body horror, gore, mind control, spiders

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.

Nat reviews Plain English by Rachel Spangler

the cover of Plain English by Rachel Spangler

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Rachel Spangler is probably one of my most read authors of sapphic romance because they are so darn reliable. I’ve never been disappointed. In my mind, I often refer to Spangler as “the author who writes sports romance,” and yeah, I’m a big sucker for a feel-good sports story. But Spangler’s writing is much more diverse than that label gives them credit for, and their newest book Plain English showcases that range.

I’d already read Full English last year, the first book in the English series, which is set in the small English town of Amberwick. Plain English, the third book, features many of the same characters. (I somehow missed the release of Modern English, the second book – more on that later.) It doesn’t matter much if you read the three English books out of order, but it’s always fun to have that experience of already knowing some of the established cast. That said, from the synopsis I was generally expecting a pretty straightforward continuation but with more royalty, angst and motorcycles. 

We’re introduced to a very flawed, sometimes infuriating protagonist Lady Phillipa Anne Marion Farne-Sacksley of Mulgrave. (Titles, titles, titles, announced in my best Robert Baratheon voice.) Lady Mulgrave, whose preferred name is Pip, or also literally any name that isn’t “Lady” Mulgrave, is a bit of a playboy with a Peter Pan complex. Here for a good time, not for a long time. We meet Pip in a way that immediately showcases their gay disaster profile: while sneaking out of a one night stand’s bedroom and wrecking a vintage motorcycle in a field within the span of a couple of hours. 

Enter Claire Bailey, a financially struggling artist looking to find her way after trying to keep her head above water in London for the last decade. Claire might be a bit of a mess herself, but she’s well on her way to getting that mess sorted. Learning (mostly) from past romantic mistakes, and moving forward with a new chapter of her life. Claire unexpectedly meets Pip by way of the aforementioned embarrassing motorcycle fiasco, and she immediately catches the aristocrat’s eye. Of course Pip is exactly Claire’s type, a type that embodies some big red flag energy wrapped up in a handsome, irresistible package. Claire knows any kind of relationship will end in disaster, and that Pip has a life and a path already mapped out due to the nature of English custom and aristocracy. And thus the perfectly reasonable idea of embarking on a short term relationship with plenty of boundaries (ha!) and absolutely no complications whatsoever (haha!). 

Don’t let the cheeky, playful banter between these two fool you. Claire and Pip are some of the most raw, vulnerable characters I’ve seen on the page in romance recently. The first love scene and the communication between them as they both navigate uncharted waters was perfectly executed. I also appreciated how Claire and Pip’s close friends set aside their personal feelings and frustrations to support someone they care about in their time of need, while acknowledging that Pip still has their own issues to work out. There’s a lot of hurt/comfort happening throughout, so buckle in. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Please excuse me while I jump forward to gush a bit about Pip’s character. We see a lot of adult characters in romance processing past trauma, healing, grieving – but we don’t always get to see them in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Especially one involving gender identity. This was an unexpected aspect of the book, and I cannot stress how much I loved it. There were some moments in the book, especially as Pip deals with their conservative, controlling family, that really punched me right in the feels. I want to tell you so much more about it, but it’s best to just experience it for yourself. (End spoilers.)

Back to this book existing as part of a series – one reason I might recommend checking out Full English first is to experience the growth of a particular side character who returns in Plain English. We first meet Reggie in Full English when she’s just a pup, experiencing her adorably awkward and earnest interactions with the adults who recognize something familiar in her, which is explored further in Plain English. It is precious. You will love her. 

That said, I also realized while reading the book that I’d missed the second installment in the series, Modern English, and caught up after I started writing this review to make sure I hadn’t missed anything big. If you want more of an introduction to how aristocracy works and all those stodgy English rules, then maybe you’d prefer to read all three in order. Of the three books, Plain English was hands down my favorite, but as a series, they complement each other so well that it would be a shame not to read them all.  

Sam reviews The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Phoenix Empress

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K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, ended with a lot of stories left to tell. Both of its main characters, Shefali and Shizuka, had gone on perilous and dramatic adventures only hinted at in the book itself, and their future clearly holds challenges yet to come. But still it ended, closing out with an emotional and satisfying conclusion despite so many unanswered questions. I knew The Tiger’s Daughter was the first book of a trilogy, but I have to wonder if the author knew when she wrote it. Because while its sequel novel, The Phoenix Empress, feels like a natural extension of where things left off, in some ways it feels far more dependent on being part of a trilogy than The Tiger’s Daughter ever did.

Before I worry fans of the first book, let me say that if you liked The Tiger’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Phoenix Empress. For a novel so concerned with how years of trauma can change someone, both Shefali and Shizuka felt completely true to the characters I fell in love with. It’s written like a reverse of The Tiger’s Daughter, with epistolary chapters from Shizuka’s perspective interspersed with present-day narration from Shefali. Getting to suddenly see through Shizuka’s eyes adds a compelling new depth to the story we already know; learning that many of her moments of arrogance and hubris were fueled by uncertainty and fear deeply humanizes her as a character. Also, hearing Shizuka call Shefali handsome for the first time was a revelation—I saw the butch/femme dynamic between them during the first book, but having it signposted so explicitly in the second was spectacular.

But for all that I loved, The Phoenix Empress did have some peculiarities that stuck out to me. The real heart of the book is Shizuka’s story of what happened to her during Shefali’s time away, and how she became empress. After that story ends, however, the book still has a good many chapters left to go, and it’s almost all exposition setting up the last book in the trilogy. These chapters didn’t undermine the emotional weight of Shizuka’s tale, but I can’t say that they built upon it either. Despite still being good writing with good characters, I don’t think the ending served The Phoenix Empress quite as well as it serves the trilogy as a whole.

Overall, The Phoenix Empress does a better job of being part of a fantasy trilogy than it does at being a novel. However, it is still very good, and as a follow up to The Tiger’s Daughter it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it can be very intense at times; none of the content warnings listed below are lingered on for very long, but if even a mention is too much for you, you may want to pass this series by. But if you read and loved the first book like I did—well, then I can’t imagine much is going to keep you from reading every book that follows.

Content Warnings: body horror, drowning, gore, cannibalism, mind control, vomiting

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.