A Return to Dragons: Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay

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Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay, was published on November 21, 2023, and takes the reader into the world of Three Dragons Academy for Girls. It is a story thirty years in the making, and gives us a peek into the mind of the new Headmistress of the all-girls academy, Magdalene Nox. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in this series, The Headmistress, I recommend starting there, though this can absolutely be read as a standalone.

In the prologue, readers meet Magdalene Nox on the very day she was kicked out of Three Dragons Academy as a student, thirty years ago. It is clear that being removed from the school is an incredibly painful experience for her, though Magdalene tries to hide that fact with stoicism. Even as a teenager, Magdalene is a force. And as often happens with women who do not bend to the systems and structures put into place by powerful men, the establishment does what they can to snuff out her spark. Unfortunately for them, Magdalene is not easily deterred. 

The next thirty years lead to Magdalene’s vengeful return to Dragons, to burn it just like it burned her.  She has gone from school to school and built her reputation for being ruthless and smart. She is courted and pursued. Everything she has been working towards comes to fruition when she’s presented with the offer of new Headmistress of Three Dragons. What she finds there both surprises her and takes her on a journey she never expected. 

When Milena announced she was releasing Magdalene Nox, the Headmistress from Magdalene’s point of view, I was both elated and nervous. Could this story told from another point of view be as incredible as the first? Is it even possible to recreate a story that is just as gorgeous as its predecessor? Well friends, in case you were wondering, the answer is not only is it possible, but it turns out it can be done even better. This story manages to feel fresh while staying true to the original novel. There are scenes that parallel chapters of the Headmistress, but are told from Magdalene’s perspective and offer insight into the woman we have previously only experienced through Sam’s eyes. It provides a depth to someone that holds her cards very close to her chest. 

Milena’s style of writing always takes my breath away. I think she is one of the best when it comes to crafting imagery and creating metaphors that are so apt you can’t help but think about them for days and weeks after. She paints a picture with her words that is so vivid you feel like you have been transported there and can visualize it perfectly. Aside from her technical strengths, there is a poetic nature to her prose and you can’t help but get lost in it. The pull Magdalene feels toward Sam is written so well, you feel it right to your core. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intimate scenes in this novel are perfection, and Milena writes them with a care that ranks amongst the best of authors out there. The way she writes tension and love, yearning and longing—often within a single page—is something to behold. 

This book expands on characters we have met previously, and introduces one of my favorites: Candace, Magdalene’s mother. Mother-daughter relationships can often be complicated, and this is a prime example of that. Candace is brash, fierce, and loves her daughter. How Candace shows that love is arguably flawed, though I’m not sure even she would say any different. Their interactions shed light on the woman that “raised” Magdalene, allowing us further insight into everything that makes Magdalene, Magdalene. Though flawed as a mother, I loved Candace as a character. 

We also get to see more of Magdalene’s interactions with her ex-husband, Timothy. Milena managed to put boyish charm, regret, and longing into everything he does. Those scenes were laced with pain, but I imagine that was the point.

I think one of the great privileges to come with this book was a front row seat to Magdalene Nox falling in love, and re-falling in love. Getting to experience that, to witness her internal feelings evolve and progress feels like being let in on a secret that is to be guarded closely. We don’t often get to see things from the perspective of a character like her, and all it showed was how well Milena knows her characters. There was nothing that felt inconsistent with what we know of her from the Headmistress, but rather builds and adds in such a way that makes total sense. To experience that love, the pain and betrayal, and the conviction of her, was a joy. (It also meant we got to see more of a ginger cat, and those scenes were a delight.)

Milena herself has said that this book was a want, not a need. This story didn’t need to be told—The Headmistress could have stood alone. But, the thing about this novel being about “want” is that it shows. There is a passion and a care that is obvious throughout. I think it’s clear when an author loves a character and a story as much as their readers, and this is one of those books. Milena not only did Magdalene’s story justice, she elevated it in a way that only an author who has worked on their craft and reflected on their previous work can. This was a book born of love. A love for her characters and a love for those readers who also cherish them. I cannot recommend this beautifully written book enough.

Colonialism and Revolution in Fantasy France: The Faithless by C. L. Clark

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When I finished The Unbroken by C. L. Clark, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue with the series. It was brilliant, yes: thought-provoking and gut-wrenching, with commentary on colonialism and a passionate, doomed F/F romantic subplot. The strengths of the book, though—the bleakness that reflects the real-life horrors of living through war, occupation, and revolution; the fallible characters making mistakes with devastating consequences; the complexity of the depiction of colonialism—were exactly what made it difficult to read. I wasn’t sure I would be able to read another thousand pages of that between the next two books of the trilogy. By the time The Faithless came out, though, I felt ready to dive in again. And I was surprised to find that book two had everything I loved in book one, but with a lot more fun.

To be clear, this is still a story about empire and power struggles, with deaths and high stakes. But while book one took place mostly on the battlefield, book two is more about court politics in a country reminiscent of France. The power difference between Luca and Touraine is still there, but Touraine has more leverage.

It’s also interesting to see Touraine struggle with trying to figure out where she belongs: the country she was raised in as a child soldier, or the country she was born in and is trying to fight for? She feels outside of both, and is developing her own sense of identity now that she has more space to make her own decisions.

The relationship between Luca and Touraine is more of a focus, and the pining here is unmatched! It also feels more fun to read because there isn’t such a huge power disparity between them. I’m still not sure if they’re good together, but of course I was rooting for them to sleep together anyway. Also, Sabine—who has a friends-with-benefits situation with Luca—really steals the show. Her flirting with both of them and calling out their sexual tension is always fun to read.

This is still the Magic of the Lost series, so there’s a dark undercurrent underneath. Touraine is dealing with PTSD after her near death experience—something I rarely see in fantasy, even though of course you would be traumatized after something like that. The peace between Balladaire and Qazal is tenuous, and the conditions of their agreement are being bitterly fought over, which threatens to throw them back into combat at any moment. Violent revolution looms. Luca is looking for any sort of advantage to seize the throne—and finds that power comes with a price she isn’t sure she’s willing to pay.

I’m so glad I continued with this series. I appreciated the writing, plot, and characterization just as much as the first book, but I found it a much easier read—it probably helps that I’m now familiar with this world and these characters. It’s a rare second book in a trilogy that I like even better than the first. I’m excited to read the final book in the series when it comes out!

A Sapphic Space Opera of Smoldering Obsession: These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs

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If you’re looking for a queer space opera chock full of complex politics, smoldering obsession, and ever escalating revenge, These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs is a worthy entry into the field. Renowned hacker Jun “Sunstep” Ironway has gotten her hands on a piece of evidence that links one of the Kingdom’s premier families, the Nightfoots, to its most infamous genocide.  The Nightfoots, sitting on top an empire built of the synthetic element needed to make space gates turn on, need to silence Jun before their rivals sense blood in the water and the Kingdom descends into war. They task Esek, a scion they sent to become a cleric, to find Jun, counting on Esek’s lack of morals and fierce cruelty to get the job done. Esek and her former novitiate Chono set off after Jun and family secrets.  But they are also pursued themselves. Six, a shadowy figure from Esek’s past, brings a new definition to the idea of a long game as they seek always to escalate their game of cat and mouse with Esek. As more clues and layers to the relationship between all three groups come to light, who is controlling the information becomes less and less clear.  Instead, they might all be caught in the resulting conflagration. These Burning Stars is a fast-paced, gripping read with interesting world building and even more interesting characters. I had such a great time unpicking the relationships and gaping at the carnage.

First off, Jacobs doesn’t spend too much time on flogging the overall details of the Kingdom. We are zoomed in on the Nightfoots and the specific events that brought them to power, as well as the corresponding actions by the Kingdom’s enforcement Hands of clerics, secretaries, and cloaksaans. But she does drop in enough fascinating hints to give everything some flavor. The generation ships that brought them to the system are treated like museum pieces. The different population groups with slightly different customs. And, my personal favorite, the custom of gendermarks. Different groups have different customs regarding children (the children in the religious schools being trained to go into the Hands are referred to as “it” and denied a gender until gradation for instance), but the general custom is that upon reaching maturity everyone gets to choose their own gender and you announce it with the mark you wear. And, going by some hints dropped in, you can change it as simply as changing your mark.

The implications are fascinating. The Nightfoots are seen as slightly weird for being aggressively matrilineal, meaning they need a female heir who can also pop out more female heirs herself, rather limiting their pool of choice. It also means that of the main characters, Jun, Esek, Chono, and Jun’s wife Liis saw no impediment to their lives, careers, or prospects by choosing to be women. In contrast Six, who disappeared from religious school and thus never officially chose a gender, aggressively refuses to reveal theirs, sowing confusion and mild bewilderment as people struggle about how to identify and talk about them.

There is one official wlw relationship in Jun and Liis, who have lived life on the down low together for long enough to know each other in and out and develop their own couples shorthand. They both have their own skillsets and mesh them together to keep Jun’s hacker persona ahead of all attempts at capture, and when faced with tough decisions they may not always agree, but they always know how the other will want to decide. The lesbian spacer ideal. But the more page consuming relationship (although I would definitely not call it romantic) is between Esek and Chono (and Esek and Six and Chono and Six. The weird but intense energy here is off the charts). Esek literally trained Chono as her novitiate, fostered her brutal practicality, taught her to be ruthless, and in general wound herself into so much of Chono’s character that even after Chono becomes a full cleric in her own right, she can’t break free of Esek’s pull. Esek is everything to her, Esek is terrible to her, she will do terrible things for Esek, she is the one person Esek will hold back from maiming or killing on a whim. There’s a lot going on here and almost none of it is #relationshipgoals. I was hooked. And when you add in how neither of them can let the pursuit of Six go, it’s intoxicatingly dramatic.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for your next queer sci-fi read, add These Burning Stars to your list. The combination of space opera complexity and incredibly petty escalation and revenge is intoxicating. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I, for one, cannot wait for the next one to come out.

Fake Dating at Its Best: Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date by Ashley Herring Blake

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Delilah Green Doesn’t Carethe first book in Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls series, was the first sapphic romance I had ever read. It is still my favorite because, not only is it an excellent book, but I credit it with opening up an entire new world for me. Nowadays, I’m predominantly reading either sapphic romances or stories with sapphic subplots. Astrid Parker Can’t Failthe second book in the series, was also outstanding, so when I saw that Iris Kelly, the sassy and playful side character in both books was getting her own story, I was excited. As soon as I had my copy of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, I dove in. I am delighted to say that Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, doesn’t disappoint. It is a hilarious and heartwarming story of a short-term fake romance that leads to long-term love.   

Iris Kelly is surrounded by love. Her best friends have found love. Her parents are still madly in love after decades of marriage. Her brother and sister each are married and have kids. Iris, on the other hand, is committed to commitment-free hookups. She has experienced the pain of what a relationship can do to a person, and wants no part in it. This aversion to romance is at odds with her career as a romance author. And this creates the worst case of writer’s block while working on her next novel. Meanwhile, Stevie is a struggling actor who is also struggling to cope with the fact that her ex-girlfriend of six years is now dating their mutual friend. Looking for a good distraction, Iris runs into Stevie at a bar one night and there is instant chemistry. However, their one-night stand ends up going horribly wrong (seriously, it’s so bad). While both of them would rather forget the night and move on, fate brings them together when Iris auditions for a play Stevie is in. With all Stevie’s friends assuming that Iris is auditioning because they are dating, Stevie asks Iris to play along. Seeing this as an opportunity to get some inspiration, Iris agrees. The arrangement is simple: Iris and Stevie will pretend to date until the end of the show. Stevie will save face and get her friends to stop pressuring her to date around. Iris will use the experience for inspiration on her next novel. However, as the two spend more time together, things become far less simple.

The “fake dating” trope is not one that I often gravitate towards. This is because, being a terrible liar myself, I struggle with the idea of maintaining the lie of a fake relationship long enough for anyone to buy it. That being said, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date won me over so quickly with how it creatively uses this trope. For starters, it felt more believable than other “fake dating” stories because the only people being lied to here were Stevie’s group of friends and members of the play’s cast and crew. It also was not a lie that they needed to maintain for too long. The stakes of the lie are also fairly low compared to other “fake dating” books I’ve seen out there. It is not some grand scheme for money or a promotion. Stevie just needs a rebound so her friends will back off and stop pitying her. Iris just needs material for her book. Lastly and most importantly, I really liked how quickly the emotional connection between Stevie and Iris developed. Ashley Herring Blake skipped a lot of the standard casual fake dates you see in these romances. Instead, she dove straight into highly emotional moments for both Iris and Stevie, letting them build their connection more quickly. While it still did take them a while to act on their feelings for one another, their emotional connection began to develop much earlier on. Altogether, these things made the scheme feel more plausible and hooked me in very quickly.  

Something else I have loved about the Bright Falls series is how emotionally authentic and heart-wrenching these books are. Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date continues this trend with a story of two  characters dealing with some real heavy issues like General Anxiety Disorder, self-doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness. The way each of these is handled feels so genuine. How Stevie and Iris talk to and about themselves mirrors things I have heard myself or others say when struggling with these feelings. It made me want to reach into the book, hug them, and go, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

At the same time, Ashley Herring Blake also expertly shows how love can help us overcome issues such as these. She doesn’t treat love as a panacea, though. It’s not that these characters just suddenly feel better and solve all their problems once they find each other. Instead, she shows how a loving relationship is about being there for each other. Stevie and Iris put in a lot of tough emotional work into helping each other when they are at their lowest. It isn’t always easy for them, just like it isn’t always easy in the real world. And just like in the real world, Stevie and Iris still have a lot to work on individually even after the events of the novel. As a reader you walk away knowing that, together, they can overcome it all. That’s what a fantastic love story is all about. 

In addition, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date is a really funny book. The banter between characters is playful and witty. Scenes which could be played as embarrassing are painted in a more humorous tone. Ashley Herring Blake also has fun playing with other common romance tropes, setting you up to expect one thing and then giving you something else. Also, as a fan of puns, I was happy to see several really good ones. For example, this book has inspired me to find ways to name all my group chats using puns with the word “queer” in them. Lastly, it’s also a really spicy book, with plenty of tantalizing lead-ups to some really hot sex scenes.    

If you’re a fan of the previous books in the Bright Falls series, you will also really appreciate all of the call-backs and references to those books. Delilah, Claire, and Astrid play sizable roles in the story, for both Iris and Stevie, in ways that do not feel shoehorned in. I can’t say much more because of spoilers, but trust me when I say that Ashley Herring Blake closes out this series in a way that is satisfying for all Bright Falls fans.

All in all, I adored Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. It gave me everything I want in a sapphic romantic comedy and so much more. I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre, whether it be your first in the Bright Falls series or not.  

A Sapphic Gothic Fairy Tale: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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My favourite holiday of the year is Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, particularly the October readathon. My roommate and I spend all day reading horror books and snacking. It is a delight. Last year, I read Every Heart a Doorway and really enjoyed it. The horror/fantasy novella series felt like a perfect fit for the October readathon, so I decided I’d read one every year. Each follows different characters, and this one has a sapphic main character (who was also a side character in the first volume).

I still love the writing style, including the little asides to the reader, and I was especially delighted by the first chapter: The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children, which explains how easy it is to see families that seem picture perfect on the outside while missing the real difficulties and messiness of raising kids. Jacqueline and Jillian grow up with parents who are determined to have perfect children to further their own image. They were hoping for a boy and a girl, but they’ve made the best of having twin girls by assigning one the role of tomboy (Jillian) and one the expectations of femininity (Jacqueline).

This beginning section explores gender roles, showing how both Jill and Jack chafe against these expectations, and how every person is a constellation of many characteristics that are gendered in a variety of ways. They are raised to compete with and judge each other, and they have no safety with their parents. It’s no surprise they want to escape.

As is the premise of this portal fantasy series, they find a door to another world—but it’s a gothic world, with vampires and resurrected corpses. Before long, they both feel at home here, able to explore the sides of themselves that they repressed as children. Jillian is enraptured by being chosen by a vampire lord, enrobed in the fancy dresses she was previously denied, and with freedom she couldn’t previously dream of. Jack is able to find value in hard work and her own intelligence instead of just as an adornment. Both can see a future for themselves in this world, and Jack even finds a girlfriend. But this is a gothic story, so you know we’re not heading towards a happy ending.

I enjoyed this book and will definitely be continuing this series, but I did like Every Heart a Doorway better. This is the backstory of two side characters from the first book, so I already knew the ending of this one. Spoilers, highlight to read: I knew that Jack and Jill change their gender presentations from what was assigned to them as kids. I know that they don’t stay in that world. And, the biggest spoiler: I know Jill is a murderer. End of spoilers. It was hard to have much tension with that in mind.

I still am glad I read this one, but it was a little disappointing after loving book one. This is an atmospheric gothic read with sapphic and OCD representation in Jack. It has engaging writing and a dramatic plot. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it before the first book. I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the series compares, but I’m predicting that I’ll enjoy the books set at the school more than the books set in the different worlds.

Not every book in this series is sapphic, but it seems to include different kinds of queer representation throughout.

If you’re looking for a queer gothic fairy tale to read on a blustery Autumn evening, definitely check this one out. It works as a standalone, so you don’t need to read any other books in the series—though you’ll probably want to. And it’s short enough that you still have time to read it before October ends!

For some other perspectives on this Down Among the Sticks and Bones, check out Marike’s and Til’s reviews.

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

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 her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Kids Can Fight Injustice Too: Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith

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“My name is Callie, and I’m not a girl. I am here as Papa’s squire, and I want to train as a knight.”

Content warnings: verbal and physical abuse from parental figures; internalized homophobia/transphobia; deadnaming; bullying; queer-coded distrust of magic; parental figure with implied depression; implied suicide of SC; death of sibling to SC; grief, anxiety and other traumas 

Rep: nonbinary/sapphic MC; sapphic SC; genderqueer SC; gay parental figure; bi parental figure 

I received an e-arc from Netgalley and Labyrinth Road free of charge, and my opinions are completely my own.

As an adult reading middle-grade, I am often wary of either reading a narrative that infantizes the reader or overestimates their experiences. When I read Sir Callie for the first time, I was delighted to see that I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Syme-Smith’s voice is an entrancing one, with their writing transporting the reader back to being twelve years old and having an idealized version of the world. Callie’s perspective on her family and her reactions to Helston’s intolerance feel incredibly true to not only the character that Syme-Smith skillfully crafted, but to tweens everywhere, regardless of sexuality or gender. Beyond Callie, the rest of the cast is as wonderfully wrought, whether you look at Elowen and her fierce determination for equality, at Willow and his fear of letting down his kingdom, or at Edwyn and his desire to please his father (the villain of the book) battling what he believes to be good and true. Even the adults shine as full-fledged characters who are not necessarily demons or angels, but rather are judged by their intentions and interactions with their privilege. 

Sir Callie is a book that validates the childhood experiences of readers who have experienced prejudice, abuse from parental figures, and internalized and externalized queerphobia. I personally fell in love with Sir Callie because I felt seen—the things that happened to me as a child were acknowledged with a gentle hand, and I saw kinship in Willow’s struggles with magic and Elowen and Edwyn’s relationships with their parents. Readers of all ages can find healing amongst Callie’s family, both birth and chosen, as Symes-Smith assures us (through Nick) that as kids, our only job is to be a kid.  

Of course, I cannot NOT talk about the queer representation within Sir Callie! We come into Callie’s story with them having realized that they are not cisnormative, and fast-forward to their identifying proudly as nonbinary. The words that Symes-Smith uses to describe being nonbinary are simple, and yet lifechanging. Here are one of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t a she, and I wasn’t a he, I was just . . . Callie. Eventually, I put on “they,” and I haven’t taken those shoes off since.” Beyond the nonbinary representation, Symes-Smith makes having magic (and not being a girl) immensely queer-coded, especially when seen in Prince Willow, who is bookish and wants to please everyone around him. There is little to no romance in Sir Callie—the only romance blossoming is between Nick and Neal, Callie’s dads, and perhaps a slight crush on a certain girl…But no spoilers!  

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (I dare you to say that five times fast) has become one of my absolute favorite middle grade books with its placing queer characters and realistic themes front and center. This is an incredibly important title that I can see being discussed in schools and library book clubs—and should be! The fantasy elements bring a bit of distance to a plot that discusses real life issues such as prejudice, intolerance, and abuse, and treats its readers with respect and care. The only real complaint that I could have about it is that the ending felt a little too perfect. However, Symes-Smith has since revealed that Sir Callie was just book one, and will be part of a four-book series. Sir Callie and the Dragon’s Roost is set to focus on obstacles outside of Helston and to show how fighting for justice never ends at getting rid of one villain. 

Are you still not sure about reading Sir Callie? Well, if you like these books: 

  1. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle 
  2. The Sun and the Star, by Rick Riordan 
  3. The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag 
  4. Dear Mothman, by Robin Dow 

Then you’d definitely want to grab a copy of Sir Callie! You can get a copy of Sir Callie from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Sapphic Ice Queen Reality TV Romance: Reality in Check by Emily Banting

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Emily Banting’s latest release, Reality in Check, came out August 12, 2023 and I couldn’t wait to get my hands (and eyes) on it. If you haven’t already, you should absolutely check out Broken Beyond Repair, Emily’s preceding novel in the South Downs Romance series.  It’s not necessary to have read that before diving into Reality in Check, though if you have, you will certainly appreciate the cameos in the epilogue of the book. 

Reality in Check follows two women, Arte and Charlotte, on their journeys to find happiness, both professionally and personally. We meet Arte as she is returning “home,” to the hotel her grandmother and grandfather used to run and own. Arte, and her sister Sophie, have been left the hotel after the death of their Gran. While Arte’s sister is not really interested in running the hotel, Arte is determined to honor their Gran by getting it back up and accepting guests as soon as she can. Arte, unlike Sophie, had spent a significant amount of time in the hotel. For all intents and purposes, it had been her home and it’s filled with memories. Arte is so committed to making things work and honoring the woman who had been there for her when she needed it most, she leaves her work and life in Rome. What meets Arte is a wall of memories, a pile of bills, and a hotel in desperate need of work—maybe more than Arte can do alone. Arte is also left with her Gran’s lab, Rodin. (You just know a book is going to be good when there’s a dog involved.)

It seems Arte’s Gran knew the hotel needed help and that things had gotten to a point where she could not do the updates that needed to be done on her own…if only Arte had known that. 

Before Arte’s Gran had passed, she contacted the reality show to help revamp parts of the hotel. Enter Charlotte Beaufort—host of Hotel SOS.  “A formidable woman with a trigger. Colour me intrigued.” Color me also intrigued. I have never read a description that had me ready to meet someone so badly.   

Charlotte has been the host of Hotel SOS for the last several years. She has a reputation for being honest and a tad bit brutal in her commentary about the state of the hotels she has been sent to help. Prior to that, she was managing one of her family’s Beaufort Hotels. We come to meet Charlotte at a time in her life when she’s unhappy in her marriage and all she wants is for her mother to trust her enough to take over the family business. But, Charlotte’s mother, Claudette, seems bound to stay at the helm. Before I go any further, it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I love an Ice Queen. Any shape or form, I am here for a woman with an icy exterior who is competent, a tiny bit (or a lot) bossy, and who has a lot going on under the surface no one knows about. With Charlotte Beaufort, it was as if I went to a Build-An-Ice Queen brick and mortar and picked her out myself. A fifty-one year old woman who has worked hard, is incredibly good at her job, hot, AND mommy issues?? Sign me up! That is the roundabout way of saying to you, dear reader, that I loved her.

When Arte and Charlotte first meet, it goes…poorly. Charlotte doesn’t know who Arte is and in an effort to make small talk, absolutely steps in it. What follows is a dynamic involving a woman who is still dealing with the loss of her grandmother, contrasted with a woman who has been wearing a persona for so long it’s hard for her to know whether that’s who she actually is, or whether it has just become like second nature because she’s gotten so good at being that way.

The thing about “Ice Queens” is that there is always more than meets the eye, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much. Charlotte is no different. We see examples of that told through her assistant. After all, an Ice Queen would never directly tell us they have a big ol’ heart filled with kindness under that icy exterior, now would they? 

Woven into the potential blooming romance, there is the very fresh grief Arte is experiencing. Emily writes so beautifully about grief, and how that process is never a linear line. There is a line in this book that I immediately loved and highlighted: “If it represents your grief, it’s unlikely to ever be finished.” That is absolutely the thing about grief. It’s never gone, and when we lose someone we love, that grief will always be present. This is a gorgeous story about the things people do to honor those they have lost, the ways humans try to ease the grief they are feeling, and the very real acknowledgement that it never really goes away. It also shows us that grieving does not always look the same for everyone, even within the same family. Through Arte, Emily wrote a character that was doing her best to honor her grandmother, while also honoring the dreams she has had for her life and being true to those, as well. After all, those who truly loved us would want that above all else. 

Where Arte has been given the freedom from a young age to pursue the things that made her happy, Charlotte had been set on a path for one thing only: take over the family company. That was her father’s intention for her before he died. And for many years, that was what Charlotte was working toward. She worked hard for it, and she was very good at everything that was set (intentionally) in her path. Charlotte is a prime example of someone that was born with expectations put on her, and when you’re born with those, sometimes it is easy to conflat those expectations with your own dreams. What I loved about Charlotte’s story was that while in many ways meeting Arte may have been the catalyst for her to re-evaluate things, it was her that took the steps needed to change what she didn’t like about herself and her life. But I think that is what good matches do: they allow us to see ourselves in a way we may have been afraid to and give us the push we need to be a little (or a lot) brave.

I absolutely adored this book. In many ways, it was reminiscent of all the things I love about a Hallmark movie, which I mean to be the highest of compliments. Only, this book was gayer, better written with more depth, and tackled serious parts of the human experience with beauty and realness a Hallmark movie could never. I consider it to be an aspirational Hallmark story where if I could make a sapphic one, it would look like this. There is growth for both of these characters, not just Ice Queen Charlotte. Charlotte helps Arte broaden her view of the world just as much as Arte helps Charlotte get in touch with what is most important to her. There is a balance each character offers the other. Did I mention I love Charlotte Beaufort? 

I highly recommend Reality in Check for you to discover for yourself the beautiful story of Arte and Charlotte.

Evil Gods, Murder, and Angry Women: The City of Dusk by Tara Sim

the cover of The City of Dusk

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Tara Sim’s The City of Dusk has been on my to-read list for a while now, and with the second book in the series—The Midnight Kingdomhaving just come out, now seemed a great time to get around to it.

This dark fantasy novel follows the four heirs of the noble houses of Nexus: Taesia, Risha, Angelica, and Nikolas. The members of each house are descendants of one of the four gods, who have left them behind and sealed their own realms behind a barrier. This event, known as the Sealing, has left the world in a dire stateit is slowly dying without access to the other realms, and as such, the heirs are desperate to find a way to break the barrier and reopen the portals. As if that wasn’t enough trouble, Nexus’s king has no heir and is expected to announce the heir of one of the houses as the next ruler.

The heirs themselves are both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While each of them has a distinct personality and unique ambitions and are all a delight to readdespite some of them being morally dubious, at bestthe book simply does not have enough time to spend with all of them. Taesia is clearly the favorite: she gets the most screen time, and her character arc is the most complicated and most complete. I frequently found myself wanting for more time with the others, especially Angelica, who was my personal favorite but probably has the least amount of writing. This disparity extends to the protagonists’ supporting characters, as well: Taesia’s sister is an important character who shows up often and even has her own POV section. By contrast, Angelica’s apparent romantic interest is barely around at allthere was an intense emotional section later in the book that was undercut somewhat by the fact that I genuinely forgot who this person was.

Speaking of romantic interests, though, I do love an ensemble cast where every member is some manner of queer, and that does seem to be the case in The City of Dusk. Taesia and Nikolas both express interest in men and women, Angelica has multiple intimate scenes with other women, and I believe Risha is asexual. These identities don’t play a major role in the story, however, so don’t go in expecting any romance.

By far my favorite part of this book was how downright furious the female leads are. I feel like fiction doesn’t allow its female characters to be genuinely angry outside of emotional climaxes, but that is decidedly not the case in The City of Dusk. Taesia and Angelicaand Risha, but to a lesser extentare upset at their circumstances, at their families, at the political machinations of the people who have power over them, and at the gods themselves, and the story does not shy away from letting them show it. I would not say that any of them handle their anger particularly well, but they are allowed to feel it and show it and own it, and it’s incredibly satisfying to read. I found myself cheering them on even when they were making objectively awful decisions, because it was just impossible to not empathize with that level of righteous fury.

It feels weird to say that a book with a word count of 150k could have been longer, but that was the feeling I was left with by the end of it. The plot progresses at a very rapid pace, which is great for maintaining interestsomething that I find a lot of political fantasy really struggles withbut it doesn’t leave enough breathing room for the characters to just exist.

The final act of the story is especially hectic. There are at least five different schemes that all come to a head in the same climax, and the action gets really confusing. This was probably exacerbated by the fact that my ebook did not show any breaks between POV shifts mid-chapter, and I don’t know if this is true of a physical copy, but it still felt like there was a little too much going on. There were several twists involving characters that barely showed up in the story before the end, and it didn’t feel like many of them were foreshadowed particularly well. I’m willing to give it a little more leeway as it’s the first of a trilogy and is setting up the sequel, but it’s still kind of messy.

Complaints aside, however, The City of Dusk still managed to captivate me all the way through. The characters really drive this story forward, even if they left me wanting just a little. I’m still very much excited to get my hands on The Midnight Kingdom as soon as I can.

Content Warnings: a good amount of violence and gore but honestly not too extreme for dark fantasy barring one especially brutal scene involving cannibalism, some suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

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If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.