Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make it. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Danika reviews Moonstruck, Vol. 1: Magic to Brew

Moonstruck Vol 1

I adored this book when I started it. The pastel colours, the adorable art style, the world packed full of magical people of all varieties (living plants! ghosts! centaurs!), and the coffee shop setting. Then you get a f/f romance between two fat poc werewolves (Selena is Black and Julie is Latina)! It also has a nonbinary centaur character who uses they/them pronouns. I was gearing up for a five star rating.

Unfortunately, I ended up giving this one three stars, because I am conflicted about it. Although the plot pulled me through the story and I loved the aesthetics, the adorable relationship quickly devolves into something… icky. Selena is sometimes controlling and even insulting. Julie reacts with tears. They fight, multiple times, including physically (as werewolves). I fully admit that I prefer my romance fluffy and basically conflict-free, so I am bringing my own baggage into this, especially because I can feel so much empathy for Julie, who is a raw nerve of vulnerability and sensitivity.

I still want to continue with the series, because everything else was 5 stars for me, but because I was expected fluff, the downward spiral of the relationship really soured it for me. The book does address their dynamics and has some accountability, but it still didn’t seem to match the happy tone of the rest of the book. I’m interested to see if the next volume course corrects in that, or if I’ll have to accept that this one isn’t for me.

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In The Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Yên is a rural scholar, who offers herself up to a dragon in her mother’s place to repay her village’s debts; Vu Côn is the dragon in question, trying to fix the world that the Vanisher’s destroyed and then abandoned. Together they live in the dangerous Escher-style nightmare that is the Vanishers’ palace, trying to raise Vu Côn’s teenage children and change the nightmare that the Vanishers left this world in.

The world-building is really cool; In the Vanishers’ Palace is set on a world that was modified beyond the inhabitants’ understanding by the Vanishers, who abandoned it when they grew bored – and people are actively trying to fix it. The scale of the problems are huge, and compounded by people like the leaders of Yên’s village, who are power-hungry monsters, but people are still trying, and that is something I need right now. And for all that the story is fantasy, it has science fiction elements woven in really well – yes, Vu Côn’s palace has impossible geometry, nonsensical architecture, and death lurking in every corner, but it also has a library that can just generate books, and a distinctly scifi room for Vu Côn’s patients. Plus, the magic of In The Vanishers’ Palace is language based, and the story gives Yên space to explore what is known about magic and the ways that common understanding isn’t always right made me happy!

The story itself takes the basic premise of Beauty and the Beast and focuses on it as a story of agency and independence. Vu Côn’s arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have valuable knowledge and opinions of their own, and her romance with Yên is explicitly about them negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person starts as a prisoner/employee of the other. Vu Côn’s children are specifically trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what role they can have in this world. And Yên is explicitly finding a role for herself after the danger of her village, where those not deemed “useful” and in danger from the village leaders. I enjoy the ways that motherhood, familial duty, and folklore are also woven into this story as integral threads as well, it really worked!

In conclusion: In The Vanishers’ Palace is the queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t know I needed, and it’s excellent. Definitely recommended.

[This review is based on an ARC from the author.]

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.

Danika reviews Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

That’s what resistance looks like, Merlin. It’s not one glorious, shining victory. It’s a torch you keep burning, no matter what.

I’m not even sure how to approach writing about this book, because it is so ambitious. Once & Future is a queer, sci fi retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Dystopia, because in this future, the universe is ruled by the Mercer Corporation, which keeps everyone in line by controlling the supply of water. But there’s enough space ships to scratch that sci fi itch, and, of course, there’s Excalibur, Merlin, Morgana, and the Lady in the Lake to keep things fantastical.

That’s partly why it’s so delightful that this also has an almost entirely queer cast. (With several poc characters as well, but this isn’t as clearly defined, so I’m pretty sure Ari is Ketch (Arab) and Lam is Black, but I’m not sure about all the other characters.) Ari and her adoptive brother have two moms. Merlin is gay. Ari, Val, and Gwen are all queer, there’s an asexual character, and there’s a non-binary who uses they/them pronouns. There is no explanation, no reason why everyone happens to be queer, except that in the future, they aren’t so weird about it. (When Merlin says that in his time, people use phenotypical features to guess people’s gender, the other characters are disgusted by this backwards belief.) It’s nice that we’re finally reaching the point where you can have a genre book packed full of queer characters, and to have it be entirely incidental to the plot.

Speaking of plot, I have no idea how to try to summarize it succinctly. Post global warming, humans retired Earth and sought new homes on the moon and on different planets. Ari was born on Ketch, but she was found as a small child in wreckage near the planet. Ketch, originally founded by Arab people, has since been sealed off under a barrier for their resistance against Mercer. Kay and his two moms adopt illegal refugee Ari and start running from the law. When they attempt to return her to Ketch, Mom and Captain Mom (!!!) are arrested, and Kay and Ari are left to fend for themselves–until Merlin shows up to tell Ari that she’s the latest (and first female) reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur, destined to bring down evil (Mercer), ascend the nearest throne, and unite humanity. (Ari is skeptical. Merlin thinks that this usually is easier: “Most boys secretly believed they should be heroes: the stories told them so.”) And that about brings us up to the first couple chapters.

The story is shared between Merlin and Ari. Ari is a reluctant hero, just trying to protect her family and friends and do the right thing. Merlin has been training dozens of incarnations of Arthur throughout time, all without fulfilling their destiny of uniting humanity. Every time, he has to watch Arthur die. He then sleeps in a cave until the next incarnation is ready to begin training. Not only is he stuck in this cycle, tormented by Morgana, but he’s also aging backwards throughout it. Now, he’s a teenager, and he’s terrified of what happens when he becomes a child, then an infant.

One of the things that Merlin is seeking to avoid this cycle is Gweneviere and Arthur’s doomed romance. Gwen and Ari are no exception: they’ve been at each other’s throat since childhood at Knights Camp on Gwen’s medieval-themed planet. Of course, that animosity may have just been hiding something else… Unfortunately, Arthurs are destined to have their hearts broken by their Gwenevieres, betrayed by the knight they trust the most: Lancelot. Ari and Gwen’s relationship is just as passionate and thorny as their star-crossed history would suggest.

And no matter what, Ari wasn’t going to be able to walk away from Gwen. She would stay right here, in the riot of her pain, for even a chance at this closeness.

There is also a moment near the end of the book that reminded me of this take on the “ultimate female power fantasy” of The Last Jedi, so that was pretty great.

In fact, if it hasn’t already been clear, I loved this book. It is epic and feminist and queer. It’s about resistance and survival, making connections and refusing to back down. It’s being bravely vulnerable. I loved that I got to know this whole ridiculous crew, who all add to the story. They become a family, in their stubborn, arguing, loyal way. It’s fast-paced, captivating, funny, and feminist. Despite the action and comedy, it’s also deeply emotional, and has moving f/f and m/m romances. When I first added this to Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to see that it’s the first in the series, because I worried that it wouldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I would have to wait for a long time to get the sequel. Now, I’m grateful, because I’m not ready to leave this family behind, and I definitely didn’t predict that ending. (Though I was right about one thing: I am impatient to read the sequel!)

And you were the thing Mercer feared most. A girl they couldn’t control, who wouldn’t stop talking. That’s the scariest damn thing in the universe.

[Content warning/spoiler, highlight to read: I do want to read a review by a Middle Eastern reviewer, because Ketch is described as a planet founded by Arabs, who lead the resistance. Unfortunately, they were all killed by the Mercer corporation. Although there is diversity in the crew, I didn’t feel good about all the Ketch people being killed other than Ari…]

Babusha reviews the Kate Kane series by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Look, the books I’m talking about here were released at a time when –

  1. I thought I was straight
  2. I thought Twilight was the epitome of vampire romance.

So after four years of going through some intense self-reflection and some brief boycotting of vampires altogether, I realised that I still loved vampires–I just like them as lesbians now.

Which is when I found these books.

The Kate Kane series is literally my go-to comfort read, next to the Whyborne and Griffin series. I mean, a wisecracking lesbian detective with a sense of dark gallows humor that made me emote and laugh my ass off, annoying whiny emo stalker ex-boyfriends who give me a sense of teenage romance lit catharsis, motherfucking hot vampire princes and interactions ranging from awkward to near “sex against a wall” with faery ex-girlfriends, werewolves and Tash the Teetotaler Lesbian: how could I not love this series?

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing this, because I really wanted more and was super bummed there wasn’t, but when Alexis Hall announced he’s going to be writing more of this series, I had to gush about this for a bit.

So this series is darkly funny supernatural detective stories following half-faery half-human, noir  detective stereotype but gay Kate “Katharine” Kane. The book starts with her being hired to investigate a werewolf death outside a club owned by the “Prince of Cups” Julian Saint Germain before &%$& starts getting real between the werewolves and the vampires.

Julian is hot, flirty, and super interested in Kate. The only thing is, Kate has issues with vampires because of said dickhead creeper ex-boyfriend from high school who’s still leaving her portraits on her pillow–because you know… a good guy does that, not his literal evil soulless alter ego.

(Gold star for everyone who gets this reference and for people following AH’s twitter thread of Giles lust!)

With scary dodgy powers she draws on from her scary morally dodgy mom, the Queen of the Wild Hunt, dealing with the guilt and regret of the death of her partner and sometimes epically bad shagging choices while dealing with vampire politics, werewolf supermodels and even Witch Queens to investigate her case, Kate is the epitome of Disaster Lesbian and really shouldn’t be dating hot sylph-like vampires but oh look wait now she’s eating meringue with her.

Professional pride is very overrated, I agree.

The book is so freaking funny and hot with a distinct kind of British “we might as well all die now” humor with Kate and Julian’s push and pull dynamic, funny as all hell running gags of Kate’s constant imagining of her gravestone with inscriptions describing increasingly embarrassing, hot and mundane ways she could die during her investigation and “fucking Patrick” getting punched a lot which made me laugh and yay in my heart of hearts. The next book just gets weirder and hotter, where she is not only trying to do her day job, but also has to deal with some faces from the past, hot sex, strange new roommates, other people’s girlfriends, literal trials and occasional tales of the Pudding Nun’s various adventures.

I have a weird sense of what’s comforting, but it’s any book that makes me laugh so much and yet it also helped me confront my vague sense of shame I felt being super into something that is decidedly problematic as a teenager. I had liked Twilight as a kid, and yes, I was a dumbass teenager, but just because it’s making a comeback on the internet, don’t mean I have to be ashamed and avoid it like it was the plague, just punch it and get on with my day.

It was just a phase after all, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out looking for my own motherfucking vampire prince now!

Definite four and a half stars, the half for the catharsis.

Content warnings: blood, knifeplay in sex, possessive creepy behaviour from dickhead ex-boyfriends, near alcoholism, light gruesomeness

Marthese reviews Tracker and the Spy (Dragon Horse War trilogy #2) by D. Jackson Leigh

Tracker and the Spy by D. Jackson Leigh

“Not a sparkler, a blazer”

Tracker and Spy is the second book in the Dragon Horse War Trilogy. I have to say that I liked it better than the first book, mostly because the main characters were Tan and Kyle, which I liked better as a pair than Jael and Alyssa. We still see parts of the story from the other characters’ POVs, though, and there is continuation. This review may contain some spoilers from the first book, however, I’ll keep them to a minimum.

Kyle and Tan’s first meeting is tense. Kyle, as the resident expert on the Order, is asked to infiltrate them. Her father and Simon are in two different parts of the world, and the problem is who to target first, as they are both dangerous. A lot of the first chapters, though, focus on the mating of two dragon horses which affect people too. That is, Tan isn’t exactly clear headed.

I liked that we see more of Tan: her gentleness with children and her demons, which she tries to exorcise by punishing herself. Although Tan has trust issues, she does eventually start to trust Kyle. For her hardcore persona, she could be submissive at times. It wasn’t cleared up whether this submissiveness was due to her punishing herself though… I wouldn’t like it to be. Kyle and Phyrrhos – Tan’s horse – seem to bond as well and we see why later on!

Tan and Kyle are both outsiders. They take care of each other without judgment, even when they may not necessary like each other.

I had some problems with the world building. For example, in the case of polyamoury, it was explained as only a cultural custom rather than an identity. If this series is set in the future, wouldn’t it make sense for it to be more progressive? Seeing as everything else (apart from the confusion between sex and gender) is?

Another thing that was a bit of a pet peeve was a wasted opportunity. It could be that it will happen in the third book, but originally Kyle was looking for Will, her new friend and fake fiancée, who she lost touch with during the solar train attack. There were several opportunities for them to have a reunion, not least towards the end. I’m a sucker for friendly reunions. I kept expecting it. Bonus though for Will and Michael apparently being together. I did wish to see more of Michael too. We did get to see him a bit in the first book and as a rare intersex character who is male, it would have been interesting to see more of him.

There was problematic language usage so be warned; some instances of ‘real penis’ and another where someone that has graceful lines and so couldn’t ‘be anything but female’. This kind of language use is what makes me cautious. Trans and gender minorities exclusion is not fun. Authors please take note!

There are a lot of characters so I get that there cannot be focus on everyone. I feel like we know about Raven the least. I did like when Diego, Furcho and Raven had a joking moment. These people have known each other for many lifetimes. Their team and family dynamic must be very interesting.

Needless to say that Cyrus was a misogynistic asshole also established in the first book early on…but towards the end, you understand him better. However, as Kyle said, it still does not make up for what he has done – mental health or not.

An interesting element in this series is that it is critical towards capitalism. According to Simon, who has resources = has power and so he hoards resources to make people do what he wants. The world council on the other hand, distributes resources.

There are two secondary-ish character deaths. One gets the farewell that they deserve, the other is towards the end, but it was their wish. I also like how Furcho and Nicole have a mature conversation on their future. No grand gestures without discussing it first! That was done nicely.

At the end there was a lot of page turning action. Really the question of this book is: two evils, two threats, who do you go for first?

The end had a twist. There were hints of it but things are getting interesting. The two characters from the next book are evident in this one. Toni had been a minor character in book 1, in book 2 she developed a friendship with Kyle, is Alyssa’s apprentice and has an interesting power of her own. Maya is Kyle’s younger sister and she has been taken hostage…

While I am critical of the language use and the binary elements in this book (THEY ARE NOT FUN TO READ) it is an interesting series and unfortunately, there aren’t that many fantasy series with queer women at the front so I’d recommend for anyone looking for such series.

Mary Springer reviews Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Malice, known as Mary Alice to her family, is a trained hunter for paranormal creatures. Ruri is the beta werewolf of her pack, has been around for a couple of centuries, and is not a werewolf to be trifled with. Both their lives are shaken when Ruri’s pack is taken over by a violent, loner Alpha and Malice’s sister Cassidy is caught in the crossfire. She and Ruri are thrown together by forces of fate, and while they should hate each other, they can’t help be drawn to one another.

This was a great book! I love werewolves, so I was already on board, but this went beyond my expectations. I really appreciate some good, old fashioned angst, and this not only served the angst but also offered up seconds.

I love the characters! Malice was wonderfully stoic, putting on the airs of a cold and brutal hunter, while having this secret need for intimacy she won’t even admit to herself. Ruri was also great, a tough and formidable werewolf (or wolven as the characters in the book choose to be called) with a soft inside. There were also the other werewolves, hunters, and some intense vampires, as well as Cassidy. She takes a big role in the book and it was also interesting to see her character develop and change alongside Malice and Ruri.

The romance was perfect. Malice and Ruri have such great chemistry, but beyond that I was able to get a sense that these are two people who need each other and work well with one another. They’re both just as similar as they are different. I enjoyed watching their relationship slowly grow through the novel.

My one gripe about this was how the romance was resolved. It felt a bit rushed in the end and I was hoping for just a little more angst, conversation, and action. But I was still satisfied with where things ended up.

The overall plot about the violent Alpha and the world building as a whole really came alive for me. With some paranormal romances, I can get a bit bored with the villain and exposition, but MacTague did a great job creating a plot and world that drew me in. I would love to see more books set in this world even if they didn’t include these specific characters (but I’d really, really love to see more of these characters).

In the end, I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a great paranormal romance. This also works really well in the enemies-to-lovers subgenre, which I’m always a fan of.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Imagine that you are telling a science fiction story for cavemen, a hundred thousand years ago. Imagine that you’re all sat around a fire, half-covered by an outcropping of stone, hoping that tomorrow will be drier than today, and you decide you’ll tell a story about the far future. Imagine that somehow you have the gift of true sight, and you dream up a simple story about a foiled weekend lunch date in Manhattan. Something simple–two people match on Tinder, but there’s a problem with the subway, and then the taxi driver is a bit of a character but misunderstands where he’s supposed to be taking her, and she ends up walking home from the wrong restaurant, glad that she remembered to throw a pair of flats into her bag.

Where do you start? How do you guide your listener into the setting? Say, when your character has to take that taxi. Do you start by trying to explain an internal combustion engine to your listeners, who have never seen smelted metal? Do you try to describe glass as translucent as water to an audience who has never seen so much as a rough glass bead? How do you describe the setting, miles of skyscrapers and roads teeming with passerby, to someone who has never seen a man-made wall? How would you even begin to describe a smartphone, and then a dating app, to a people who have no written language, and who might only meet twenty or thirty other people their entire lives? How do you explain all this in-narrative, when any character who lives there is so accustomed to everything as to find it invisible, but it is so far beyond the understanding of your listener as to seem like magic? How do you get to actually telling the story, when the underpinnings would take a year to explain?

Yoon Ha Lee, the master who wrote Ninefox Gambit, gets around this dilemma by explaining almost nothing at all. The reader is plunged into the river of narrative facefirst, mercilessly, and had better learn to swim–because the water is picking up speed.

Ninefox Gambit is a piece of military science fiction set in a world whose cultural mores, technology, history, are all beyond our easy understanding. If it is in our own future, this book is set so far ahead as to be unrecognizable. But if the world is as opaque as a river full of silt, still the characters are as sharp as the sunlight off a fishscale. Cheris would be Asian, if she were from Earth; her hair is dark, she uses chopsticks and has a fondness for quick-pickled vegetables with her rice. These things are recognizable, comfortable touchstones for me personally in a book that is full of so much that is alien. If Cheris were a 21st-century American, she’d also be considered a lesbian; her people don’t have a word for it.

(Do you have a word for a woman whose hair is one inch longer than another woman’s? It goes unremarked-upon.)

The universe, or at least the vast number of planets under control of the empire for which Kel Cheris fights, operates under a technology that requires consent to function. Specifically, it is the calendar that requires consent, the sacred days and the unremarkable ones, the hours and the minutes. As long as the people in a system operate under the empire’s calendar, the empire’s technology works there, including its “exotics,” weapons that can fold space, or cause radiation to emit from every entrance (doorways, windows, open mouths, nostrils, pores…), or shatter its victims like cheap candy glass. This agreement is maintained through strict, society-wide adherence to calendar holidays. Not the fun kind where you might get off work early and throw a picnic, but the kind where heretics are tortured in incredibly horrific ways, and everyone gathers around the far-future-television-analogue to witness and to meditate on what they see.

(Miss viewing one of those events, and you risk being the guest of honor at the next one. It is not very difficult to do something which would see you accused of heresy. So the wheels of Empire are greased.)

Captain Kel Cheris does what she is told, largely. She cares about the people under her command, but she understands that when she decided to pledge herself to the Kel, the warrior class, she gave up her life to death, and that all those she commands had done the same.  When she sees a way to maybe win a battle that is just a little bit heretical, she goes for it–and as a result she sees her command stripped from her and her company shattered. To redeem herself, she is given the opportunity to develop a tactic for taking back the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an outpost which has been suborned by heretics. Find a way to do that, she is told, and you may regain your command and keep your life.

The problem is, there’s no straightforward way to do it. The Fortress of Scattered Needles is a nexus with an almost-impenetrable defense, and any empire general hoping to attack it will find that her own weapons will not work, due to the heresy crazing the calendar. There is one who could have done it, when he lived…the Immolation Fox, the mad traitor Shuos Jedao. He was not Kel, but he worked with the Kel; even badly injured, he took the battle of Candle Arc with eight-to-one odds. And then four battles later, he annihilated his own entire fleet, taking his opponents’ fleet with it, and shot all his prized officers in the head. He was executed, and his soul has been kept locked in stasis for the last several centuries, brought out only rarely to win unwinnable battles.

So the strategy that Kel Cheris devises is, wake up the murderer Shuos Jedao, and assign him to me. And he is so assigned–anchored to her body, that is, as a shadow who whispers in her ear and flickers in her mirror. She’s given a rank she has not earned (so that the other Kel, literally programmed to obey commands from superiors, will follow her) and given a small fleet, pointed at the enemy, and set loose. She wants to win, and she wants to survive. But Jedao does not sleep, and for all that he is dead, he is not powerless. Cheris must use his experience and military brilliance without falling prey to either herself–and she grows more and more certain that to make it through this situation, she’s going to need to understand why he did what he did, four hundred years ago.

To say this book is complicated is an understatement. It makes you work for your satisfaction, but it is never plodding or slow, and it does not get weighed down by its own backstory. The battles get ugly, the tortures inflicted on heretics are ghastly. But despite that, there are moments of real beauty, both natural and technological. And maybe more important, the book reinforces, over and over again, that the people on all sides of a battle are people. They have favorite candies and sorts of pickled cabbage, they have hobbies, dislikes, personal traditions. Cheris has a fondness for serialized dramas that anyone who’s ever been in a fandom would recognize. So it is that when Lee writes of a million dead at the battle of Candle Arc, the reader can not help but be reminded that it is not just a number. There is bravery, but not much in the way of machismo; Cheris’s own martial skill is something she is quietly proud of, but she is not given to braggadocio. Being resigned to death is not the same as longing for it; being awake is not the same as being alive. And in a war where the loss of thousands might be a skirmish, it can be difficult to tell who is the more human: one’s commanding officers, or the undead murderer murmuring in one’s own skull.

This is not a piece of traditional, hyper-masculine military SF. While there is loyalty and the love of comrades, patriotism is not held up as a moral ideal–more it is a tool, like a calendrical blade, that can be used against your enemy only in certain terrain. Not even the main character believes that might makes right, but simply that might makes, for a little while, some silence. There is respect for superiors and those more experienced, but there’s also an understanding that there are different forms of corruption, and that the longer one lives, the likelier one is to succumb to them. But this book does share one thing with so many of the others in its genre, and that’s the idea that as long as you can still fight, there is hope.

Content warnings: Torture and other violence (coldly described rather than in a fashion to titillate, but it ranges from one-on-one to starship fleet against fleet, and the weaponry used is sometimes the stuff of nightmare). Sexual assault (again, not explicit). A very great deal of character death.

FINAL SCORE: A rare five out of five stars. Technically and narratively spectacular.