Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Daughter of Makha by Nel Havas

I look across the years in astonishment, for in the distance I see a simple, trusting girl. She is a stranger to me, yet she is familiar; her land alien, but it is mine. In unbroken chain, hand-in-hand with ghosts of myself, over the days and the hours, over years measured in heartbeats, I am linked to her.

Daughter of Makha is a retelling of the biblical story of the epic of Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-19). In the original story, Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother. When her father does nothing to punish him, Tamar’s mother and brother plot revenge (and attempt to seize power), which tears the family apart and leaves a large death toll. Tamar serves only as a catalyst n the narrative, disappearing quickly after that. Daughter of Makha expands on this character, exploring what this must have looked like for Tamar, who is trapped in a family tearing itself apart.

This is the third of Nel Havas’s books that I’ve reviewed at the Lesbrary, and although this book departs from the Ancient Egypt setting of the previous two, I can see the parallels in these stories. Like her Egyptian novels, Daughter of Makha has a matter-of-fact writing style and features thorough research–though sometimes that research veers into info dump territory, describing every road the characters take and its landmarks, or dropping in some historical story that doesn’t quite match up with the narrative.

All three books also feature court intrigue and elaborate plots to gain power. The women, especially, in these novels scheme to gain influence. They may not have a lot of legal power, but they use the resources available to manipulate their circumstances, whether it’s to shore up power, peace, or protection for their family. Makha and Bathsheba are the principal players here–both wives of King David, both trying to ensure that their son becomes the heir. But they are not the only women using whatever influence they have: Tamar spends the novel trying to turn the course of history, attempting to prevent bloodshed. I was especially impressed by the quiet shrewdness of Shoshana, who finds a way to protect her (and Absalom’s) sons no matter the outcome of the war.

Although it is the wrong against Tamar that launches this war, she is horrified by it. She doesn’t get a say in her mother and brother’s revenge plan, and it becomes obvious that they are acting for their own gain more than any attempt to defend her “honor.” I thought that Havas captured the terrible and engrossing power of war. Tamar is continually disgusted by her loved ones’ blood lust, but the battle is brutal and bloody and giddy—it inspires a morbid fascination.

As for the queer content, it comes in about half way through the book. Hana is a few years older than Tamar and has acted as a pseudo servant/caretaker/surrogate sister role at various times in Tamar’s life. They are reunited after a long separation, and they travel together to try to prevent the final battle. Hana crossdresses, disguising herself as a warrior to defend them from any conflicts on the road. Their relationship has subtly shifted; they both seem to have grown since they were last together, and they see each other with new eyes. I did like the slow build of their relationship—the tentative flirtation—but I wish there was a little bit more of it. [spoiler] Specifically, I wish there was more detail of their relationship from the end of the battle to their happily ever after. They seem to kiss for the first time, separate… and then a while passes and they’ve grown old together. I’d like to see more of their fumbling first steps in their relationship. [end spoiler]

And, of course, I have to mention their donkey, Pimi. Pimi is with them on their journey, and she’s an adorable animal sidekick.

I do have some criticisms, however. Like Nel Havas’s other books, I think the strength of the story is in the ideas and broad strokes. It could benefit from more intense editing. For instance, some paragraphs are a few lines, while others take up more than an entire page. Although overall I though the second half of the book was more interesting, some of the travel could be condensed, especially by not describing every single road they took. I was also surprised that [spoiler] Ahithophel’s suicide is casually mentioned and isn’t really a plot point.[/spoiler] Also, I know this is based on a Bible story, so arguably you can’t really “spoil” the ending, but on page 300, right before the final battle begins, the narration gives away who wins the battle, which takes away some of the tension in the moment.

And finally, a few warnings. This is based on a Bible story, but it is from an atheistic perspective. Characters (especially Makha) scoff at these beliefs, and there doesn’t seem to be any character who is religious and also a good person. I will also include a trigger warning for Tamar’s rape, which is described in some detail.

I am not a religious person, so I was not very familiar with this story, but reading the Bible story and Daughter of Makha back-to-back was a very interesting experience. I appreciated how Havas gave Tamar (and the other women of the story) agency, even when they were restricted by both misogyny and story constraints.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews The Lady’s Bride by M. A. Jodat-Danbrani

The Lady’s Bride is a fantasy novella that follows an unnamed woman on her quest to challenge the Lady: a woman with incredible magical powers, who tore their world apart many years ago. If she can best the Lady, then she take on the Lady’s abilities and hopefully change the world for the better.

I found myself a little thrown when I started reading this story. For one thing, the language and slang the characters use is not the kind I usually read in fantasy. It makes sense, since the protagonist does talk about herself as a simple country girl, but it was surprising to read phrases like “horse puckey” in a fantasy setting. We’re also thrown into the story, and in addition to not knowing anything about the world that we’re encountering, we also know almost nothing about the main character. For the sake of ease, let’s call the main character A, to avoid calling her “the unnamed protagonist” the entire review.

A is on a journey to confront the Lady, but that’s about all we know about her in the beginning. Why she has gone on this quest, what her history is, or even what her personality is like is only slowly revealed in the first few chapters, making it hard to get a grasp on the opening scenes. Soon is becomes obvious, though, that A is sincere in her desire to change the world. She sees how damaged the society she lives in is, how much people damage each other and ignore each other’s pain, and she wants that to end.

In every encounter, A is determined to be kind and giving. She really wants to do the right thing, even if she’s not yet sure what that is. As the story unfolds, we learn about the problems that exist in her world–how the different peoples have turned against each other, including dragos (humanoid dragonlike people), orcs, the water people, and humans.

While A is certain of her goal to confront the Lady, the path to get there is more unclear. A seems to stumble forward, tripping into mini adventures along the way. But while this muddled journey continues, there is a more subtle change happening beneath the surface. A is also on a journey of morality, one that makes her question her own core beliefs. In the beginning of the story, I was wary about the ahistorical way A seemed to view the world, but as she encounters new people and situations, her understanding grows, and she begins to incorporate that into her worldview.

There’s a lot to like about this novella. I did get swept along in the quest storyline, and although A can seem naive and over-the-top sometimes, I did appreciate her desire to effect real change in the world and her anger at apathy. I also became intrigued by the world. I would like to see more about the dragos’ culture, and I’d love to see illustrations or fan art of the water peoples–they seemed to have such interesting designs.

[spoilers, trigger warning:] I did want to give a warning that there is a queer woman character who is killed for homophobic reasons–this is a side character, and there are a lot of other queer women characters in the book (in fact, f/f relationships almost seem to be the norm in most of the story), but I know some readers do want to avoid that trope, even if it’s a small part of the story. [end spoilers]

Overall, I really liked this novella! I feel like there was opportunity to expand on the world and character depth, but for the length, it did a good job in hooking me. If you’re a fantasy fan, it’s worth checking this one out!

One note: this book isn’t actually published yet! It’s part of the Kindle Scout program, which means for the next month or so, you can read and excerpt and nominate it if you want to see it published. Here’s the link!

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews The Buddha of Lightning Peak by Yudron Wangmo

buddha-of-lightning-peak

Within a few chapters of starting The Buddha of Lightning Peak, I thought I understood where the story was going: Plucky teenager takes on corporation to save the environment! Having been environmentally-focused as a teenager, this was a plot that would have been just fine by me. By the midway point of the book, however, it was obvious this wouldn’t be the Disney Channel version of that narrative.

Dee is a black lesbian teenager with a lot on her plate. Her brother is in jail, her grandmother is abusive, and the place that she feels most at peace is scheduled to be bulldozed. Dee is determined to save Lightning Peak, but no one else seems to care–not even the environmental groups that would usually be the leading the fight. She doesn’t always feel like the different parts in her life meld, but she will have to draw on her family, her friends in the Gay-Straight Alliance, and the connections she’s made through a Buddhist meditation group in order to fight back. Even if that means risking her life.

As you might be able to tell, there’s a lot going on in The Buddha On Lightning Peak. On one level it can be read as a young adult environmental thriller about an activist taking on a suspiciously powerful mining company, but that ignores both the scope of the plot and the other aspects of Dee’s life. She’s also becoming serious about pursuing Buddhism as a life path and trying to incorporate that into her identity (there aren’t a lot of other black Buddhists that she knows, nevermind black Buddhist lesbian teenagers). She’s feuding with her ex, attempting to maintain a relationship with her incarcerated brother, and struggling to maintain her friendships at the same time. There is a huge cast of side characters in this book as well. Though I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the amount of names (a personal flaw of mine), I did appreciate how many side characters became well-developed over the course of the novel.

Dee is an engaging protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She is impatient and often angry, even when dealing with her closest friends. While continuing to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle to save Lightning Peak, Dee also begins, possibly unconsciously, to come to terms with her own more generalized anger. She draws on the lessons she’s learned from her Buddhist mentor in order to have more empathy and understanding for the people around her, and see things more broadly.

This definitely became more complex and had higher stakes than I was expecting. Dee becomes involved in something much bigger than she anticipated, and soon seems to be regularly putting her life at risk for her goals, which definitely kept me flipping pages.

This isn’t a perfect book, however. The major problem I had with it was the use of slang, which often felt dated and awkward to me (“Kicking it at a party”, “check it”, etc). The book is from Dee’s point of view, so it’s not just her dialogue that uses slang, but the entire narration. Even when it didn’t seem dated, seeing words like shoulda, mighta, or ’em in the narration would often throw me out of the story.  There is a lot to do with race and racism covered in this story as well, which I can’t speak to in terms of representation: I’m white, and the book is not own voices. I’d be interested to read a review by a black reader, especially a queer black reader.

I also am not Buddhist, so I also don’t have a lot of context for its representation here, but the author is a Buddhist practitioner. I got the impression that at the core of this series of books was to the representation of Buddhism, but although it was a major part of the story, it didn’t feel pedantic or preaching to me.

Despite my issues with the narration, I really enjoyed both the well-rounded characters and the nerve-wracking plot of this. Not only was there a lot of action, but events kept surprising me (mostly because everything seemed to keep going wrong). If you want a more intense take on the “plucky teen takes on evil corporation” plot, with added Buddhist subplot, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Sekma by Nel Havas

sekma nel havas

Back in December, I reviewed The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas. Recently, the author contacted me about her new companion book to that novel: Sekma. (I say “companion” because this book can be read before, after, or independently from The Apprentice Queen, but they are linked.)

Sekma is a character that fascinated me in The Apprentice Queen, so I was intrigued by the idea of a book with her back story. In this novel, we see her as a young woman, at the beginning of her rise to power. If I expected to see her transformation into the cold, ruthless woman we meet in The Apprentice Queen, I was mistaken. Sekma as a young woman is just as manipulative, power-hungry, and unfeeling as she is as an aging queen. She just has fewer resources accrued.

Although this is Sekma’s story, it’s not from her point of view. It’s from the perspective of Neferkara, a woman who was once nobility, but was enslaved when Egyptians invaded. Now she serves Sekma in Egypt, seething with rage at the king who ordered the invasion–and the entire country by extension. There are definitely parallels between the protagonists in the two books: both are fish out of water, though Mitti is raised up from a commoner’s lifestyle to a noble’s, while Neferkara tumbles in status. Both work closely with Sekma–against their wills–and grow to grudgingly respect her skill while being horrified by her personality.

I found Sekma to be just as compelling in this narrative. She is calculating and cold–not cruel, because that would imply more passion than she possesses–but captivating. This background on Sekma doesn’t make her more sympathetic per se, but it does provide more perspective. We see how she built her network and resources from very little, and the trajectory of how her scheming became so sophisticated later in her political life. More than her capability, it’s her motivation that makes me pause to reconsider my opinion.

Sekma is unflinching in destroying anyone who stands in her way, whether they are guilty, a potential threat, or inconvenient bystanders, but everything she does genuinely benefits the kingdom (at least in her eyes). She seeks power, but she really is the most capable person to wield it. We see how infighting and pride started wars and sabotaged progress in Egypt previously. No one close to the throne is as good with organization and management or diplomatic relations. Without her seizing control of Egypt, it really seems like the kingdom would be worse off, right down to the common people. Although Sekma is apathetic to their personal well being, the average person seems to be better off under her leadership than her competitors. I found this aspect to be really thought-provoking, and ended up fueling lengthy conversations between my partner and me.

Because Sekma takes center stage in this story, I found that although Neferkara is the main character, she’s often hardly noticeable: just providing the eyes to see Sekma through. Her story line gets less attention. This also means that although there is queer content in the book, it is definitely not the focus. Neferkara befriends another slave who later becomes her lover. Meritaten teaches her to find happiness even in her new, bleak life. It is sweet, but fair warning: this isn’t a romance, so there’s no guaranteed happily ever after.

It’s interesting to see how the two books slot together. There’s enough kept under wraps that you can read this before The Apprentice Queen and not be spoiled, but reading them the other way around reveals how some of the events and reveals came to be, including unforeseen consequences of Neferkara’s actions.

I was impressed with the attention to detail in the setting. I don’t know enough about ancient Egypt to say definitively that it’s accurate, but it certainly appears to be well-researched. The writing is serviceable, and seems a little cleaner than her earlier book, including fewer time jumps. Foreshadowing is used liberally, but it worked for me and kept the tension during slower sections. On reflection, however, I’m not sure that the plot hangs together without context. It was interesting as a deeper exploration of an interesting character from the first novel, but I’m not sure it has a strong arc of its own. The Apprentice Queen seemed to be clearly about how someone can become a monster, which was an interesting psychological premise. I didn’t have a central theme pop out at me in the same way in this volume, except maybe examining what makes a villain and questioning whether Sekma can be both monstrous and necessary? It felt a little more muddied to me.

That’s a minor point, however. I enjoyed learning more about Sekma, and I liked the journey Neferkara goes on. I feel like this is a stronger read as a follow-up to The Apprentice Queen, but that could be my own personal bias. I do recommend both books if you’re interested in the premise!

(Warning: don’t read the Amazon synopsis for Sekma! It gives away most of the plot.)

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Dreamland City by Larina Lavergne

dreamland city

Dreamland City had me hooked from the first page. Lily, a freshman at Duke University, has arrived on a full scholarship despite not having much enthusiasm for academics. Naturally gifted, she’s been launched into a environment of well-off peers while still coming home as often as possible to the trailer park (Dreamland City) she grew up in. The first chapter of the book describes Lily trying to escape a family friend as he tells her–for the millionth time–about her birth. Born in a kiddie pool out back of their trailer to a mother who was drunk and high, hers wasn’t the water birth the parenting magazines had in mind.

I came into this book expecting a young adult/new lesbian adult romance. As it became obvious that Lily has an ongoing sexual and romantic relationship with her stepfather, I realized this was going to be darker than I originally anticipated, but I still enjoyed the ongoing relationship between Lily and Reagan. Reagan is from an “old money” family, and between that, her good looks, and her enmeshment in Greek (sorority) politics, she appears to be the kind of perfection Lily can’t stand. When they’re assigned together for a project, however, they form an unlikely relationship, and I was beginning to think the YA/NA romance angle was back on track. That is rapidly derailed, however, and Dreamland City takes a turn for the grim that I wasn’t expecting. Perspective shifts suddenly to Reagan, and we learn what’s hidden behind the veneer of perfection.

This was definitely a read that surprised me. I actually put down the book halfway through in shock, and then speedread to the end of the chapter to see if maybe it was a dream sequence. Although this wasn’t the narrative I had prepared for, it definitely delivered. Both Reagan and Lily are deeply interesting characters: flawed, judgmental, angry, and desperate to survive, but in completely different contexts.

As for the romance aspect, Reagan and Lily both have ongoing relationships with men, and although they have the closest romance and sexual relationship with each other, there isn’t any label applied to it or to them. This isn’t a feel-good story. It’s a raw account of broken people pulling each other through, but all of the characters’ relationships with each other are bittersweet.

Although this wasn’t what I was expecting, Dreamland City turned out to be one of my favourite reads so far this year. It’s engrossing and compelling. My only complain would be one minor continuity error. If you’re okay with gritty narratives with all the beauty of a broken window, definitely pick this one up.

Trigger warnings for rape and graphic violence.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Colossus of Arms by Madeleine Lycka

colussus of arms

Colossus of Arms is a sci fi story that has just as much to do with marble sculptures and polyamory as it does with space travel. From the first chapter, it reads as a story about a space expedition–but the exotic locale the spaceship is hurtling towards is Earth. The crew mostly consists of the offspring of Earth emigrants. Post-global warming, the environment became hostile enough that most people who could leave, did. Now they’ve returned to gather biological samples to bring back home, and to visit the place where their species began.

Despite initial impressions, though, this is not the story of the spaceship’s crew. It’s Nix’s story: a sculptor rooted deeply enough in her art to have never left Earth. Nix is visited by these human/alien guests, who bring enough high quality marble to justify the inconvenience. More inconvenient than company, however, is the arrival of Torrance: the leader of the group, and Nix’s love of her life that she was separated from decades before.

I found the premise of this story really interesting: it mixes together the alien and the familiar, with Earth as an alien planet both to the visitors and to the reader. The climate has changed drastically, making it a very different world. The visitors are human, but they’re humans from a completely new culture and environment, bringing technology and attitudes that clash with Nix’s sensibilities. Despite the sci fi framework, though, this is primarily a love story. It’s the tension between Torrance and Nix that drives the story forward. How do you face seeing the love you left behind? Can you ever go back?

The other love story is with Nix and her artwork. It makes perfect sense that she works with stone. Her no bullshit attitude comes across as hard and abrasive, but like the painstakingly detailed sculptures she creates, there is tenderness underneath. I enjoyed Nix’s gruff attitude, and I especially appreciated having a 60+ year old woman as a protagonist.

Unfortunately, the centrality of Torrance and Nix’s relationship doesn’t leave much room for character development in the rest of the crew. In the beginning, I found it difficult to remember who was who, and even by the end, I didn’t feel like I had much of a sense of who Derthan and Gantu were (though Jansee did come into her own by the end of the story).

It’s always interesting to see how different cultures can influence each other, but one aspect of this that felt unnatural was the insistence on non-monogamy throughout the novel. The visitors live in a culture where monogamy is unheard of, and they’re horrified at the idea. This makes sense from their perspective, but Nix–who (theoretically) practices monogamy–seems to agree completely with them that it’s a terrible system that only hurts everyone involved, which made it seem more like A Message than a natural part of their interactions. This also leads to several scenes that are not entirely consensual–the crew regularly tries to pressure Nix into sex. And even after she establishes how her views on sexuality differ from theirs, Torrance still pushes more than felt comfortable for me as a reader, especially if I’m supposed to be invested in their romance.

The spaceship’s crew is made up of different races (supposedly for maximum genetic diversity, but considering that Africa has the most genetic diversity, I would have though that would make for a mostly black crew). Unfortunately, the descriptions of their races were uncomfortable, from the black character being described as having “espresso brown skin” (here’s why you shouldn’t describe skin colour using food) and “overly generous” lips, to Jansee being described as having “classic East Asian features”.

I did have a few other complaints about the writing. It’s heavy on the adjectives and similes, and when these sneak their way into dialogue, it feels unnatural. I just can’t image someone saying that when they look at their lover, they feel like they’re looking at “deep sapphire blue ocean water”. I was also looking forward to seeing how the central conflict of the novel would conclude satisfyingly–would Torrance and Nix find a way to stay together?–and was disappointed when a new conflict was introduced and wrapped up in the last chapter without addressing the main tension. (There’s also another detail I felt was left unresolved: why were there only single women living in the land surrounding Nix?) There were some plot developments that surprised me, but I would have liked to see an epilogue tying the loose threads together.

I was fascinated by the concepts that Colossus of Arms introduces, especially delving so deeply into the creation of artwork within a sci fi story, though I was hoping for a little more from the mechanics of the storytelling. It is always interesting to see authors explore different ways of writing within genre.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas

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The Apprentice Queen is a story about how an ordinary person becomes a monster.

Mitti grew up in a happy, not particularly well-off family in ancient Egypt. When she was ten, she found herself suddenly whisked off into the royal court, a snake pit of deception, betrayal, and political games. She is trained by the queen herself to become an expert at maneuvering in this toxic environment. Mitti is horrified by Queen Sekma’s callousness, her willingness to sacrifice innocent people for the greater good, or even just to further her own power. But as Mitti becomes the princess Kham, she develops an aptitude for the same manipulation that she always resented in Sekma. Eventually she finds herself making an impossible choice between her beloved and the safety of both her son and the kingdom.

I found The Apprentice Queen to be a little overwhelming at first: we are plunged into this story and have to quickly find our feet. The novel also bounces back and forth in time often, usually beginning a chapter with a dramatic scene and then backing up to explain what lead up to it. I was immediately intrigued by the world of court politics, however. The intricate machinations are fascinating to read about. At its heart, this is about how Kham becomes corrupted by her environment, or at least how she is forced to make impossible choices. As a child, Mitti is horrified to realize that on some level she in enjoying this intrigue and manipulation, and I felt the same way reading it. The options are laid out so that something like sentencing a person to death for a minor offense can seem reasonable while I’m immersed the story, and it only after I’ve put the book down that I realize how reprehensible it is.

Sekma makes for a fascinating character. She is brutal, but incredibly intelligent and skilled. Relentlessly practical, she has a clear worldview and is willing to sacrifice anything in order to make the kingdom stronger. She sneers at the idea that war has “honor” over poisoning a single person in order to prevent thousands of deaths on the battlefield. Kham struggles with her own feelings towards Sekma, loathing her at most times, but growing to respect her as she struggled to fill the old queen’s shoes.

It is Kham’s relationships with the key women in her life that form the core of the emotional arc of the story. Although she is motivated by the love she has for her son, he does not demand the attention that Sekma, Nyserra, and even her sometimes lover Tasima do. I loved the rapport that Tasima and Kham had together as friends and lovers while not in the context of  a romantic relationship. It’s also always nice to have a story that integrates lesbian relationships seamlessly. This isn’t a “lesbian romance”, but it does include one.

I did feel uncomfortable about the attitudes around disability. Although I liked that Kham and her husband had a friendly relationship, most of the discussion around people with disabilities in this novel is about preventing their existence. At some point Kham contemplates what a “miserable” existence Oskhama, though we never have any indication that he is unhappy.

Aside from that, I did have some minor quibbles, including a few typos and that one of the sex scenes has one of the women say “Stop! Oh Stop!” to no response, though clearly the scene is supposed to read as consensual. Other than that, the writing is serviceable and communicates an engrossing narrative of one person’s gradual transformation into someone remarkably like the person they most detest. This conceit is captivating and so well executed that I would definitely recommend picking this up regardless of the minor flaws I found with it.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas

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Mitti is only ten when she’s taken from her family to be trained as an apprentice to the queen of Egypt. Her parents, having grown up in this political world and escaped it, are horrified despite the huge gain in stature for their daughter. As Mitti grows up and becomes more and more embroiled in vicious court politics, she struggles to find the balance to survive in this environment without losing herself completely.

Apprentice Queen was an interesting read for me. I was immediately intrigued by the premise, which places the main character in an excruciating position. She is basically held prisoner by Sekma, the queen, who controls the political climate of Egypt from the behind the scenes and would have Mitti killed instantly if she were to disobey or try to escape this life. Mitti has to learn these lessons on politics by heart if she is to survive, but despite being exactly the protege Sekma is looking for, she loathes the queen and the position she has put Mitti in. In order to keep herself and her loved ones safe, though, she needs to use these same tactics that she has been taught.

Sekma is a dictator and is ruthless towards anyone who stands in her way, but as Mitti is taught how to navigate the political arena and the repercussions of every possible action, I found myself accidentally getting swept up in her logic, mentally nodding along to the sentiment that of course it makes sense to assassinate one person rather than allow a civil war that would slaughter thousands of innocent people. I had to abruptly pull myself out of the story when I realized the I was getting sucked into this tangled logic trap. It really show you how people become indoctrinated into this life.

This is a setting that I know very little about–the Ancient Egyptian royal court–but I felt completely immersed in it. I’m not usually someone reads political thrillers or books that deal with court intrigue, but I was interested in the directions that the book went in terms of political maneuvering. And it was nice to see the relationships between Mitti and other women seamlessly integrated into the story, neither the entire focus of the book nor swept under the rug. Mitti’s attraction to women is a driving force in her life, but it’s not the only one. It’s nice to read a story that balances those so well, not reducing her sexuality to a single line or paragraph, but also giving us something other than a romance or coming out story.

I did also have some issues with the book, however. The writing was overall functional, but there were some awkward sentences, and it has a habit of jumping back forth in time–first describing an event, then describing the lead-up to the event, then continuing from the middle again–and although it worked sometimes, I think it was overused. At other points, large periods of time are skipped, and there were some relationships that I would have liked developed more. My biggest problem was with the conclusion. I was enjoying Apprentice Queen‘s slow build, which establishes Mitti as a character and how she changes over time, and establishes all the nuances of the final conflict. As the pages began dwindling, though, I started to worry that it was not going to wrap up satisfactorily.

[spoilers, highlight to read] And sadly, I didn’t think it did. I had understood that she was likely going to kill Nyserra, but I was left still confused by why she did it, which was the mystery I had been waiting the entire book to find out–what could drive someone to do something so monstrous? Was the answer really just “To serve as a distraction”? I didn’t get enough explanation to see why that was necessary. I also felt like the disconnect between Nyserra and Kham happened abruptly. I would have liked to see their growing tension, instead of straight from blissfully in love to saying “I hate you”.

There were other details that I appreciated, including Mitti’s surprisingly positive relationship with her husband (though I didn’t like that she later thought his life was worth less than an animal’s and like it was cruel for him to be alive, considering he always seemed happy when she saw him)  and some of the interesting side characters that populate the book. On the other hand, I hated that the first time Kham and Nyserra have sex, Nyserra repeatedly tells Kham to stop and pushes her away. That’s not romantic, that’s rape. I know it’s not meant to be, but that’s how it’s written, and I hate when sex is described in that way. [end spoilers]

Overall, Apprentice Queen is a fascinating read for its exploration of how people adapt to a political life, but it also has some flaws that detracted from the reading experience for me. If you’re intrigued, I still think it’s worth picking up and giving it a try, but I wish the ending especially was a little more of a payoff.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews All the Devils Here by Astor Penn

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If you’re like me, you have observed the dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA trend and thought “Yes, great, but where’s the lesbian version of this?” Don’t worry. It exists. All the Devils Here takes place after the worst has already happened. The majority of the population has been wiped out in a massive pandemic, everyone else is on the run, avoiding both the infected and the mysterious governmental (?) units roaming in vans–promising safety but delivering gunshots and kidnappings.

I thought it was interesting that the book starts here, with Brie already having been on the run for a while, and having adapted to this new reality. I would have expected to start at beginning of the outbreak, following her as she escapes New York, but instead we get this backstory summarized later. It shifts the focus from how this happened to the process of surviving. And that is what the narrative revolves around: not any specific goal or path, just the relentless determination to survive at almost any cost. Despite the genre, I didn’t actually find this a fast-paced book. It is short, but although Brie is a survivor and active in her perseverance, the plot revolves around things that happen to her and then her attempts to deal with it. Through no fault of her own, she is a passive agent with very little control over her life in this cutthroat landscape.

The arc of the story is not so much the plot as it is Brie’s understanding of how she has changed as a person in order to survive, and her relationship with Raven, who begins as an extremely reluctant ally and becomes a vital person in her life. There is a bit of an element of insta-love in this, but it’s more understandable in the context of a dystopian future where any human contact is unusual. I do wish that we got more from Raven as her own person as opposed to Brie’s perception of her, however. She permeates the novel in Brie’s fixation on her, but we don’t actually get to learn a lot about her. In fact, my biggest problem with this book is how Raven is described. She is referred to constantly by her (dark) skin color, which is once compared to mud. She is repeatedly described as a “wild thing” (when she’s not the “prettiest thing”). Brie makes a lot of assumptions about her based on her appearance, which considering that she knows pretty much nothing about her other than her skin color, seem pretty racist: she assumes that Raven is a “lost girl” with no relationship with her family, who left home too young. She contemplates whether Raven was a sex worker in her former life. There is absolutely no context as to why Brie is making these assumptions about her other than her appearance and the fact that she is alive and alone (which, of course, Brie–a pampered boarding school student–also is).

I found the governmental agency to be the most interesting element of the story. We know that they are taking people in vans against their will, and there are rumors of camps that are being set up, but we don’t know the motives of this organization. I couldn’t help but think that these people very well could have a cure and be trying to help survivors, but there would be no way to know this as a person hiding in the woods. Because of the lack of any source of media, these people in hazmat suits are a complete wild card. [vague spoilers, highlight to read] Even as we learn more about this group of people, they remain morally grey, which I thought was interesting. In some ways they are the villains of the piece, but they are also the only reason humanity has any hope of a “civilized” future. [end spoilers] 

I found All the Devils Here to be an interesting concept, but it wasn’t the fast-paced thrill ride I expect from this genre. I did like the examination of what it takes to be a survivor in situations like this, and how it affects a person’s perception of themselves, and I’m happy to have a queer addition to this genre, but I was looking for a little bit more from this in terms of plot. And I found Raven’s depiction disappointing. This was a mixed bag for me, but if you’re interesting in a survival story with a bit of lesbian romance thrown it, All the Devils Here is worth the read!