Susan reviews In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

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

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

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

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

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

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 2 by Takako Shimura

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura cover

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume Two by Takako Shimura expands Fumi and Akira’s worlds a little more; it covers the summer holiday and their move up to second year in school, with all the attendant new people that comes with it, as well as the fall-out from Fumi and Yasuko’s relationship ending.

The art continues to be very cute, especially with the addition of new students to the established friendship groups! The kids look believably young, which is adorable, and I really appreciate that! (It can be a little confusing to keep track of who’s related to who, however, which I’m not sure is a fault of the art.) And it continues to have more realistic reactions to things than I expect from manga – Fumi is completely understandably upset with Yasuko, and the ways it manifests feel sadly plausible (such as her need to prove herself in Sugimoto’s shadow)! Akira’s confusion about sexuality and relationships also feels completely genuine, considering her age! I like that a book whose drama hinges entirely on relationships makes it clear that Akira not knowing how she feels about them is fine! (It also specifically discusses the different expectations the girls have for relationships, which is a lot more frank than I expected Sweet Blue Flowers to be, especially considering the girls’ ages. It’s probably good that it is frank, because yay for modelling discussions? But also: wow, I did not see that coming.) And on the topic of realism: the “obligatory clueless person putting their foot in it” in this volume is played by a first year who is Earnestly Concerned about her unmarried sister and the friend she lives with. The scene where she’s trying to talk about it to Fumi, who visibly has no idea how to react or what she can reveal about her own queerness was hard to read, but it felt really familiar.

The side-stories in this book are a little more central and tied into the main plot than in volume one; there’s a relationship that actually lasts into adulthood, there’s more unfortunate teenage crushes, and there’s something of a train-wreck relationship that everyone involved acknowledges is a bad idea. I like that it shows a variety of relationships – there’s healthy and unhealthy relationships, reciprocated feelings and not, and seeing Sweet Blue Flowers show so many different ways relationships can work out makes me really happy!

In conclusion, it’s still a good series and I really need to know where it’s going next, because I just want all of these girls to be happy!

[Caution warnings: mentions of incest]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Sweet Blue Flowers by Takako Shimura

Sweet Blue Flowers Vol 1 by Takako Shimura cover

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 1 is the latest series from Takako Shimura, the creator of the excellent Wandering Son. Sweet Blue Flowers follows Fumi and Akira, former childhood friends who are reunited when Akira rescues them from gropers on the train to high school, as the girls have to reckon with their own romantic entanglements and those of their friends.

The art is incredibly cute, as you could probably expect from Takako Shimura; it’s spare but emotive, and all of the teenage characters actually look like believable teenagers! They behave like them too – the thing that I like the most about Sweet Blue Flowers is that all of the characters have realistically complicated and messy relationships for high school students. There are crushes that don’t lead anywhere! There are break-ups at the worst possible times and in the worst possible ways! There are friends trying to choose between supporting a friend who was rejected by her crush, and the friend who got asked out instead! There are miscommunications and active choices against communicating that might be frustrating in another setting, but because it’s a high school, it all makes perfect sense to me. It’s delicious in its drama and the recognisable (and surprisingly realistic for a manga) responses all of the characters have to it.

It’s also possibly the first manga I’ve seen where there’s actual coming out scenes to someone who isn’t the inevitable love interest! I liked the different reactions to people coming out – Akira’s immediate response to Fumi coming out is to ask how she can support her and what she needs, which is the purest and sweetest thing in the entire manga, especially because when Fumi tells her, she actually goes through with it! I absolutely need more friendships like that in my media. And the flip side is that when Fumi’s girlfriend comes out to her family (and by extension, outs Fumi), their reaction is to treat it as a joke, or ask invasive questions. Both of them are believable, and neither of them are a thing that I’ve seen represented in manga before despite experiencing both in real life!

My only concerns about representation is whether Yasuko’s character is going to play into biphobic stereotypes in the future for reasons that are entirely spoilery (I’m happy to give details in the comments!), and whether the feelings these girls have get dismissed as pashes or pretend relationships. I have faith in Takako Shimura that they won’t do either of these things, because their depictions of queer characters are generally kind! I am hoping that there is an accounting for Fumi’s crush on her cousin, and how many of her tangled feelings about her queerness are because of that relationship.

In conclusion: I really recommend Sweet Blue Flowers. It’s cute and emotional, and is a marginally more realistic depiction of teenage romantic drama than I expect from manga!

[CW: sexual harrassment from strangers on trains, mentions of emotional incest, outing]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 1 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary cover

Nagata Kabi’s My Solo Exchange Diary Volume One is a follow-up to her hit autobiographical manga My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness (which I reviewed in June!). It is an autobiographical essay collection talking about her depression, her attempts to leave home and gain her independence, and her relationship with her family; and it is harrowing. Compulsive, excellent reading, but it left me feeling like I’d been hit by a truck afterwards.

It’s a very introspective series of graphic essays, where she talks about her realisations in the past month and the work that she has done on her own well-being. Sometimes this means that the essays meander a little, and sometimes it means that they’re laser-focused on one issue, like having to be confident in her own identity before she can let herself be influenced by others. The art style is still the same as in My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, so it’s still cute and cartoony, but the contrast between that art style and the subject matter alternates wildly between making things more bearable and making things harrowing.

If anything, My Solo Exchange Diary is even more clearly and explicitly about Nagata Kabi’s loneliness, despite it being about her search for connection and friendships! It analyses her support network (which… Isn’t really a network), and how unsupportive her family is, not just of her as a creator, but of her as a human being, and that is rough. (If you remember in My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, how she said that she had the classic traits of someone who was abused as a child despite not being abused? Yeah, about that.) She’s also frank to the point of cruelty about her own self-harm and suicide attempts (which she mentions not necessarily casually, but almost as a background detail for what’s going on) and readiness for relationships, which means that the end of the book is really hard to bear! To the point where I just had to put the book down and stare into space for five minutes to process how it was making me feel.

The first volume of My Solo Exchange Diary is a beautiful, gutting read. If you liked My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness then it is definitely worth picking up, but it is a lot rougher emotionally!

[Caution warnings: depression, self-harm, emotional neglect/abuse, mentions of eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews The Price of Meat by KJ Charles

The Price of Meat by KJ Charles cover

KJ Charles’s The Price of Meat is a queer horror pastiche of penny dreadfuls, with several nods to Sweeney Todd. Johanna Oakley forces a devil’s bargain with a detective; she will spy on Sawney Reynard, a potentially murderous barber, in exchange for her lover, Arabella, being released from the asylum she’s trapped in.

If you pick this up expecting a romance, you are likely to be disappointed; the queer relationships are present and important, but definitely in the background to Johanna’s investigations and the horrors happening in Sawney Reynard’s shop. What we get is very sweet, and I enjoyed Johanna and Arabella immensely (especially when Arabella finds out what Johanna’s doing), but it’s not the absolute focus.

I think this is partly because of the style the story is written in: it feels like a penny dreadful in tone and style, and in the visceral details of the descriptions. I really liked that, and I thought it worked well for the story being told! What also worked was that Johanna is the sort of all-purpose capable protagonist I see in this type of story–confident in her own ability to shoot, fight, or disguise herself as needed–but a queer woman! I am delighted by that just on its own.

I found the historical and literary references to be interesting–the liberties that are mentioned were a real thing, although not quite in the same way, and the references to other period tales of cannibals was quite cool! And I found the medical horror to be interesting, especially for the way it wound into Johanna’s story!

I enjoyed The Price of Meat, and if you’re in the mood for a queer horror novella I think it’s worth picking up!

[Content warning: cannibalism, mentioned sexual assault and threats thereof, false imprisonment, offscreen medical abuse, medical torture and disfigurement]

Susan reviews Devil’s Rock by Gerri Hill

Devil's Rock by Gerri Hill cover

Gerri Hill’s Devil’s Rock is both the beginning of a new series and the resolution of a storyline from her Hunter series (which I reviewed here at the Lesbrary: Hunter’s Way, In The Name of the Father, and Partners). Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do this review without spoiling some of the events of Partners, so please bear that in mind!

Andrea Sullivan is a small-town police officer, confident that nothing as terrible as what happened to her in LA can happen in Sedona… And then the murders begin, because a serial killer who escaped the police in Dallas is using Sedona as his dumping ground. FBI Agent Cameron Ross shows up with her own set of issues, a kitten, and a motorhome full of FBI supercomputers to help figure out where he’s going to strike next.

The story itself was interesting, and it was nice to get some closure on the case from Partners, but some of the developments specifically about the murderer I just found myself just going “No. She can be serious. WHAT.” at, because they read as soap-opera style out-of-blue tricks of convenience, rather than actually feeling organic to the plot of either book. There are parts that are tense and dramatic, but an equal number that appear to have been set up for things in the sequel (such as mentioning that the motorhome is an electrified mobile fortress, which you’d expect to be tested at some point! But alas, no.) Although, I admit, I did periodically have to check when this book was published, because the idea of having to drive a computer around – not a crime lab, or anything else that would require you to be on the scene, an actual computer – seemed like something out of the eighties.

The thing that probably bothers me MOST about this is the way that Cameron Ross treats Andrea Sullivan. It’s not just aggressive flirting or posturing, although it contains that; at one point, Sullivan says that she doesn’t want to talk about her past with Ross, so Ross not only orders an FBI background check, but taunts Sullivan with it and blames her for it in a shocking display of “well if you’d just done what I wanted, I wouldn’t have invaded your privacy.” She’s like that about their relationship too; Sullivan says she’s not interested in kissing her, but Ross refuses to accept that because obviously she knows better. And worst of all, even though Sullivan repeatedly calls her out as a bully, it’s all for naught, because the narrative consistently rewards Ross with whatever she was bullying Sullivan for! Yeah, sure, Ross apologises, but ugggh. It doesn’t help that after Ross gets the files on Sullivan, Sullivan obviously stumbles across them and reads them (because of course) and the conversation ends with her apologising for invading Ross’s privacy. I get that it could be the narrative trying to model behaviour for Ross, but it was aggravating, and made it hard to accept the romance as a happy thing.

Devil’s Rock is a fine set-up for a new series, but I didn’t enjoy most of the romance tropes it used. That outweighed the mystery aspects, so I don’t recommend it.

[Caution warning: murder, kidnapping, abuse, bullying, mentions of infidelity, mentions of sexual assault, ableist language]

Susan reviews The Scorpion by Gerri Hill

The Scorpion by Gerri Hill cover

The Scorpion is a standalone mystery from Gerri Hill. It follows an investigative reporter, Marty Edwards, who is looking into a suspicious cold case, and Kristen Bailey, the detective assigned to “help” her – or at least, to spy on her for the department. Cue every possible attempt to drive Marty off the case, multiple murders, going on the run…

I did not like this one, which is odd because it is basically the sort of ridiculous action-thriller you can find a thousand of on Netflix, but queer, and I love those. A highly-qualified and under-utilised detective (thanks misogyny) going on the run with an out-of-her-depth reporter sounds exactly up my alley. But there’s just something about the execution. Part of it is that the first third of the book feels like make-work before the real story begins, part of it is that some of the developments feel completely pulled out of nowhere (like Kristen just happening to know a guy with the exact skill-set she needs to solve her problems, who isn’t mentioned at all until she calls him for help! Or the fact that the villain is obvious, because they’re the only named character who hasn’t been accounted for by the end of the book!) Part of it is probably that the romance takes two people who are bad at forming attachments to people, and isolates them even further from literally anyone who isn’t in their romance, which I find deeply unnerving.

But what my main problem with this book is, is that about a quarter of the way through the book, Marty comes out as asexual (in a very cringe-worthy, allo-centric mess of a scene, that includes an allo character asking if she was abused as a child, and how many orgasms she’s ever had, because apparently those are appropriate questions to ask someone you met three days ago). I was tentatively excited about this – except that her arc becomes one of “perhaps she’s not asexual, perhaps it’s just her trust issues.” If it had been portrayed as someone who thought they were asexual realising they were demisexual, this could have been an interesting storyline, but it never mentions that as an option! Much as Gerri Hill’s Hunter series never even mentions bisexuality as a concept, in fact. Plus, it feels very allo-centric in the way that it’s handled, such as the way that it talks about asexuality as perhaps a medical problem rather than an orientation, and the way that it seems to be conflating “doesn’t feel sexual attraction or enjoy kissing and sex” with “has no interest in relationships” feels really weird to me. I don’t know if this was written before the split model of attraction was popularised, but I feel like this book promised me representation that it then went back on. Marty’s confusion and disbelief at discovering sexual attraction was fine, but the way it was presented as natural and finally feeling “normal” was a bit beyond the pale for me.

Basically, it’s reasonably action-filled, but that doesn’t make up for the somewhat weak plot and poor handling of an ace character. I’d give it a miss.

[Caution warning: murder, corruption, references to torture, misogyny]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Reiss

Space Battle Lunchtime is a two-volume graphic novel by Natalie Reiss, about Peony, a baker who accidentally ends up being an emergency replacement for a cooking show… In space?! Cue sabotage, drama, rival shows with distinctly more cannibalism, and trying to work space ovens.

This is super charming and funny. Peony is both competent and confident in her baking skills, and I loved getting to see her do well even though she was in completely unfamiliar territory. I was so invested in her doing well, which meant that the first couple of issues where she was floundering while surrounded people who just assumed she knew what was going on were very frustrating for me. I know, I know, it’s a trope, but it’s a trope that I hate. But “winning over the cast and crew so they help you” is also a trope and I was so happy to see it here, especially because of the way that the relationships build. Peony is so nice and so confident and just wants to beat everyone fair and square, yay! The way that her relationship with Neptunia comes together works perfectly with that – there’s awkwardness and rivalry and Peony putting her foot down to make sure they can work together, but also sweetness and daring rescues and both of them being supportive of each other and each other’s feelings!

The art is really, really cute and bright and colourful, and the designs of all of the aliens are distinctive and interesting. I especially love the way the Natalie Reiss contrasts appearances and personalities (such as the cute magical girl fox, who is sure a character), and the way that it introduces background details that further the plot and the world building, I thought that was really clever and well-handled. (… I’m sure it’s fine that Cannibal Coliseum, the rival cooking show where contestants literally cook and eat each other, keeps showing up in the background. That’s probably not relevant.)

But of course, what is a cooking comic if there isn’t rampant sabotage, and the ways that the sabotage is revealed is really cool. The reactions especially are great and fun, and the way that Peony and Neptunia deal with the end of the story is great. It was cool and believable and I enjoyed it. … Although I got to the epilogue stories and was suddenly REALLY CONCERNED for the side characters! My only real complaint is that the first volume ends on a massive cliffhanger, so it is worth getting both volumes together if you’re going to get them!

I really genuinely enjoyed this. It’s cute, it’s funny, and seeing Peony rising to her challenges is great. If you like cooking shows, bright and happy graphic novels, and/or ridiculous space drama, this is absolutely your thing.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.