Susan reviews Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Iron and Velvet by Alexis Hall is the first book in the Kate Kane series, following Kate Kane, private investigator, as she attempts to investigate the magic-induced murder of a young werewolf at a vampire nightclub (and hopefully avoids the three-way supernatural war that would result).

I absolutely loved it.

It’s very trope-heavy–Kate isn’t just a private detective, she’s a human(ish) disaster of a private detective; hard-drinking, hard-living, has just lost her (work) partner, constantly on the edge of going bankrupt, unlucky in love and everything else. She is also apparently catnip to the leaders of every supernatural faction that we meet, who all want her involved in their politics, on their side, within five minutes of meeting her. Absolutely tropey, but so refreshing to see this happen with a female character.

On top of this, many of the tropes it uses are subverted; for example, there is a casual take-down of the Vampire In A High School Dating Teenage Girls trope where the narrative makes it explicit that this is creepy. Plus, the the world building is really well done. The way the politics fits together is interesting, as is how werewolves work socially and how urban mages work at all, and seeing how the system maintains itself from the point of view of someone on the fringes is fun. Plus: most of the cast is queer, in all different ways! And the story manages to have both pulpy action, humour, and serious emotional moments all mixed up together!

I think I liked the romance–Julian, the vampire prince that Kate falls in love with, is charming and funny, even if their relationship gets intense really fast. I was not kidding about how quickly all of the leaders move! The way that she narrates her past as a story feels like obvious telegraphing, and in some ways it feels like her actions don’t always have the repercussions or impact I’d expect, but I really like the emotions around hers and Kate’s relationship, and the way the Iron and Velvet does specifically deal with the ripple effect this has on Kate’s social circle.

It’s not perfect, of course – I’ve mentioned that Julian’s narration sometimes tends to telegraph, but there are also developments that come straight out of nowhere to counterbalance them, and the ending is a jumbled mess. But it’s a jumbled mess that I love despite its flaws! In some ways, I love it because of its flaws, because Iron and Velvet is fun, pulpy urban fantasy, revisiting familiar tropes and making them queer. It’s excellent.

Caution warnings: Centuries old vampire dating a high-school girl; references to past stalking and abuse; assault.

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Alice reviews A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing by Avery Aimeson

“You won’t find anyone in this town straighter than a pretzel.”

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is the first book in the Fool’s Crown, a supernatural/urban fantasy series. The book contains themes of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness. An enjoyable read, but without much resolution, making it a two star book.

I was drawn to this book because I was in the mood for a typical paranormal romance novel filled with cheesy tropes where I could fall into the story and forget the stress of starting a new job. This book was not quite what I was expecting, although it was wonderfully escapist. The story focus was not on romance, as the protagonist was escaping a relationship not falling into one. This really worked in the book and opened up the story, and I didn’t feel at all disappointed.

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing is about a homeless woman caught in a Supernatural city sealed of from the world of ‘Humies’. Using her skills with makeup and her acting training, our human protagonist shifts through an Identity for every day of the week to escape her abusive Witch of an ex-girlfriend. Along the way she meets a plethora of beautiful women (with shapely bodies and skin hugging clothes), including a Werewolf policewoman, a Succubus who runs the shelter for abused women, and a Vampire who always smudges her lipstick since she can’t see her own reflection.

This brings me onto one of my favourite things about the book: its humour. It is aware it’s a trope filled supernatural/urban fantasy, and the first person narrative brings a little bit of meta humour whenever she encounters a genre cliche. Lesbian puns are laced throughout the book too, leading me to giggle out loud on the bus to work a couple of times. This humour supports some heavy themes, with the main character fleeing domestic abuse, and also escaping from a horrific past. The book talks about these themes and allows you to face them without losing it’s escapist charm.

There is one ‘adult’ scene, which features reluctant/ unwanted sexual interaction. This scene made me rather uncomfortable and I felt the book came close to glamourising such situations, which was disappointing in a book that was rather sex-positive overall.

The main character, a human, is rather prejudiced against the Supernatural creatures she’s been living beside, believing none of them can be trusted as they all must just want to turn her. This can be a little annoying in places, but it makes so much sense for the character. [MILD SPOILER] Throughout the book she is led to confront these prejudices and becomes more accepting as she learns to ignore horror films from the land of humans, and instead listen to the people around her. [SPOILER ENDS]

However for all it’s examination of ‘Humie vs Supe’ suspicion and inter-supe racism, the book doesn’t look at racism as we know and see in the real world. The book even erases it, with one of the character remarking how odd it would be if humans went around calling each other by their race not their name, ignoring the fact that humans do indeed do this. Aimeson may have been trying to draw attention to the fact that this behaviour is ridiculous, but it came across more as her washing over the problem, which I take issue with in a book where there seemed to be no diversity of skin or culture.

Overall though I enjoyed this book, and it hit the spot perfectly for the WLW romp I was craving. This is a debut book–and you can see this in the writing. Over all it is very easy to read and you can fall into it quickly, however at times the story can be a little confusing. It’s biggest weakness is the end. Overall the book has a slow, light-hearted, lazy pace. Then the story escalates rather quickly–only to stop on abrupt cliffhanger. There was none of the resolution I expect from a good book, and this damaged my experience of it considerably. It sets up for what looks to be an interesting Fantasy series, I just wish more of the actual story had made it into the first book. Nevertheless as I enjoyed the humour, I am curious to see how the story progresses and will probably check out the second book when it comes out.

This story is perfect for fans of Holly Black who are after something a bit more light hearted, Pulp Fiction Stories, and fans of Urban Fantasy in general as they will love the in jokes from a narrative character who has read the genre too.

Rating: ** Shows promise, but feels unfinished.

Marthese reviews Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a novella based on Chinese mythology that takes place in modern Hong Kong. This was an interesting premise and although I found it somewhat different from the fantasy that I usually real, it came recommended by a friend, so I gave it a go.

The story follows Julianne Lau, a 24 year old Hong Kong native. She lives with her two aunts, Houyi and Chang’e who to be clear are married to each other not related! This story starts with Julianne meeting a viper, a creature that looks like a human but isn’t. The viper is draw by the divine aura around Julianne which was acquired with her living with goddesses. The viper, called Olivia or Xiaoqing tells Julianne who she meets a couple of times that she wants a meeting with Chang’e, her aunt. Grudges among divine creatures last very long and there are a lot of enemies or past enemies for such a short book.

Julianne has body image issues, self-esteem issues and had encounters with depression. However, she is trying to be better. Like her aunt Chang’e, she is kind and she tries to control her sense of wanting attention sometimes with consequences.

There are some interesting relationships in the story. First off, I want to mention that we see some of Julianne’s past and about to be past relationships with women. For being such a short recount, it’s very queer.

Chang’e and Houyi have a good relationship based on affection and trust and so Julianne takes them as role models for her love life. Houyi buys Chang’e candies dates even when Chang’e is abroad and she picked her up from the airport in a tuxedo. That’s the level of sweetness that their relationship has. Despite this, they do not spend that much time together as their divine jobs take over a lot of time. Their past as well is tangibly full of sorrow apart from love.

Interesting was to see Houyi’s relationship with Julianne. Although she is technically only an in-law, she seems to be the main ‘caretaker’ while Chang’e, with her kindness takes over soothing roles when needed.

The relationship, as abrupt and like staccato as it was, between Xiaoqing and Julianne was also interesting. Xiaoqing shows Julianne that demons are complex and tells Julianne her story, after which she says she wants Julianne for who she is. Julianne for her part doesn’t care for what her partner looks like and learns to not judge people by the myths that are on them.

‘Demons’ , in this novella, are not villanized instead they are shown to be flawed and wanting to survive but also very diverse and complex with a system of their own

The writing is very descriptive, sometimes like poetry but I felt that at times it was just stretching too much. There are some styles that I liked such as sentences with only one word to describe routines. At times, as there were two sets of names being used, it is very easy to get confused especially if you are not familiar with the myths involved. It also takes a while to make sense after the beginning of a new segment as there are time and special hops, without much explanation.

We see the briskness of Hong Kong. I think this novella captures the metropolitan feel with its description of people and business and billboards.

This story takes on elements from myths such as the gods of sun and moon and the white snake and queers them up. Apart from the queer spins and retellings, it is heavy laden with gender issues and thought. Needless to say, but I will just in case, that this story being based on myth inherits all the strange gore that myths tend to have, so beware!

To end, I thought it was interesting reading a queer retelling of Chinese mythology by a Thai author no less,  instead of British, Canadian or American. I think the style would need some time to get used to, but it’s worth to read it. It lulls between complexities of plot and gender and the easiness of long descriptions that relax you (like one of those relaxation classes).