Til reviews Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer

Crownchasers cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Crownchasers by Rebecca Coffindaffer is the story of Alyssa Farshot, a space pilot and member of the Explorers’ Society who wants nothing more than to take risks, break records, and scarf down a greasy hangover cure. Her life takes a sharp turn when the uncle who raised her dies—and did I mention he’s the emperor? Now heirs to the prime families, including Alyssa, must compete in a race across the stars to find the royal seal.

The winner will lead a thousand and one planets. The loser can return to riding flame tsunamis and eating bacon-egg-and-cheese hangover sandwiches.

Let the games… begin?

Alyssa could so easily have been unbearable—I rarely enjoy reluctant heroines—but, instead, she’s clever, resourceful, and immediately twists the situation to one in which she cares about the outcome. Rather than accepting her reluctance, she changes the game by allying herself with fellow contestant and best friend Coy. This speaks volumes to Alyssa’s character. It shows her to be someone who finds and takes third options rather than letting her circumstances be dictated. It also shows her to be a heroine who won’t be dragged along. The narrator cares. So the book stays interesting.

The plot is a straightforward fetch quest, layered with conniving politicians, planetary cultures and geographies, and well-rounded secondary characters. Planets range from dull to gorgeous, hostile to hostiler. Most species are humanoid, with variations like wings and horns, or crying not tears but drops of light. The story moves quickly with snappy, sometimes hilarious prose to match, and balances background with action. For me, this is where a lot of books fall flat—the worldbuilding feels like a textbook. While I don’t recall every detail from Crownchasers, I don’t think I’m missing anything important, because the feeling was more important than the precise circumstance. Things like how unfailingly rational secondary character Setter is, or the worlds that felt exploited by the empire, that remains with me even if I can’t quote direct passages.

In addition to being a solid great read, Crownchasers is very queer-normalized. Alyssa’s sexuality is never named, not as a secret, but as unimportant. Her attraction to multiple genders goes unremarked upon. Alyssa was raised by her uncles, while Setter has two moms. Queerness simply exists. More than that, relationships are portrayed in a healthy way. One thing that especially stood out to me was Alyssa and her ex-girlfriend, Faye, are both in the crownchase. They snark a bit, but no more than they do with anyone else, and although their breakup devastated Alyssa, it happened mutually and without either trying to hurt the other. They just realized they weren’t right together and ultimately remained friends.

I’ve read this book twice—once when it first came out, and again recently as I got my hands on the sequel. Both times I read it quickly, laughed, cried, and absolutely needed to know what happened next. It’s a fast-paced adventure with a engaging narration, that normalizes queerness and questions power structures, all centered around a protagonist who’s deeply flawed but just as deeply lovable.

Sam reviews Gideon the Ninth & Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the covers of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the NInth

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

For Pride this month, I’m going to treat myself a little bit—I would like to talk about Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, the first half of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir (the half that’s been released, at time of writing). Now, if you like to read books about lesbians and also spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably been told to read these books already. They’ve gotten very popular over the last two years, and for good reason! But the ubiquity of Gideon the Ninth recommendations amongst queer women online is almost a meme at this point, and there are perfectly good reviews for both these books up on the Lesbrary already.

And yet, like everyone else I know who has read the Locked Tomb, I can’t stop thinking about it. But it’s not the goth-Catholic space necromancy worldbuilding, or the twists and turns of Muir’s buckwild mystery ride, or even the shockingly good humor peppered with actual internet memes that has its hooks in me. It’s something I don’t see a lot of people talking about, actually. It’s the fact that clearly, and yet so surprisingly, series deuteragonists Gideon and Harrow are written to be butch and femme.

Okay, granted, many people have called Gideon butch in the last two years, usually in regards to her being a strong, crass, bullheaded woman who is extremely and unapologetically into other women. And don’t get me wrong, this alone is worth celebrating—I read a lot of lesbian books, especially lesbian science fiction and fantasy books, and it is still painfully rare to see a lesbian protagonist that is undeniably masculine. But that isn’t all Gideon is. Gideon Nav is thoughtful and observant in her own way, and she has a surprisingly strong sense of justice for the society she grew up in. She also has a deep well of compassion and pity hidden beneath her anger and sarcasm. She wears irreverence and irony like armor to protect this emotional vulnerability, but cannot stop herself from leaping to the aid of others when they need help.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gideon’s relationship with Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Despite her objections to playing Harrow’s knight, Gideon slips into the role of protector and confidante naturally and quickly. No matter how much Gideon claims to hate the Reverend Daughter, her mind is constantly considering Harrow’s emotional state, her well-being, and her safety. And as they grow closer, Gideon starts taking her armor off. No one else gets to see the softness of Gideon’s heart—no one but Harrow.

On Harrow’s part, there’s a lot more to the vicious, uptight necromancer than meets the eye. This is my more contentious point by far, a realization that felt obvious to me but I rarely hear mentioned. Harrow is aptly named for what she has had to endure in life; she is a scarred, starving rat of a girl, deeply traumatized and burdened with unbearable expectations, dreadful ambitions, and untreated mental illness. She isn’t exactly the classic image of a femme lesbian.

And yet, there is so much about her that complements and contrasts with Gideon. Where Gideon is bold, brash, and courageous, Harrow is careful, resilient, and tenacious. Like Gideon, Harrow has a steady moral compass that points slightly off from what her parents, her peers, even her God says is right. Harrow, too, wears armor—not of dumb jokes and a fuck-you attitude, but of protocol, of social cues and cultural symbols, of robes and veils and make-up masks. But beneath it, just like Gideon, Harrow cares, more than she dares let on. The depth and intensity for how much she feels for Gideon, for her house, for even a sacred corpse is shocking when it finally comes out. She’s been forced to bare her steel all her life, but there is a vulnerability in her that only Gideon has the lived context to understand.

This is reinforced in the second book (slight spoilers ahead), when we get to see what a Harrow without Gideon would look like. She feels lost at sea, missing a vital piece of herself through which her resilience and determination slowly drains away. I know many people are into the perhaps-romantic tension between Harrow and Ianthe, but to me the main narrative purpose of that story thread was to showcase exactly why Harrow needs Gideon. Gideon and Harrow make each other better people, whereas Ianthe would make Harrow a far worse version of herself. And when it’s finally time for Harrow to admit her feelings for Gideon, it’s the heretical skeleton-raising goth space witch who has the softest, most tender and romantic passages in the series.

All in all, Gideon and Harrow are different in the most complementary ways, covering for the other’s shortcomings while encouraging each other’s strengths. They’ve both been through terrible experiences, but are also uniquely equipped to help each other process and move past them. In a horrific, hostile universe that seems corrupted to its very core, their love feels like the one light strong enough to defy it. And you can’t convince me that’s not butch and femme.

Content Warnings: violence, gore, character death (including murder and suicide), unstable/unreliable subjectivity. If you want to know more about the rest of the Locked Tomb’s content, I recommend you look up our other reviews of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Maggie reviews Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

the cover of Wild and Wicked Things

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

With a frenetic, Roaring Twenties-type vibe, Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May is set in a post-WWI society where half of society is trying desperately to recover from the devastation of the Great War, and the other half is trying desperately to party hard enough that they forget there was devastation in the first place. There is a Prohibition in full effect, if Prohibition was for magic and magic paraphernalia rather than alcohol, but on isolated Crow Island, real magic is still available for the right price or if one knows where to look. Timid Annie Mason arrives on the island to settle her late father’s affairs and locate her estranged friend Beatrice, and she is unprepared for the brazen island nightlife, or the lure of the forbidden. Full of gothic decaying houses, blood magic, and that feeling of getting an instant crush on a girl in a well-made suit, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer fantasy for anyone interested in witchcraft with a side of house parties.

When Annie moves to Crow Island for the summer, she rents what she thinks is an isolated cottage, only to find that it’s next door to a large and rundown mansion named Cross House that still hosts opulent parties. Next door, Emmeline Delacroix and her friends desperately continue hosting the magical parties their late mentor Cilla used to be famous for in a desperate attempt to keep their lives on track. Emmeline is drawn to Annie, despite Annie having no place in her world of underground deals and rituals. Annie, for her part, is drawn both to glitz and the thrill of a little danger that she hasn’t experienced before and her connection with Emmeline who she finds dark, mysterious and compelling. And the more she digs into why Beatrice came to the island and her late father’s affairs, the more she becomes enmeshed in Emmeline’s world of underground magic. 

I quite enjoyed the vibes of this book. The atmosphere is lush and compelling, but May doesn’t fail to convey the gothic undertones of decay that lurk in every corner of the island. All through this glittering scenery is the sense that official ruin could fall at any moment if the wrong person decides to notice their banned magic, and yet Cross House’s livelihoods demand that the glittering party goes on. Emmeline and Annie’s budding relationship seems both inevitable and doomed, and I loved the slow reveal of backstory for all of the main characters. Into this heavy atmosphere, May injects a series of bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances that leave both the characters and the reader scrambling.

In conclusion, Wild and Wicked Things is a thrilling summer read. The vibes are immaculate, the setting is decadent, and the action is wild.  It’s a perfect way to simulate a little getaway thrill and indulge in your gothic witchcraft side at the same time. 

Danika reviews Buffalo is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

the cover of Buffalo is the New Buffalo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a collection of Métis futurism stories that rejects the concept that “education is the new buffalo” and instead imagines how Métis worldviews have survived colonialism in the past and present, and how they can influence the future.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say I do not feel qualified to discuss this book, but I thought it was a fantastic and fascinating read that I want a lot more people to pick up, so I’m going to give it a try. First, some background. Indigenous futurisms is a concept inspired by Afrofuturism. As Vowell explains, they “seek to discover the impact of colonization, remove its psychological baggage, and recover ancestral traditions.”

Despite the name, it’s not just located in the future — which is to say that although some of these stories are science fiction, Indigenous futurisms (and Afrofuturism) doesn’t neatly fit into that box. This collection also includes alternative histories, for instance. It’s also necessarily political: “whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction” (Walidah Imarisha).

Vowell writes in her introduction that she recognizes Indigenous people exist across the globe, all with their own distinct stories and viewpoints, so she labels her work as specifically Métis futurist, with all the stories taking place around her home of Lac Ste. Anne.

She also discusses how the history of the science fiction genre is intertwined with colonialism, reflecting settler-colonial anxieties and posing colonialism as inevitable, that the only choice is whether to be the colonizer or the colonized.

Vowell also explains that these stories are meant to inspire action. They “invite the reader to co-constitute potentialities with [the author]” and “You don’t have to be Métis to get it! Our past was full of relationships with non-Métis, as is our present, and who knows how much more that web of relationality will expand into the future?”

One of my favourite things about this collection, and something that furthers that goal, is that the stories include footnotes and are each followed by an essay explaining Vowell’s thought process behind them: “These explorations expand this work beyond creative writing; I am ‘imagining otherwise’ in order find a way to ‘act otherwise.'” While the stories are fiction, there is a lot of research that went into many of them, and the footnotes explain which parts are based in fact and which were changed.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t also queer. (Chelsea Vowell also identifies as queer.) At least four of the stories are sapphic, though I recognize that this is applying terms from a completely different cultural context. In several stories, it’s just mentioned in passing that the main character is attracted to women, but in others, the character’s queerness is more central to the story.

In “Buffalo Bird,” the main character and her mother are rougarou, shapeshifters who transform into powerful black mares, and that shift is usually through anger. Angelique and her mother are both criticized for not being sufficiently feminine, especially because Angelique has no interest in marrying a man. Vowell explains that these gender norms and this heterosexism have been enforced through colonialism and that they have “erased and punished fluid sexual orientations and gender identities that existed pre-Contact.”

In another, a queer Indigenous feminist collective co-parent a kid together. And then there’s one with this line, about falling for a woman who’s also a literal fox: “I swear, I’d have done anything to keep her looking at me like that, even if part of me did feel like she was thinking about eating me up. Maybe especially because of that.”

While it’s unusual enough to have a short story collection with footnotes and explanatory essays, they also play with form in different ways. One is told as an academic talk. One is the same story told three times: as hint fiction (under 25 words), microfiction (under 300 words), and then as a short story.

Many of them feel like thought experiments. In one, buffalo are returned to the plains — all at once, with herds crashing through Ikea walls. Another takes the concept of Métis as a “forgotten people” to create a culturally rooted Métis superhero who is instantly forgotten by anyone who isn’t family — and uses that to sabotage colonialist projects. In another, parents implant their children with nanites that translate all language input into Cree, making them first language Cree speakers who will keep the language alive but will also be unable to learn any other language. One story follows a world where most of the population hibernates until the world heals from its damage, with technology maintained by an Indigenous crew paid with parcels of land — and one plans to use this opportunity for revenge and to determine who wakes up.

This was a thought-provoking and engaging collection, and I really enjoyed reading the essays to see Vowell’s inspiration and intentions behind each story. Vowell is also the cohost of the podcast Métis in Space and co-founder of the Métis in Space Land Trust, which has bought back land around Lac Ste. Anne.

I highly recommend this one, and I’m eagerly anticipating whatever Chelsea Vowel writes next.

Content warnings: racism, suicide, drug use and overdose, violence

Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

the cover of Not Good for Maidens

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

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

Vic reviews Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Ever since I discovered Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I have hesitated to read it for the sheer fact that it could only be a book that I loved or that I hated.  It looked so tailored to my own personal tastes that if it did not deliver, it would have actively made me kind of angry about the wasted potential.  But fortunately, this book was everything I hoped it would be and more.  Funny and brutal, it was absolutely wild from start to finish, but in the best possible way.  I laughed and I gasped and were I capable of expressing normal human emotions, I probably would have cried.

To start off, the review on the cover describes it as “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space,” and I mean, what’s not to love about that?  More specifically, it centers on Gideon Nav, a skilled swordswoman and ward of the Ninth House who has already tried to escape numerous times.  After yet another foiled attempt, she agrees to pose as a cavalier to Harrowhark Nonagesimus — the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer who has made Gideon’s life hell since childhood — in order to help Harrow survive a trial that could end with her ascension to immortality serving the Emperor.  

Between the necromancers and the cavaliers, this book does have a fair few characters to keep track of, but they are so distinct that it does not take long to learn who is who.  And though they are many, I loved every single character in this book — as a character if not necessarily as a person.  The morals are, after all, somewhat questionable at times.  In particular, I have never understood the appeal of the damaged-asshole-hot-guy trope, but I have officially been won over by damaged-asshole-hot-girl Harrow (and, in all honesty, every other woman in this book).

On that note, Gideon Nav is one of my favorite protagonists I have ever had the pleasure to read about.  Her narration is amazing, and her dialogue is hilarious (I think I could have read this book in half the time if I didn’t stop every five lines to read aloud every funny thing Gideon said or thought), but she’s also so much more than that.  She surprised me constantly, though I always felt like I understood why she did what she did.  Chaotic as she is, there is such specificity to her that she felt like a real person from the very first page.

Really, that is true in just about every aspect of this book.  I have heard that this book is confusing, and while I will admit that I don’t think I ever quite grasped all of the fundamentals of necromancy, I also don’t think that was to the book’s detriment. Because we receive this book through Gideon’s perspective and because she understands necromancy in this world about as well as we do, I was able to follow along easily and trust that if she did not understand, I did not need to either.  Anything I did need to know would be revealed eventually, but whatever questions I was left with, the author did have an answer.

The thing about this book is it’s so out-there that it very easily could have been a mess, weird for the sake of being weird, but everything about it is so specific that it always felt completely intentional.  Even at its most wild, everything fit together perfectly in a way I can’t quite describe.  I would trust Tamsyn Muir with my life (or at least my next read!).

Larkie reviews The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

three covers of The Gracekeepers

In a world where the seas have risen and land is the rarest, most precious commodity, most of the population live on boats, constantly wandering and trying to find their next meal. This setting is where we find a circus, a graveyard, and two women stuck in situations they would rather not be: North, bear trainer in the circus, is engaged to the ringmaster’s son and destined to leave the circus, the only place she has ever thought of as home. Meanwhile, Callanish lives in a graceyard, performing funerals for those who die at sea. As the plot slowly unravels, we slowly uncover secrets and quiet interpersonal dramas that sit just beneath the surface of a tight-knit crew who rely on each other for their survival.

Where this book really shines is in the atmosphere. There’s no lack of poetic descriptions of the sea, the circus, and the fine balance between life and death. The world itself is complex, and as beautiful as it is cruel, and we get to see it through the eyes of most of the major characters, both protagonists and antagonists, which gives us a full view from all different perspectives. This book feels very meditative, rather than plot heavy, and I’ve always had a soft spot for any slow love affair with the sea. If you’re looking for a quick paced adventure, then this is not the book for you; it’s much more of an ethereal exploration of how people’s lives are shaped by their circumstances, and how they can find agency even within strict social roles.

I do wish we could have seen more of Callenish and North’s relationship. They’re from different worlds, and while it was interesting seeing how they circled each other and slowly came together, they didn’t actually have enough time together to explore their dynamic. I loved the tiny bit that we did get to see of this, and I thought it really drew everything together nicely at the end, but it did leave me wanting more. Also, while we got a lot of different perspectives from lots of different damplings, we didn’t see much of the landlocker side of things — or how Callenish comes to embrace her role in between land and sea. I wanted to know more about the merpeople and the changes in the world, and how humanity might progress with its relationship to the sea — all things that we got hints of throughout the book, but it was never really brought up. I guess this lack of information adds somewhat to the air of mystery, but it really just left me with a lot of questions.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but it definitely has a very specific mood to it which might not appeal to everyone. If you like world building and plots with lots of room to explore on your own, then you’ll love this book. However, if you need everything to be tied up, this might be more frustrating than anything else. I liked it, but it’s definitely got more atmosphere than plot.

Danika reviews Spear by Nicola Griffith

the cover of Spear by Nicola Griffith

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The first book I read by Nicola Griffith was Hild, a 560 page (for the first book in the trilogy) meticulously-researched historical fiction title that left me feeling like I was wandering through a dense fog of unfamiliar names and terms–and yet, it was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down. So although this is a standalone novella, I went in feeling a little bit intimidated.

That instinct wasn’t wrong: I was immediately confronted with Welsh people and place names I’ve never seen before, as well as vocabulary I’m not familiar with. This is a retelling of the Arthur legends, so if you’re more familiar with these stories (or with Welsh words!), you’ll probably be less lost than I was in that first chapter.

Still, I knew that I would be rewarded for hanging with it, and I definitely was. Reading Griffith’s books feels like an intellectual expansion for me: it’s clear how carefully she considers her words and how deeply the setting is researched. While that can feel like a barrier to get into it, it also means that there is so much depth and richness to the story, which more than makes up for me stumbling through the first chapter or so.

This follows an unnamed (at least, at first) main character raised in isolation, closely connected to nature, who disguises herself as a man and sets off to become a knight of King Artos’s court. This is a lofty goal for a girl in scavenged armor riding a bony horse, but she knows it’s her destiny. While she is assumed to be a man by most people she meets and she does sleep with women (who know she’s a woman), at first, this isn’t a major part of the story–but it only gets more queer as it goes.

She’s a fascinating character who has a synergistic relationship with nature: she has reflexes and senses that are beyond what humans are normally capable of because of it, which is what allows her to slowly make her way closer to the possibility of being one of the chosen few knights of Artos.

While I enjoyed the whole book, I thought the section that takes place at King Artos’s court is the most interesting. There, we learn about (spoiler) the Lancelot character’s relationship with both the Guinevere and Arthur characters. (end spoiler) Our main character also begins to question deeply for the first time her destiny, her upbringing, and her instincts. She enters this space feeling confident in herself, but she begins to wonder if she should feel ashamed, if she is somehow “unclean”. (Which not really about homophobia, aside from the metaphor.) There’s also an enthralling love story with a woman intertwined with her destiny.

This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that made me gasp out loud as I read it. I’m not usually an expressive reader, so that was a surprise. This novella is precisely plotted, both building up an expansive world and mythology while moving through a lean story that deserves its own spot among the most renowned Arthur legends. It feels timeless, but also has a depth that makes these people feel real and relatable.

I enjoyed reading the afterword, where the author both lays out her substantial research into the setting while also delighting in being able to create a mishmash of many different Arthur stories–with her own queer twist, of course. She describes how this is the great tradition of Arthur stories: they are all essentially fan fiction, remixing the versions that came before. Though Griffith borrows elements from many other stories, this narrative stands alone, feeling cohesive and layered, even if you (like me) don’t recognize the references or inspirations. (Oh, and I didn’t even mention the handful of gorgeous illustrations throughout!)

This is a small book that packs a big punch, and I was surprised how moved I was by the love story, considering that romance didn’t play much of a role for the first section of the book. I am definitely now on board for anything Griffith writes, and I can’t wait to explore her backlist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just read her Writer’s Manifesto, and I’ll be off fanning my face for a bit.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.