Mallory Lass interviews Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones author photoHeather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy GrailSword and SorceressLace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals. When Mallory caught up with Heather, she was just about to take a trip east to visit family in Maine.

Q: What is something people would never guess about you?

Ooh, I both love and dread this sort of question because it depends on the audience. People at my day job are startled by the most ordinary of things–like, that I once turned in a homework assignment written in cuneiform on a clay tablet. Most people in SFF fandom don’t know much about my day job as an industrial failure analyst. And I can usually befuddle those who see me as a stuffy amateur historian by mentioning that I once had the police called on me for participating in a dog fight…as one of the dogs. (This story is best heard in person as performance art.) Once people start getting to know me, it’s hard to stump them because then they’re willing to believe almost anything!

Q: You often post photos of your desk rose on twitter. How did that start? Do you have a green thumb?

I have a brown thumb. I kill houseplants. I killed an aloe vera once, and that’s hard. But I live in California and have an automatic watering system, so it’s hard to fail too badly at growing things. For obvious reasons, roses are a meaningful flower for me. (Heather would be too, but it’s harder to grow here and not nearly as picturesque.) I have somewhere around 30-40 different roses growing in my yard but I don’t get to spend as much time enjoying them as I’d like. That’s why I started the habit of bringing a rose (or two) from my garden to put on my desk at work every week. That, and the insufferable smugness of being able to do so practically year round. I do a major pruning around January or February every year and take a break from the desk roses, but the rest of the year they come through. There’s a third, more philosophical reason for the desk roses. I pledged to myself that I’d never wait for anyone else to bring me roses–I’d not only give them to myself, but I’d plant an entire rose garden to make sure.

Q: Who and/or what has influenced your writing the most?

Another hard question. My influences and inspirations tend to get thrown into the mulch pile of my back-brain. By the time they’ve composted enough to fertilize story seeds, it’s hard to identify individual influences. I’ve read so many books from so many different–very different–authors. It’s easier to identify the abstract influences. One is a sense of the fantastic possibilities around every corner in everyday life. Not that I actually believe in fantastic things, but the stories that most inspired me usually involved an ordinary world with strange things happening. I still remember reading Mary Norton’s The Borrowers when I was ten years old and choosing to believe that every old house had colonies of tiny people living in the interstices. Every time I’ve lived in a house with a basement, my imagination has populated that space with monsters and secrets. My second most important influence was the lack of media representation I felt growing up. It was impossible to find characters I could identify with thoroughly. The closest I came were the “lost child from a different plane of reality” like Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door. I started writing stories so that I could populate them with characters who made me feel less alone.

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Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-MohamedThe following review contains spoilers!

The Labyrinth’s Archivist, the first in the Broken Cities series, follows Azulea, the daughter of the Head Archivist and granddaughter of the former Head Archivist. The Labyrinth contains winding paths and hallways with gates to other worlds, and the Residence, where the Archive is housed, is a safe way station for passing travelers and traders. But when Azulea’s Amma dies unexpectedly, she suspects foul play. It’s up to Azulea and her friends to solve the murder mystery before more Archivists are lost to the killer.

Al-Mohamed creates a rich and diverse world with her multi-species cast of characters and delightful sci-fi setting. It’s never stated whether or not this world is set on the Earth as we know it, but enough clues make it sound like it’s off planet. The bustling marketplace life with its many beings from different planets and worlds will make the story strongly resonate with fans of the Star Wars franchise.

Though that is the case, it is clear that Middle Eastern culture heavily influences the makeup of this world. The marketplace, where a majority of the story takes place, is referred to as the souq, giving readers just enough detail to know this world is inspired by an Arabic or Middle Eastern society and culture. Details abound about the food people eat, like aish, and the use of spices like cumin and cardamom, common in South Asian and Arabic cuisine, indicate these cultures as the foundation for the Residence’s world.

My favorite aspect of the whole story is Azulea’s character. She is a queer woman of color with a disability; she is blind. In the Archivist tradition, individuals should be self-sufficient and able to complete the tasks the job entails without assistance. Azulea challenges those traditions though by enlisting the help of her best friend and cousin, Peny, who is coded as having a learning disability. Together, they can be Archivists. While Azulea is the mind that processes and analyzes information quickly, Peny is the eyes that can see and draw the maps Azulea describes.

The Archivist society’s views of people with disabilities can be interpreted as a commentary on how our own real-world society treats the differently-abled. Azulea proves that, given the proper tools and resources to even the playing field, she is just as capable of getting the job done as an able-bodied person.

But Azulea isn’t the only one proving this. Peny also defies expectations by supplying the main character with the skills she lacks, as well as by learning the trade despite her learning disabilities. Another character named Handsome Dan is portrayed as an amputee with a symbiotic tentacle as his “prosthetic” leg. The novella is rife with people with disabilities, and they are all full, complex characters, capable, competent, intelligent, and independent spirits. The fact that they need assistance doesn’t make them any less so.

Azulea’s mother is stubborn and rooted in the old ways, but her Amma always believed she could follow in their footsteps. That’s why when her grandmother dies under suspicious circumstances, Azulea charges forward with the task of finding her killer, despite the doubts coming from her community and even her own mother. It’s this persistence to succeed in a world that favors the able-bodied that makes Azulea such a great character to root for.

The queer romance did not dominate the story, but it added another element to the sci-fi murder mystery arc. Azulea and Melehti have a history, and as events unfold, that chemistry returns and can’t be ignored. It’s stated that their relationship didn’t work out because Azulea felt that accepting Melehti’s help made her dependent, and as a blind woman, she didn’t want to lean on anyone’s help for too long.

This aspect of the story brings another layer to Azulea’s characterization, as it shows that even she suffers from her society’s mentality of disabilities. In a world that deems the disabled as incapable, Azulea has put herself through so many hoops to prove she isn’t, often to her detriment.

Overall, the biggest weakness of the novella is just that: it’s a novella. There were so many places that felt like they needed a deeper dive and more room to breathe, which could have been accomplished if the story had been written as a full-length novel.

Even the Labyrinth that’s in the title barely gets explored throughout the story. It never details where the Labyrinth came from, how a city came to be built around it, and the role it plays in their world. Much time is spent on its Archivists and how they interact with it, but apart from the Residence, not much is known about the Labyrinth itself, which makes the story feel like it’s missing something, considering the novella’s title.

That being said, it is still an excellent read and highly recommended. I know I want to read the rest of the series.

Marthese reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

“May your memories keep you warm”

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a novella by Day Al-Mohamed that follows Azulea, a trainee from the Shining City that wants to be an Archivist. An Archivist interviews cross-world traders and keeps an updated archive and repository. She has a lot of vision and intuition even though she is blind.

She and her cousin Peny complement each other in their learning and work. This is not looked at kindly in the Archive, where each Archivist has to be self-sufficient. Azulea especially wants to prove herself and be taken seriously. She gets this chance when a terrible tragedy occurs. Her Amma dies and Azulea believes it to be murder.

For such a short novella, the story is action-packed. I read it nearly all in one day. This novella is a mixture of fantasy and mystery: my two favourite genres. The murderer was a bit predictable, to me. Although there were many suspects, however, the new spins to the world and the plot kept the story interesting. There definitely were some twists and turns, some of them were refreshing and not tropes.

This is also a novella about the importance of asking and getting help while still being independent. This is also an exes to lovers story, that is not explicit and the importance of understanding where each other is coming from, control and clearing misunderstandings in relationships.

Melethi is Azulea’s ex. She is also the leader of the market guard and arbiter and of course, gets involved in solving the crimes that happen. Even though it’s short, there is character development.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is part of the Broken Cities series and was released in July 2019. So far, there is only this book but I look forward to keep up with this series. It looks promising. Most world building in fantasy novels, especially if short, could be confusing. There were times where I found myself asking ‘What is that?’, but with time, it all cleared up.

One small thing that I liked about this book is the culture. I live in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and my language is a creole one that combines Semitic (Arabic), Anglosaxon and romantic languages. The culture and especially the words felt similar and I could connect to this world. The souq (market) is like my suq and the fūl (broad beans) are the ful that I eat each summer.

I feel that such a series, like my favourite the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman, would be appreciated by people living in the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean region or people interested in non Eurocentric/Americanized  fantasy, of which there aren’t that many, especially if queer.

All in all, it’s a good introduction to a new series. Azalea has many opportunities ahead and I look forward to see which she will take. I wish to read more about this world and the Labyrinth of worlds and want to see new worlds and exploration.

Sheila Laroque reviews Love Beyond Body Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology edited by Hope Nicholson

Love Beyond Body Space and Time

For readers who are interested in having more Indigenous writers in their reading material, Love Beyond Body, Space & Time is a great entry point into Indigenous-centered science fiction. This collection of short stories seeks to showcase the ways that science fiction and aspects of Indigenity are not contradictions. In many science fiction tropes, the narrative of new planetary exploration or post-apocalyptic worlds can create a picture that reflects the harmful effects of colonialism. The possibilities that Indigenous peoples could be not only surviving, but thriving and loving in ways that affirm Indigenous notions of gender, sex and love is not something that is typically seen. This collection of short stories seeks to not only create space for these possibilities, but provides an introduction to what it means to be two-spirited, where the term comes from, and additional resources for further exploration. In “Returning to Ourselves: Two Spirit Futures and the now” Niigaan Sinclair outlines some of the histories that early colonists did not understand two-spirit people. In the early 1800s, the writings of more than one fur trader make note of the ways that they were perplexed by Ozawwendib, a two-spirit male who dressed “womanish”. Sinclair goes on to show the roles that two-spirit people had within different nations and communities, and how they were viewed by their own communities. The works cited for this short introduction piece is also an excellent resource to learn more about the roles of two-spirit people, queerness and Indigenous peoples before colonization.

The entire collection is an excellent guide into the writings and thoughts of other Indigenous writers. Included are stories by Richard Van Camp, Daniel Heath Justice, Cherie Dimaline and Cleo Keahna, to name a few. Each contributor has their own catalogue of materials that are well-worth the read on their own. As well, Grace L. Dillon in “Beyond the Grim Dust of what was to a radiant possibility of what could be: two-spirit survivance stories” gives an overview of the other writing that has been done within science fiction and queer writings, including two-spirit and where to get resources on other writing by Indigenous theorists.

One of my favourite stories is “Né łe!” by Darcie Little Badger. It is the story of a veterinarian, Dottie, who is Lipan Apache and on a nine month trip to Mars. The mission gets interrupted, and she gets woken up from her stasis sleep by another queer Navajo woman Cora when her vetrinary skills are needed. For me, the story had many unexpected elements that made it feel very surprising and charming. It is unexpected to see a queer Indigenous female doctor as a main character in a short story; just as much as it is to find love on a journey to Mars.

I also really enjoyed “Transitions” by Gwen Benaway. It is set in the near future, in Toronto, Ontario. It is the story of a two-spirited trans person who is near the beginning of their transition. As part of this, they enroll themselves in a new medication trial which is supposed to have better effects than hormones. However, they begin to have hallucinations and is encouraged by an Elder to use ceremony to come back to her spirit. This story is a beautiful reminder that Indigenous futurisms can be seen as the time that we are living in right now. The ancestors of our past can override what we hail as modern medical breakthroughs. As an Indigenous person who used to live in Toronto, I’m always excited when I can recognize different places and institutions that helped to shape my experience of the city.

Overall, “Love Beyond Body, Space and Time” is an accessible and thorough introduction to both science fiction and two-spirit realities for people who may not  have a great deal of experience with either. The short story formats offer a wide variety of interpretations of science fiction; as well as what it means to have experiences with both Indigenity and queerness. A short read that is well-worth checking out, I recommend this with 4 out of 5 interplanetary stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.  

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?

Danika reviews “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns is an anthology of speculative fiction by people of colour, and it does include a few queer women short stories, but one really stood out to me: “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh. The author describes it as “A pornographic triptych of three different individuals encountering a creature part human, part bobbit worm.” This story perfectly combines two tropes that need more f/f content: human/mermaid love stories and human/monster sexuality. Any time a movie like The Shape of Water comes out, it sparks a new rehashing of the age-old question: “Why are so many people attracted to monsters?” I’m not here to answer that question, only to recognize its truth, and this is the perfect short story to explore it.

Mayang is not a mermaid: her bobbit worm-like traits, including mandibles, are too disturbing to fit our sexualized and Disneyfied vision of a classic mermaid. But she is a fantastical creature who lives in the water, who is fascinated by people, but also separate from them. Salmah and Mayang have a relationship, but there is tension there: they belong in different places. Salmah can’t reconcile this relationship with her life or future. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it is Mayang’s next, unexpected relationship that bring her more acceptance and really explores what is possible between their different lives (and bodies).

Part erotica and part revenge-against-misogynists story, with an undercurrent of the grotesque that leaves you equal parts disturbed and enthralled, this is a story I think a lot people have been looking for without knowing it.

Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.