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

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

Stories About Brave Women Who Don’t Take Shit from Anyone: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

the cover of One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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We all have our preferred coping methods. Mine is returning to comforting favorites: books that changed me, those old familiar stories that still move me, no matter the intervening years. 

These last seven years, Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero has been waiting quietly for me to pick it up again. The book itself is oversized, a choice I like to think foreshadows its impact, but let me tell you more about its insides first.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a collection of stories set within a love story about two women defying a patriarchal empire. The art is sketchy but striking, with a limited color palette of red, gold, and teal, enhancing black, white, and gray. The prose conveys the same style—simple and striking—with the added zing of snark, allowing the story itself to shine. 

The prologue opens with a world creation myth. Early Earth was perfect, but this soon changes due to a God’s meddling. This God, Birdman, fanatically desires worship and adoration. “See these humans Kiddo has created… Happily breeding. Left, right and centre. NO MORE! I shall give them ME. They will learn to fear me, they will learn to do my bidding… They will worship me.” 

Properly furnished with this context, we arrive at the city of Migdal Bavel in the midst of a fireside conversation between Manfred and Jerome. Here, devotees of Birdman hold sway and women are seen as little more than amusing possessions, forbidden from learning to read and write.

We learn of Manfred’s difficulties with women. Alas, after he killed his first wife for being assaulted, he’s unable to find a woman who meets his highly specific criteria: “Beautiful. Clever enough to have a conversation, not clever enough to disagree with [him]. Obedient. Chaste. Good at mending socks. NOT ambitious. Marriage to [him] must be the height of her ambition. Interested in [his] passions. Falconry, battlements, maps, etcetera. But not as good as [him] at those things.” Hearing this, his friend Jerome points out that his wife, Cherry, is all of those things. And so he sets a ludicrous wager. He will give Manfred one hundred nights to attempt to seduce his wife Cherry, who is so incredibly chaste that even he has not “taken her virtue.” 

Years before this shameful fireside chat between Manfred and Jerome, Cherry fell in love with her maid, Hero. They shared a single wonderful summer together before Cherry was forced into marrying Jerome. Now, faced with a similar seemingly inescapable situation, they come up with a bold plan. They will distract Manfred with an enchanting story every evening for the next one hundred nights, in the grand tradition of One Thousand and One Nights

The graphic novel unspools from there, Hero telling story after story to a rapt Manfred and an anxious Cherry. We learn mysterious and tantalizing tidbits about Migdal Bavel and Hero. Some stories are familiar but end in a new way, such as the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Others are wholly new, like the story of the Secret League of Storytellers, a group of women who resolve to tell “…all the stories that are never told…And above all, stories about brave women who don’t take shit from anyone.” The guards are enthralled too, and soon the entire city of Migdal Bavel whispers about Hero’s stories. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) When Jerome returns home on the one hundredth night and Cherry’s virtue remains intact, Manfred screams witchcraft, and the women are taken to the tallest tower… You can imagine the end that awaits them there. I refuse to spoil it for you, but know that I cried in queer despair and joy.

There is so much to love in Greenberg’s graphic novel. There are beautiful repetitions and throughlines, like women not being sorry, not even one bit, like brave women who don’t take shit from anyone, and recurring devices like a magic pebble. These stories unfurl, less in a linear progression and more in a self-referential spiral, all adding up to inform the gorgeous ending. 

I’ve carried the bold and unrepentant spirit of The One Hundred Nights of Hero’s love story with me since the first time I read it in 2017, and I hope you choose to do the same.

Warnings: misogyny, nudity; mentioned but not depicted: sexual assault, violence

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

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

A Swashbucking Sword Lesbian Graphic Novel: The Marble Queen by Anna Kopp & Gabrielle Kari

The Marble Queen cover

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The Marble Queen is a new sapphic YA fantasy graphic novel by Anna Kopp (writer) and Gabrielle Kari (illustrator) published by Dark Horse Comics. I’ve been excited to read this book since it was announced. As someone who loves both sapphic romance and comics/graphic novels, it felt right up my alley. While I still enjoyed the book and can see how people could fall in love with it, it ended up not working for me as well as I would have liked. 

It is a dire time for the Kingdom of Marion. Having just lost most of their fleet to pirates and running short of options, the kingdom needs allies quick. Seeing the suffering of her people, Princess Amelia offers herself to be married off to secure an alliance with another kingdom. Even though her parents allow her to choose between potential suitors, she tells them that she will marry the highest bidder. She assumes that is Prince Mateo of the mysterious kingdom of Iliad. However, she later discovers that she is not betrothed to the Prince, but rather his sister, the newly crowned Queen Salira. Salira needs the marriage in order to secure supplies for her own nation as well as cement her status as queen. As Amelia begins to fall in love with the queen and help her administer the kingdom, she discovers a conspiracy seeking to usurp Salira and plunge the nation into war.  

Gabrielle Kari’s art is the standout aspect of this book and adds great depth to the story and characters. I loved Amelia’s character design, from her hair to all the beautiful dresses she wears, while Salira is the tall sword lesbian in a uniform that makes me swoon. Their contrasting styles also highlight the cultural differences Amelia has to face as she adjusts to her new kingdom. These differences are emphasized again with the contrast between the muted and generic look of Marion and the vibrant colors and architecture of Iliad. Kari’s use of different visual tools during Amelia’s anxiety dreams made her emotional struggles in the book feel more visceral. Gabrielle Kari uses these and other smaller visual features in the book to maximum effect to draw readers in and make them truly feel what the characters are going through.

In terms of the story, I found it to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed Amelia’s arc of coming to terms with her queerness and her role in this new foreign land. I liked Salira’s arc of learning what it means to be queen and how their struggles with anxiety were portrayed. I even found aspects of the political plot lines to be interesting. Still, I feel like both Salira’s and Amelia’s arcs got pushed too far to the side in the third act as the political narrative took over. Some aspects of their stories were even completely abandoned. There were still great character moments for both of them as the story moved towards its conclusion, but it still wasn’t enough for me. I would have liked to have seen more of the inter- and intrapersonal stories and less on the politics of the world. 

Despite these shortcomings, I still enjoyed my time with The Marble Queen and would recommend it to queer YA graphic novel readers. It’s a beautifully illustrated and fun book with lots of sweet moments between its two romantic leads. If you are someone who wants your queer YA graphic novel to lean less on the melodramatic and more on swashbuckling fantasy with pretty women with swords, then you will really enjoy this book.

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

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the cover of Faebound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Blood-Drenched Queer Space Opera for the Ages: Redsight by Meredith Mooring

the cover of Redsight by Meredith Moore

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Better buckle up your buttered biscuits, because you’re in for one hell of a ride. 

Meredith Mooring’s debut novel Redsight, freshly published February 27, 2024, arrived studded with blurbs. The two that ultimately pulled me were: “The heretical, genre-defying daughter of Killing Eve and Dune,” (Kemi Ashing-Giwa) and “A stellar debut, born from a collision between epic space opera and bewitching cosmic space horror” (Ren Hutchings). Sign me up

Fresh from having devoured all 394 pages in a single sitting, I have to agree with the comparisons. 

Our chosen one, Korinna, is a red witch thrust into the heart of an intergalactic conflict she doesn’t understand, haunted by the bloody memory of a massacre and her own complicity. Like all Redseer clerics, she relies on tactus—the tactile energy of all things—to sense her world, rather than sight. She’s raised with the knowledge drilled into her that she is the weakest of her cohort, fit only for duty in the ship’s gardens. Certainly not strong enough to navigate a ship, let alone a massive Imperium warship.

When Korinna’s path intersects with the buff and mysterious pirate captain Aster Haran, Korinna can’t deny her attraction to the other woman. As the stakes grow ever higher, Korinna has a choice to make: loyalty to her Order and the only life she’s ever known… or cutting a destructive swathe of vengeance across the universe beside a gorgeous outlaw with an ever-expanding array of secrets. 

Redsight is action-packed, occasionally to the detriment of its characters, who have a slightly unfinished quality. They easily accommodate belief-shattering concepts, reconciling multifaceted issues within the space of a single conversation. Maybe I’m a sadist, but I wanted to witness their internal struggles play out longer.

There is so much to love about this book and the sweeping universe Mooring created. There were passages that left me breathless, ravenous to know the outcome. Mooring has a talent for channeling visceral physical trauma, so there were other passages that had me gritting my teeth and begging for my favorites to just please, please make it through. 

Redsight also has one of the more unique magic systems I’ve read in awhile—and I do so love an epic mythos. You can never give me enough goddesses in locked tombs, and you can never give me enough queer space pirates and acolytes. Bring on the apostasy, baby.

However: a word of warning for my queasy friends re: Mooring’s gift for transcribing bodily harm. The blood, y’all. There’s so much blood, all the time. It is immensely disconcerting and I’m used to gore. Honestly, it’s impressive. 

Redsight might be one of my new favorites. Not because it’s perfect, but because it gets so much right.  Mooring offers truth and a way forward. She offers a sense of hope and belonging for perpetual outsiders. Despite the heavy content, there are glittering threads of optimism woven throughout. I wouldn’t call it a feel-good, but… the novel is a deliciously weird and delightful treat, and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. If you’re a fan of powerful queers in space, you’re going to enjoy Redsight.

Content warnings: blood, violence, gore, low self esteem, dubious consent (taking power)