Danika reviews The Swan Riders by Erin Bow

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow coverAfter hearing only good things about the Scorpion Rules duology, I was eager to pick it up. Unfortunately, I read the first book during a readathon, and reading a crushing dystopian story about war and brutality was not the best choice to read all in one sitting. It was darker than I was expecting, so I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. I was, though, interested in the ideas introduced in the book. So I took a few months break before I picked up the second book in the series, The Swan Riders, in the hopes that I would be more prepared this time.

I spend most of my time reading this book thinking This is the reading rule you seem to re-learn over and over: just because people say a book is great, doesn’t mean you, personally, will love it. I have long since realized that it doesn’t matter how high calibre the quality of a book is if it doesn’t immediately appeal to me. Still, I continued with the sequel, because I had heard it was an improvement from the last book. Perhaps I was less connected to the characters because of the break that I took between books, but I was having trouble pushing through.

I have, historically, been a fan of dystopian novels, but this one I found hard to deal with. It’s just so straightforward about the suffering experienced. The pain. The first book includes a detailed scene of torture that nauseated me. The second book describes the slow deaths of several characters, all involving increasingly close together seizures. While the first book has some semblance of an us vs. them clarity, Greta spends most of her time in The Swan Riders alongside the villain of the previous book.

By the end of the narrative, I had come around. The strength of this story is in its ideas, especially (for me) its exploration of personal identity and humanity. [spoilers for first book:] Greta is an AI now, and she begins to drift away from her humanity and empathy, assisted by Talis’s intervention. [end spoilers] It takes this idea, of an AI enforcing global peace, and shows how tangled it is. How can global peace be achieved? Can it? And what amount of sacrifice is worth it? Clearly, Talis’s strategy is not defended by Greta or the narrative, but there’s also not a tidy alternative.

As for the queer content, there is definitely no central romantic story here. In fact, Greta does not interact with Xie for the whole novel. But her presence is there, nonetheless. She is Greta’s tie to humanity, to retaining her true self. She is a memory that Greta clings to. She is, in some ways, the home that Greta spends each step of her journey longing to return to. So although she isn’t a central character, she is a very important one.

For all my ups and downs with this duology, I would still recommend it, but with some caveats: this is not a queer Canadian princess fantasy-esque story that the blurb had me prepared for. This is a dystopia that is focused on war and its casualties. It is thought-provoking, but brutal.

Shira Glassman Recommends F/F Sci Fi You Can Buy Outside of Amazon

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post full of links to f/f fantasy books I personally recommend, populated with buy links other than Amazon for any of you who don’t want to stop there or at least looking at cutting back on spending money there. I’d like to do another post like that, this time with some of my f/f science fiction recommendations. If you don’t see your favorite book on here, it might be that I haven’t personally read it, but it might also mean I couldn’t find a non-Amazon link for it. And happy endings only, of course. This is, after all, a Shira Glassman recs post!

First of all, you have to have anticipated that a post like this would start with a recommendation for Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee. This YA starring a bi Chinese/Vietnamese-American girl, written by same, kicks off a fun romp of a trilogy starring qpoc teen superheroes. The main character’s parents are superheroes, as is her older sister, but her powers haven’t kicked in yet. What if they never come? So in a fit of teenage pique she decides to start interning for the villain. Turns out things are a little more upside down than she anticipated. This is a good series for people who have been binging superhero fanfiction and people who want big happy queer friend groups instead of just romance.

Next, a wonderful, sweet piece about an outmoded android and a repair tech: The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz. The android woman still carries with her vast grief from missing her original human, and the path given to her by the plot is a metaphor for healing and vulnerability that really resonated with me.

You can read this one for free: “Né łe!” by Darcie Little Badger. Originally printed in Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, a LGBTQ+ Native anthology, this is a romance between two Native women 1. in space 2. surrounded by 41 puppies. If that isn’t a heck of a selling point, I’m just going to go back to bed.

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi is about disabled queer women in space fighting Big Pharma. The sci-fi plot takes you everywhere from space opera to multiverse theory, and the romantic plot resolves in several layers of overlapping polyamory. TW for some fridged family members, and for the description of how one of the women lost a limb.

Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver takes us to Parole, a city the US government trapped under quarantine to control the population’s mutant powers. Evelyn Calliope is a trans woman with sonic powers, in a f/f/f triad with a woman with plant powers and a woman with mech powers (they also have a son, and, if I remember correctly, a robot dog?) Together with Anxious Lizard Man Regan and some other characters they try to find hope, water, and other resources in the dystopian mess. RoAnna’s writing is full of positivity and cheerleading.

Medic to the Hive Mind by Kayla Bashe coverWhat is a connection? What is trust? In Medic to the Hivemind, Kayla Bashe plays with some classic questions of both the romance and science fiction genres. A woman stranded in space is comforted by another woman over the Space Internet, without knowing much about her. Hard to describe without spoilers. Also, Jewish lead/author.

Amazingly, “f/f romance set in an arts school in outer space” is becoming its own subgenre somehow! First, I’ll recommend Sparks Fly by Llinos Cathryn Thomas, set in a dance school on a space colony, involving a kind of dancing that uses zero-gravity and floating pods. One of the heroines has been working at the school for years and thought she’d have the headmistress spot to herself eventually, but it turns out she has to share the top spot with an injured dance star taking some time to recover. It’s sort of rivals to friends to lovers, but more awkward than really rivals. Secondly, Flowers of Luna by Jennifer Linsky, starring a biracial Japanese girl written by same, takes place at fashion design college on the moon. A new student meets a cute girl who’s sort of sexually adventurous (she often goes out in public without underwear, for example.) This one has a very ‘New Adult’ feel as well as many details of the main character’s fashion career.

The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie coverThe Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie is a futuristic dystopian adventure story in which a group of pirates, led by a vicious yet appealing woman captain, want control over a sea monster. The f/f is between a girl who’s been with the pirates for a while to support her family and the main character, who winds up with them initially against her will as part of their sea monster acquisition scheme. If teenage lesbians and a gigantic turtle are your jam, this is your book. TW for one of the pirate boys dying in a horrifying way. There’s a sequel I haven’t read yet. Side notes that this book is more likely to be in your local library without you having to request it than most of these others, and it also won’t out you to your parents or coworkers.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a mostly feel-good, episodic series of related adventures with one of those “the spaceship’s crew is like a family” setups. The f/f romance is only one of the side plots but does involve the main character. This is a book that has a lot of wonderfully neat alien species including polyamorous reptilians that have giant cuddle parties. Warning that you may want to read some reviews because there’s a disability related side plot unrelated to the f/f that some people found hurtful (I actually prefer the sequel, but it doesn’t have any romance and is more of a spinoff involving two minor side characters in Long Way.)

Cinnamon Blade by Shira Glassman coverThose are my offerings today! If you want to check out my own writing, the closest I’ve gotten to science fiction are either the short story “Aviva and the Aliens” in Tales from Perach, about how the queen’s girlfriend outsmarts the aliens who kidnap her in hopes that her cooking will be better than their spaceship’s replicator, or my brand-new superhero romance Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor, in which an ex-thief who’s now the hero’s sidekick decides to finally ask out the damsel in distress she’s rescued several times. Can they ever have a normal date or are there too many monsters of the week?

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Susan reviews Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Reiss

Space Battle Lunchtime is a two-volume graphic novel by Natalie Reiss, about Peony, a baker who accidentally ends up being an emergency replacement for a cooking show… In space?! Cue sabotage, drama, rival shows with distinctly more cannibalism, and trying to work space ovens.

This is super charming and funny. Peony is both competent and confident in her baking skills, and I loved getting to see her do well even though she was in completely unfamiliar territory. I was so invested in her doing well, which meant that the first couple of issues where she was floundering while surrounded people who just assumed she knew what was going on were very frustrating for me. I know, I know, it’s a trope, but it’s a trope that I hate. But “winning over the cast and crew so they help you” is also a trope and I was so happy to see it here, especially because of the way that the relationships build. Peony is so nice and so confident and just wants to beat everyone fair and square, yay! The way that her relationship with Neptunia comes together works perfectly with that – there’s awkwardness and rivalry and Peony putting her foot down to make sure they can work together, but also sweetness and daring rescues and both of them being supportive of each other and each other’s feelings!

The art is really, really cute and bright and colourful, and the designs of all of the aliens are distinctive and interesting. I especially love the way the Natalie Reiss contrasts appearances and personalities (such as the cute magical girl fox, who is sure a character), and the way that it introduces background details that further the plot and the world building, I thought that was really clever and well-handled. (… I’m sure it’s fine that Cannibal Coliseum, the rival cooking show where contestants literally cook and eat each other, keeps showing up in the background. That’s probably not relevant.)

But of course, what is a cooking comic if there isn’t rampant sabotage, and the ways that the sabotage is revealed is really cool. The reactions especially are great and fun, and the way that Peony and Neptunia deal with the end of the story is great. It was cool and believable and I enjoyed it. … Although I got to the epilogue stories and was suddenly REALLY CONCERNED for the side characters! My only real complaint is that the first volume ends on a massive cliffhanger, so it is worth getting both volumes together if you’re going to get them!

I really genuinely enjoyed this. It’s cute, it’s funny, and seeing Peony rising to her challenges is great. If you like cooking shows, bright and happy graphic novels, and/or ridiculous space drama, this is absolutely your thing.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Megan G reviews Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armour by Shira Glassman

Cinnamon Blade keeps having to rescue Soledad Castillo, and with each rescue her attraction to the woman grows. Once she finally finds an appropriate setting to ask her out, things start to get crazy. Or, really, crazier.

As soon as I saw that Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor was a sort-of follow up to Knit One, Girl Two, I knew I had to read it. Although it’s not really a sequel, “Cinnamon Blade” is set within the fake fandom discussed in Knit One, Girl Two, and is an absolute delight! An interracial wlw relationship between a bisexual Jewish superhero, and her latinx questioning damsel-in-distress? What more could you want?

One thing Shira Glassman is amazing at is casually including deep, feminist social commentaries in her works without making it seem preachy. The characters are simply having a conversation, and it comes up naturally and honestly. It’s so refreshing to see things like antisemitism and biphobia discussed so casually. It never feels forced, just part of every day life. Which it is! Somehow, she manages to create incredibly realistic situations within a supernatural, completely unrealistic world (where attacks by aliens and vampires? Are a regular occurrence).

Cinnamon Blade and Soledad Castillo have a wonderful relationship. Cinnamon is completely aware of the power imbalance inherent in their relationship and works hard to make things feel equal between them. She refuses to ask Soledad out after she rescues her, feeling it would be placing the woman in an unfair position. Once she manages to ask her out in a neutral environment, she continues to foster an equal relationship between them, making it clear that she does not want Soledad to ever feel that she “owes” her anything.

Also, this is one of the few stories I’ve read that include two women in a relationship openly talking about their sexual desires and fantasies. Both Cinnamon Blade and Soledad are unabashedly sexually attracted to each other, and their honest discussion about it leads to several scorching sex scenes, made all the hotter by their communication.

A couple of warnings for this story: there is a small moment of mild sexual harassment by a male character who never resurfaces. There is also a little bit of violence, and some gore, all typical of the sci-fi superhero setting. Also, as I already mentioned, there are explicit (hot, hot, hot) sex scenes sprinkled throughout the story, so if graphic sexual content isn’t your thing, this may not be the book for you.

Overall, Cinnamon Blade is a fun and sexy adventure, full of open and honest discussion, and a couple that will have you itching for more. A must-read.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian

Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian cover
Shadiya is a prized courtesan of the Silver Rose, one of dozens of elegant Sisters who serve the men–though never the women–of the land of Anderholm. Fiercer-tempered than any of her compatriots, Shadiya makes what would be reckoned by many in her position as a mistake; rather than allowing herself to be raped, she kills the nobleman who comes to assault her, catapulting the house of the Silver Rose into politics from which it had long been carefully kept safe. The resulting narrative is full of interwoven designs and intrigues, with Shadiya unwillingly at the center of attention for forces that are more than her match in terms of knowledge and strength. Ancient scholars, abandoned quasi-gods, mortal treachery and plain old misogyny all conspire to throw her off balance–but she’s no layabout, and she’s not afraid to make choices boldly. I appreciated how even though she was not the one with power, other than the power of persuasion and an extreme physical coordination, still she was no shrinking violet. Juggling her need to survive, her longing for her secret and forbidden female lover, and her hopes for the future of her courtesan sisterhood, she must navigate the desires and heavy-handed jealousies of men.
Shadiya goes from one difficult situation to the next, always doing her best to survive it, but increasingly endangered. She takes as lover a fellow courtesan, and the relationship between them is easy and believable, down to the little arguments that they get into now and again. Every choice she makes tangles her further in the web of problems, and it becomes difficult to see how she could possibly escape.
I went into this book trying to keep an open mind. Ever since Kushiel’s Dart was published fifteen years or so ago, there have been more and more fantasy novels with sharp-witted courtesans as their main characters, to the point that tropes of the genre are starting to define themselves, but the subgenre can be a lot of fun in the right hands.. So by the time I was fifty pages or so in, I thought I had this one pegged. Clever, preternaturally physically skilled medieval-European-style courtesan attracts the attention of rich, powerful man, must fight off the jealousy of older women to net him, becomes something greater (and no longer a sex worker: a one-dimensional fantasy novel baseline much like “pauper” or “orphan thief,” something to extricate oneself from), only this time, With Lesbians!
And then, defying my expectations, just when the tension and malice from all sides seemed to be at its peak, the book transformed into an old-fashioned dungeon romp, complete with pitfalls and random-encounter-style monsters. I was delighted. No  longer having to worry about angry machinations from the book’s female antagonist, I found that I was really enjoying the read. The interplay between the characters was quick and believable, and while there wasn’t exactly anything groundbreaking in that section of the book it was still snappy and well-paced. It was the sort of thing you might see in a really good D&D session, familiar but warming in its familiarity. I liked the various uses of magic and illusion, I was hopeful that this was going to continue to be like a classic adventure fantasy (only this time, with queer girls!) and I caught myself thinking that I’d definitely be picking up the sequel, if things continued this way.
And then in another hard turn, the book became ultra-violent within the last short handful of pages, and any joy I had in the narrative was extinguished like a candle. I mentally crossed off pretty much every single female friend I’d been about to recommend the novel to, though I might still recommend it to a male friend or two, with warnings.
This book honestly feels like two disparate novels. There’s the palace intrigue, with violence and stolen gifts and hidden swords and razor smiles, and there’s the bouncy dungeon crawl. Taken separately, I might have been able to enjoy either of them for what it was; the misogynistic world where women are abused without recourse, but where Shadiya could somehow rise above her situation and change things, or the quick-paced but character driven role-playing game novel. But the jarring tone changes from one aspect of the book to the other made it so that when the casual brutality arrived, it was so shocking that it left a terrible taste in my brain. The book ends on a cliffhanger, more or less immediately after this new violence.
Things I really liked: the sex scenes are pretty good, whether f/f or f/m. They’re plentiful, for what that’s worth, but they’re also not the ponderous sort frequently common to would-be literary fantasy; like the dungeon scenes, they’re just fun. I liked that the female characters, of which there are several, are different personalities from each other, with all the ways that they can mesh or grate against one another. I liked that there is clearly no shortage of history and backstory behind the narrative, and the world was so layered that I’m sure I’d love to sit in a pub with the author and listen to her expound on the Things That Were, a few centuries back in the timeline.
Things that I didn’t like:  This is definitely a nitpick, but the naming conventions are a bit distracting. There are names like Deresi and Shadiya, which sound sufficiently fantastic, and then there are names like Aaron and Benjamin. The names which stood out as easily recognizable were Jewish names, and I couldn’t decide if that meant the author was exoticizing the Jewish mythological tradition. Shadiya might be an Arabic name, but the setting is decidedly European. And then there are the names that seem to come from words I’d know, like Sybaris for the captain of the guard for the Silver Rose, and Mienhard, a cruel-faced male antagonist who shows up in the beginning to assault the protagonist.
More damningly, I didn’t approve of the way that the female antagonist, herself merely a pawn to masculine anger and manipulation, was so afraid of aging rather than enjoying the power that can be found in experience. I thought it was a bit unrealistic that she was no longer able to wrap men around her little finger, as there are always going to be young cockerels who want to be taught the ways of the world by a mature woman. And then, finally, I loathed the brutal and frankly gratuitous offscreen gang rape, torture, and probable murder of a childlike character who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a scene horrifically out of place for the tone of the rest of the novel.
Final rating: Two of five stars. Would have been four without the rape.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst

Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst cover

Inkmistress is Audrey Coulthurst’s second novel, and the first of her works that I have personally read. It’s the story of a young demigod hermit, daughter of a human and a wind god, whose teacher has raised her separate from human beings in an effort to protect her from them. Asra is an herbalist who has the power to write fate into being by using her blood as ink and her lifespan as fuel.  She’s used the power only once before, inadvertently causing an ecological disaster, so it’s only out of the real fear of losing something precious to her that she uses it for a second time.  The love of her young adulthood, a human villager named Ina, is sworn a political marriage with the ruling son of another village unless unless she can gather enough of her own power to not need to marry.  In this world where every human being takes on a “manifest,” a bond with an animal which allows them to shapeshift, Ina’s lateness to develop the skill has made her vulnerable.  Longing to marry her herself, Asra writes Ina will find her manifest tomorrow, and her lack of specificity sets off a chain reaction of horrors; the village is massacred by invading bandits, and Ina takes a dragon as manifest by force, cutting herself off from the gods and dedicating herself to vengeance.  Asra has no choice but to follow her, down from the mountains she has lived in all her life, desperate to turn Ina from her horrible quest.

This book had me walking a balance beam between “Oh, I really like that!” and “Hmm, I think I would have done that differently,” which means it kept my attention until the last page.  I liked that the magic got very little explanation, and that was explained wasn’t done in a way that kicked me out of the narrative.  I very much enjoyed that the appearances of characters were described naturally, with no resorting to weird food metaphors to describe the characters of color. I appreciated that there was a sense of history to the piece, without any of the plodding common to early works of fantasy novelists; the characters were simply living their lives, navigating what eddies they had to to keep from drowning in fate, and the fact that they were in a world where the gods were very close to them didn’t matter as much as getting the harvests in, or avoiding a well-traveled road on a muddy day.

Both the protagonist and the antagonist of Inkmistress are bisexual, each of them having partners of multiple genders within the text, and it goes unremarked-upon by other characters, which is something I found comforting. In a world with dragons and shapeshifting warrior kings a person’s sexuality should be a subject of no note.  That said, there is a character who was disowned by her parents for getting pregnant without getting married first, so this world isn’t that far divorced from our own, which made the world feel familiar.

The things that I didn’t enjoy as much mainly came down to characterization.  Asra has spent her entire life on a mountaintop, separate from the village below and, after her master dies, totally alone for all the winter months. This has instilled in her a certain believable naivety and hunger for human communication, and it doesn’t seem like she ever overcomes that during the course of the novel. No matter how she is abused or manipulated for it, she does not gain worldliness.  In addition, despite the fact that she’s had it drilled into her head since infancy that her powers are dangerous, and that humans will take advantage of her to force her to use them, I’m not sure there’s a character with a speaking role who she doesn’t end up blabbing her secret to.  Predictably, this leads to her becoming a weapon for one character after another to use against their enemies. This does drive the plot, but I kept wondering how Asra thought she was going to survive, when everyone who knows her name seems to know that her blood could make them into something approaching demigods themselves.

I was most of the way through the book before I realized what it was reminding me of: there was a ghost of the same sort of driven desperation that I enjoyed in N.K. Jemisin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” That was a good surprise, since I adored that novel, and I could see something of a quieter, less-driven Yeine in Asra.   Asra accepted that she had only so much power, and due to that, that her agency was limited.  She never had enough choices, and none of the ones in front of her were good; in defter hands, that could have taken on a beautiful anxiety. As it is, the character’s constant uncertainty made her come off to me as a bit weak-willed.

Weak-willed can be kind of interesting, though, and Asra’s malleability was consistent.  While she couldn’t adhere to one frame of mind or one decision beyond “Stop Ina,” she’s that rare protagonist who is both terrible at saying no, to anyone, and generally capable of getting her own way out of her problems.  The fact that “out of a problem” means “into a worse problem” every single time just ratchets up the tension.

That said, I thought that the last few pages were a bit too pat and easy.  Asra had gone through physical, spiritual and emotional agony to come to where she was, but throughout the entire narrative she wasn’t ever able to make a choice and stick to it.  She vacillated between supporting one villain or another, walking one path or another.  Wind’s daughter that she’d thought herself to be, wind’s lover that she becomes, it seemed as if she spent the entire novel being blown this way and that, with little control of her direction.  I would have liked to see her plant her feet and make real demands of the world around her.

Final rating: ***

Genevra Littlejohn is a multiethnic, queer martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and their two cats, baking and reading and cussing at her tomato garden.  She’s at http://fox-bright.tumblr.com, or you can find her on Facebook.

Susan reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After is an all-ages graphic novel by Katie O’Neill about two princesses joining forces to rescue people and save the kingdom from an angry sorceress, and it’s really cute.

Sadie and Amira are very different styles of princess; Sadie is a traditionally feminine princess with an adorable pudgy dragon, who’s been locked in a tower by a wicked queen, and Amira is an action princess with very cool hair and a cookie-loving unicorn. It’s fun to see their different styles work together for solving problems, and I enjoyed seeing them work together to solve problems like dancing ogres and grumpy princes and wicked queens, and rescue each other!

They also solve problems without violence, and by gathering friends and supportive acquaintances! I don’t know if it’s supposed to be commentary on stereotypically feminine methods of resolving conflict or the tropes of magical girls and princess stories – but also I want stories that have all of the tropes of magical girls and princess stories, but with queer leads, so it worked for me. Plus: the drama is based on sibling relationships, rather than wicked mothers or stepmothers, and that’s a very welcome change. (Especially for me; complicated sibling relationships are my kryptonite.)

The art is very cute (and impressively different from her other all-ages graphic novel, The Tea-Dragon Society). Sometimes it’s maybe a little too simple, but it does work for the story being told, and the last page makes up for it.

It’s a light and fluffy story that reads very quickly, but it feels like a fairytale, and to be honest: that’s all I wanted. If you’re in the mood for a fluffy queer fairytale, this is a good place to start.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Nichole B-Larson reviews Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst is the princess story my childhood desperately needed. Coulthurst’s characters are relatable, grow well, and their queerness isn’t the center of the plot–all aspects which make them inspiring. Mare is the strong, “tomboy” princess of my dreams. She shirks the traditional role of a princess within society and within her family, but not at the expense of her nation. She’s as uncomfortable in formal dress–ditching heels as soon as she leaves the banquet hall–as she is confident in her skills in horsemanship, and actively rebels against all the forces in her life saying “be this way!” Of course, I think this is something we’ve seen a lot of, especially in YA and children’s literature, but Coulthurst doesn’t ignore that Mare’s role in the kingdom is not limited to fancy dresses and balls–a princess is an integral part of the political aspects of running a country. Mare, however, isn’t one to settle on making an advantageous political marriage. Instead she’s sneaking into pubs and paying spies for information, working on the ground to better equip her country with the knowledge it needs to succeed, to outwit its enemies, to understand its people. Mare is a strong, badass princess and Coulthurst writes her beautifully.

Denna, on the other hand, strikes a different cord. She is who I related to most–a servant to duty, torn between who she is and who she is supposed to be, and always feeling like her voice is not worthy because of her age and her gender. Denna, coming from her own kingdom and playing the dutiful princess by marrying for political connection, is shy, demure, everything a princess ought to be in the traditional sense. Because Coulthurst writes from her perspective, however, we get to see that this is, for the most part, a facade. Denna, plagued with a magical gift in a country who outlaws magic, is fighting for herself and her future in the ways she knows best, but she is also struggling with closing off those parts of herself that society will not accept. It’s a theme that hearkens to many LGBT readers’ experiences before coming out and I think Coulthurst does a beautiful job of including this without the LGBT portion of the story being the most important part of the story. Denna, and Mare, grow as characters in ways which makes their LGBT status feel secondary – a refreshing way to understand this as part of who they are but not the definition of who they are, which I really appreciated.

Aside from these two, the story delves into some very heavy themes – political alliance, espionage, religious tension, and the power of all these things to alter the decisions of people in power. There’s rebellion and questions about the significance of tradition and belief that had me a bit on the edge of my seat. Coulthurst does a beautiful job of creating a world I would really sink into and characters that made me root for them, were relatable in ways which made me wish my 12/13 year old self had had this kind of validation, but there were parts of the plot which felt a bit old hat. Still, 4 out of 5 stars for sure. I’d definitely recommend it to YA fans and I am anxiously awaiting the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, which should be coming out next year.

Nichole B-Larson is a library associate at a small Mississippi university. She holds an MLIS, a BA in History, and usually knitting needles. She enjoys all kinds of crafty things, any kind of gummy candy, and travelling with her wife and their two rottenly spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @kneecoaleye_ <