Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

Sheila Laroque reviews Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

As I’ve said in previous reviews; I haven’t widely read a great deal of poetry. Nor do I have the lived experience of a trans person. However, reading this collection of poetry by Gwen Benaway I felt drawn into her world and stories, and I felt like I could understand a little bit better. The stories that are told within these poems are powerful and raw, and I felt like I was being taken on a journey with the author. Gwen is able to take her readers along for a ride, as she narrates her experiences as being both trans and Anishinaabe in these poems. The poems are at times grappling with difficult subject matters, but we are also left with the feeling of how difficult it must have been to live through these experiences from Gwen’s perspective.

There is an honesty within these poems that immediately draws in the reader, and while this is a relatively short book I found myself reading these quite quickly. Her discussions of the complexities that can arise when dating in a transphobic world; as well as what it is like to navigate the health care systems while being Indigenous gave me some more insight and understanding. I say ‘gave’ intentionally, because her writing is so illuminating and full of her own personal experiences and trauma that it is a gift to the reader.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take by Trace Kerr

The Names We Take is a young adult dystopian novel set in Spokane, Washington after an epidemic called the One Mile Cough wipes out a huge chunk of the population. Pip, the protagonist, is an intersex trans girl just trying to survive.

But a group of bounty hunters has a different idea as they seek women and children to gather for a supposed safe haven called Thistle Hill Orchard. When Pip takes charge of a girl named Iris, she must keep the child safe and do what’s best for their newfound family.

The novel moves at a good pace as the action keeps its momentum going forward while the moments of peace allow the characters and reader to breathe. Kerr is adept at unraveling details about the characters throughout the narrative without falling into info dump traps. While the character development shines, the plot development fell a bit by the wayside.

The premise is that a plague hit Spokane’s population, but the One Mile Cough disease isn’t given much page time other than to say that’s how they got into this post-apocalypse world. Its origins or spread are never detailed, and the reader doesn’t know for sure how far it hit. It’s assumed the whole United States at least, as the citizens of Spokane have been left to fend for themselves. But the narration never confirms that guess.

As Pip goes through the new world after civilization has crumbled, she faces a great deal of the same prejudice and bigotry as she did before the world ended. She gets misgendered constantly and experiences violence at the hands of men. It’s a brutal pill to swallow as she continues to assert her existence as her true self, fighting narrow-minded bigots and righteous zealots who feel they know best for her.

But Pip finds reprieve in her relationships. Whistler, a survivor of One Mile Cough with PTSD, is her protector. Iris becomes the little sister she must guide and protect. Fly is the beautiful girl she falls for in the middle of the chaos around her. The dynamics between the protagonist and supporting cast are what make this book such a fascinating read. It’s the story of the family forged when people take a stand and fight for who they are.

The most interesting development in Pip’s character is her demeanor toward Iris. It’s clear that Pip doesn’t lack compassion, but she does lack patience. Running around with a twelve-year-old girl who is prone to pouting and eye-rolling, even in the apocalypse, teaches her a great deal of patience and love.

Another delightful aspect of the novel is its inclusion of periods. Post-apocalypse stories are notorious for staying away from the subject of menstruation, but it’s a problem that should be addressed, because it’s an unavoidable fact of life for people who menstruate. Kerr doesn’t shy away from the topic and details how Pip gathers pads and teaches Iris what to do when the young girl gets her first period.

The language around Pip’s gender and sexual orientation is careful and precise. It’s explained that she was born intersex and that her parents chose male for her at birth, but when she hits puberty and gets her first period, that’s when she finds out she was born intersex. As she grows, she becomes sure she wants to be a girl and takes steps to make her body appear as her true identity.

Throughout the novel, the audience sees her struggling when she’s called a boy or questioned about her gender. She clearly still holds insecurity and body dysmorphia over her masculine appearance in many ways. But Iris accepts Pip as a girl, even if the others in Thistle Hill don’t. Pip also reveals she is bisexual when she starts developing a crush on Fly. Her feelings fill her with fear, but Fly assures her it’s okay, as does another friend at the sanctuary.

The Names We Take is set to be published by Ooligan Press in May 2020 but is available for pre-order now from the author. Be on the lookout for it!

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.

Danika reviews A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett

It’s not beautiful or brave or redemptive. It’s like a light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.

I’m having trouble writing this review, because I feel like I’m still processing this book. A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories with trans women main characters, many of whom are also lesbians/bi/queer. The stories have different voices, but for the most part, they’re written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone. Some stories don’t have quotations marks around dialogue, which gives it a dreamlike, immersive feel. Most of these stories are realistic and gritty, but one does have a talking cat.

Although these women all live in different places and circumstances, and their everyday life varies a lot, they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. Every character faces microagressions, though they’re often accompanied by more overt aggression and danger. Plett really lays out how these constant digs wear away at the protagonists, and how much it takes to just survive under that.

Because these are all women dealing with trauma and institutional discrimination, they have to find ways to cope. They are flawed, and sometimes make bad decisions. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of options to choose between. But they also endure, and they find meaning where they can.

I can’t help but compare this to Nevada by Imogen Binnie: not because they’re two of the few queer trans women books out there, but for that tone. They both reject the idea that enduring pain is noble or beautiful, or the idea that trans people have to be perfect people in order to earn the right to live. Add in the BDSM and bookstore jobs, and these two have a lot in common.

The tone made this a difficult book for me to read, emotionally speaking. Though I also feel ridiculous saying that I found it too hard to just read about these experiences, when they’re far from uncommon for trans women in their everyday lives. In hindsight, I wish I had spaced these out a little more and read something in between, so I could better absorb each individual story. I don’t want to imply that there are no spots of light or positivity, though, and those moments are all the more powerful because of it.

People at the bookstore sometimes ask why I’m still there. Because no one else wants to fucking be here. But I’m happier in my day-to-day life than I ever was before. A lot of shit’s still awful, yes, and I’m angry and negative most days, yes. But I love my job. I love my partner. (You know, most of the time.) I like our household. I do actually like how I’ve structured most of my life. I’ve started to see a future and it’s got its shit parts, but it’s also kind of really okay. Everyone else sees me as a mess, Liam included. But I don’t feel like a mess. I know what a mess feels like.

Anna Marie reviews Stone Butch Blues

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Ever since I learnt about Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg I’ve wanted to read it, but I knew it would be an intense book to read with quite a lot of violence in it, so I waited till I thought I might be slightly more ready for it. The time to read it arrived since, last year sometime, I learnt that I was a high femme (sometimes called a stone femme) and I knew then I had to pick it up because stone butches are important to me, because I wanted to learn more about lesbian history, because I wanted to read the sex scenes, because I’m lonely [stonely, if you will] and I thought it might offer me some companionship and some hope.

The book itself took me a long time to read because I started it in 2018 read a third or so and found it so triggering and upsetting I had to take a long break (there’s sexual, homophobic & police violence in it) Then in may I decided I was ready to pick it up again, this time as a physical version [I had been reading the pdf, downloadable here] and that helped me read it all the way through. I decided to just keep reading from where I had got to because I could mostly remember what had previously happened and so I sped through the last two thirds and finished the book in about 5 days, crying pretty regularly through it.

Stone Butch Blues is an iconic piece of lesbian and trans fiction. It’s about Jess, a jewish baby butch on a gender journey who is growing into herself pre-stonewall era (although it extends to post-stonewall too!). The novel follows her growing more and less into herself, in a lyrical and winding narrative. It’s an ode to the strength of gender nonconforming people, to the reality of loneliness, it’s about class war and lesbian resistance, it’s about community and healing and violence. Jess is by no means perfect, but following her through her life is such a gritty and precious experience.

The book itself was written in the nineties so it’s technically a historical fiction novel but it feels so present and alive, it’s hard to categorise it as such. It’s so full of vulnerability and rawness it’s hard to think of it not as real life. What shines through the novel is love and solidarity; a love for butchness, for femmes, for people who dont make sense or fit in, for people who are not women and are not men, for working class people, and by the end even maybe for communists (!).

I can’t synthesise this book in a way that feels entirely accurate, which is why this is more of a list than a review, but that’s because it’s such a transcendent, enthralling novel and it pulls you by the ears into the pages and holds your heart inside it’s spine long after you’ve read the last word on the last page.

Danika reviews In the Silences by Rachel Gold

In the Silences by Rachel Gold

While Rachel Gold usually writes about gender and sexuality, In the Silences expands this by also tackling race. Although it does have a non-binary, genderfluid main character who is discovering and accepting their gender identity, it is just as much about Kaz learning about race, racism, and whiteness. While I originally was a bit worried about a book so much about race being written by a white author, as the book went on, I realized that it is much more about whiteness. Kaz’s best friend and love interest, Aisha, is black (and bisexual), and by listening to Aisha and seeking out resources, Kaz begins to realize the impact that race has in their small, mostly-white community.

Kaz and Aisha are both comic book fans, and Kaz relates to both their gender and the concept of racism by relating it to comics. The voice that whispers racist thoughts in white people’s minds is Apocalypse, a comic book villain who has brainwashed people. Kaz attempts to understand how to fight against this force, and how to help their loved ones see that it exists. Kaz lives with their mother, brother, and grandparents. Their grandmother is progressive and accepting, helping Kaz to process this information and taking their coming out in stride. Their mother and brother are a different story, though, and Kaz struggles to figure out how to get through to them.

In the Silences really explores the day-to-day of microaggressions and unrelenting racism, particularly anti-black racism. (Of course, as a white person reading a book written by a white author, I can’t speak to the authenticity of these depictions.) Kaz is the point of view character, so we see Aisha’s experiences through their eyes. Kaz is slowly awakened to the daily, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant discrimination that their best friend faces. Aisha wants to be a doctor, and at every turn she is underestimated and her intelligence is doubted. I especially liked the attention the story pays to stereotype threat, and how often Aisha is placed in impossible situations, where she must devote so much mental energy to navigating others’ racist perceptions of her, leaving her little room to do anything else.

At the same time as they are learning about race, Kaz is exploring their gender, and beginning to accept being non-binary and what that means. Aisha and Kaz are able to find commonality in their identities being erased, but they also recognize their very different experiences and work to become allies for each other. They look out for each other, and they put in the work of trying to understand each other. In one scene, Aisha has printed out pictures of black female doctors and other role models to help her feel less alone (and combat stereotype threat). At the same time, she offer Kaz examples that she has found of non-binary people and communities through history–combating Kaz’s isolation.

I feel like what Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness does for small children, In the Silences does for teens. I still haven’t found a lot of books like these two, which recognize that it is white people’s responsibility to learn about racism and fight to change it, and especially to educate each other. This is much-needed, and I hope that it finds its way into the hands of the people who need it.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

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.