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.

Quinn Jean reviews The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee cover

[Warning: this review contains plot spoilers and discussions of violence and bigotry depicted in the novel; namely major characters experience misogyny, racism and homophobia in 18th century European and North African settings. Also this book is a sequel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue so beware default spoilers for that book too].

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is the treat it is due to the three main women at the centre of the novel. Felicity Montague is a well-travelled young white noblewoman in 18th century England who is in exile from her wealthy family and desperately trying to find a school or mentor who will let her train to be a doctor. Of course her gender precludes her admittance to anywhere in the country, or even Europe, despite the fact that Felicity is fiercely committed, highly intelligent, and hardworking. She is led to team up with Sim, a mysterious young black sailor travelling with mutual friends who offers to help Felicity pursue a promising opportunity that’s in continental Europe. Sim has the tenacity to match Felicity’s and both women acknowledge and appreciate the other’s intelligence and individuality. Rounding out the trio is Felicity’s childhood friend, Johanna, a fellow white European noblewoman who loves feminine fashions and frippery as much as studying natural sciences, though her family values her only as someone to marry off. All three of these women exemplify strength, cunning, kindness, creativity and intelligence, and their burgeoning respect for each other, and subsequent friendships, are nuanced and gorgeous.

Sim is a black Muslim woman from Algiers who identifies as attracted to women while Felicity decides she doesn’t like romance with anybody, though she loves her friends passionately. Both women, but particularly the former, are important and beautiful representations in a story set in a colonial 18th century world, and both the WLW and ace/aro themes are very sensitively portrayed. No one meets a grisly end due to their sexual orientation but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of high stakes and adventure, and it’s refreshing that having the one doesn’t mean sacrificing the other. The heroines travel through no less than five or six countries in the course of the book, and have encounters with pirates, dragons, mercenaries, cannon blasts, and menstrual blood stains on ballgowns (surely more terrifying than anything else on that list). The novel consistently feels breathless and urgent while never rushing through plot points and the high stakes always feel legitimate when the women are fighting for what they want and need. The central bond between the three main characters is most of what grounds the action and provides deeper resonance than just a fun “swords-crossed, indignant damsel” sort of caper.

Petticoats is a great book because the women get to drive their own stories, both by being the focus of the book in the first place and because they take charge of their destinies within the narrative. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking that two of these women, at least, are also not straight and this side of their identities is included as an important part of their arcs, but it is. And Sim and several other characters of colour in the story, in addition to multiple disabled characters, are further very welcome evidence that period pieces have no excuse to be exclusively white, male, straight and abled when it is historically accurate and incredibly simple to include diversity. A sequel portraying more of Sim’s adventures on the high seas, with or without Felicity and Johanna, would be another stellar contribution to historical fiction about WLW.

Mallory Lass reviews America by Gabby Rivera, Illustrated by Joe Quinones and Annie Wu

I only recently (in the last 18 months) got into reading comic books. Honestly, I never understood the appeal, and no one I knew read them when I was younger. But, I am so glad I started. They are a little intimidating to figure out (I still couldn’t tell you their naming/numbering system, it makes no logical sense), so when you first get going, I suggest starting with a solo series, collected issues devoted to single characters.

This review will focus on the recently completed origin story of America Chavez aka “Miss America”, written by Gabby Rivera. America is Marvel’s first Latin American LGBTQ character to have her own ongoing series. Rivera is also a queer woman of color, and their shared identity really makes America’s story shine. America previously appeared in Young Avengers and the Ultimates, among others, before landing her own story. There are 12 issues in this solo run, which have been compiled into two trade paperbacks, so I’ll discuss the series overall and then briefly both volumes in turn. Hot tip: a lot of public libraries have tons of trade paperback comics in their Teen collection, which is were I get 95% of the comics I read.

This comic doesn’t shy away from establishing America’s queer and Latinx identity. This comic is written partly in Spanish, which I found really authentic to her character, and having “Spanglish” in the book is something Rivera pushed for. I wanted to look up translations, and had fun doing it, but the plot is totally understandable even if you don’t want to spend time translating. Found family is a major theme in America’s origin story. America doesn’t have a relationship with her family, for a variety of reasons, which are revealed a little bit in Vol 1 and more in depth through Vol 2. America puts in the emotional energy required to create and maintain friendships and mentorships that serve as her found family. Getting to witness America and her friends showing up for each other again and again is where this series shines. My minor complaint is that I don’t find the villains, the Midas Corporation and La Legion, all that compelling. Though, I often find the villains in superhero stories to be boring, so maybe it’s a me thing. Exterminatrix, the main villainess is an over the top fun and sexy character, so while some of the “evil” plot lagged, it was always visually appealing. Speaking of the art, diversity is front and center. America is drawn very curvy and muscular. There are characters of all body types, races, orientations and planetary origins. In fact, America’s bff Kate Bishop, a white woman, is often the odd one out.

America Vol 1

America Vol 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

America’s series opens with her relationship falling apart just as she is getting ready to head off to college at Sotomayor University. The first six issues feature two ex-girlfriends, one with questionable motives, and a few amazing best friends. One thing that shines through in this series is how in touch with pop culture Rivera is, and how culturally relevant she wanted this series to be. It’s America’s story, but it is also an every woman story. Struggling to adapt and adjust to young adult life is relatable and America’s superhero duties create compelling complications in her life. Based on the story arc and Rivera’s letters to readers, I think Rivera wanted young women to see America succeed and conquer obstacles in her own life and for that success to provide inspiration and hope to her readers. To know we are all fighting the bigger battles together.

America Volume 2

America Vol 2: Fast and Fuertona

This second half of her series is a beautiful origin story. Turns out, not only was America born to two queer women, her home planet was created by two goddesses. The space art in this series is a feast for your eyes. Watching America come into her own and deal with her family trauma and baggage is where this story shines. At one point we get her thoughts and she thinks “I have the right to be joyful. Despite all the sad, hard bits…” and it really resonated with me both from a queer experience mindset, but also in navigating the world we live in.

Ultimately, America will need to use all her life skills she’s been building over the series and enroll all of her friends to help her defeat the Midas Corporation. The world and character building Rivera does in the first half of the arc pays off and cements America’s place in the Marvel-verse as one of the most powerful female superheroes around.

While America’s solo run ended in April 2018, if you need more, she just joined the West Coast Avengers team in August. My only hesitancy in diving into that series is the difference between how Gabby Rivera writes America Chavez & Kate Bishop in her solo run and how Kelly Thompson who is at the helm of WCA writes them in Kate Bishop’s solo series Hawkeye. Rivera writes America with her queerness in the forefront. I feel like Thompson writes queer characters as if their queerness is the least relevant thing about them, rather than central to the way they move in the world. For me there is an experienced difference as a queer reader and it’s why #ownvoices really does matter. I still enjoy Thompson’s work (it’s very feminist), but not nearly the same way I love Rivera’s.

15 year old Mallarie Chaves wrote to Gabby Rivera about the impact the character America has had on her (her letter is reproduced at the end of Vol 2) and she specifically calls out that they look alike. Representation matters, a lot. While I think the run is clearly aimed at younger women, America’s message, never stop fighting for what you believe in, resonated with me, and I hope you are inspired to pick this comic up.

Maddison reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension follows Alana Quick, a sky surgeon AKA starship mechanic, who stows away on the Tangled Axon when the crew comes in search of the services of her sister, Nova. Alana has a chronic and debilitating illness that requires expensive medication and her ship repair yard barely brings enough in to cover her expenses, so she sees the Tangled Axon as an opportunity to leave her circumstances. However, aboard the Tangled Axon, things do not go according to plan. With a wily crew led by a too-hot-to-handle captain, Alana quickly finds herself in over her head. As the story develops it becomes clear that the Tangled Axon and their client are after Nova, not her abilities.A nefarious plot is unveiled, and Alana and the crew of the Tangled Axon have to try to make it out alive.
When I first saw this book I was really excited. Queer WOC in space! What more can a girl ask for? Ascension delivered what the cover and description promise: an immersive space adventure with a lovable and diverse cast. Koyanagi’s writing draws you into Alana’s character and her role on the ship.
One of my favourite parts of the book is that Alana is allowed to make mistakes, and does she ever. Despite being 30 system-years old, I found Alana’s character to read as young and arrogant. She believes in her abilities and her decisions wholeheartedly, even if they are not well thought through. Aboard the Tangled Axon, Alana has to prove herself and her claims that she is “the best damned sky surgeon.” Her attempts to prove herself don’t always go according to plan, and her often selfish decisions backfire, but she lives with the consequences of those action and learns from her mistakes.
For some, Alana might be too introspective of a character, but for those of us who love to get into a character’s head, Koyanagi creates an interesting and well developed character.
I have seen critiques of the way the Koyanagi handles Alana’s chronic illness and pain. I don’t have chronic pain, so I don’t think that it is my place to judge, but Koyanagi writes from a place of experience as she lives with a chronic illness. I found that there were many small details in her descriptions of Alana’s experience with a chronic illness that lent believability to the story.
For me, the ending of the novel–without going into any spoilery details–was very strange. I did not see the final plot twist coming, so if you enjoy the unexpected, then you will definitely enjoy the ending.
Would I recommend Ascension? For sure! If you enjoy lesbians in space, an introspective main character, and action, Ascension is the book for you.

Kelley O’Brien reviews Camp Rewind by Meghan O’Brien

I’ve been excited to read Meghan O’Brien’s Camp Rewind since I first read the synopsis last year. A book about two women of color dealing with very real and contemporary problems like social anxiety and online harassment and misogyny? Sign me right up!

Despite my excitement for the book, it somehow got pushed back due to my own real world problems. But when I found that I had a few Audible credits to use up, I grabbed the chance to listen to a good book.

It’s been a while since I’ve listen to a book because I’ve lost some of my hearing and can only listen in quiet rooms. However, I had a really great experience listening to Camp Rewind and might just give it another listen again soon.

Alice Wu and Rosa Salazar meet at the titular Camp Rewind, a camp for adults who want to unwind for the weekend. However, the heroines both have other reasons for being there. Alice has extreme social anxiety and wishes to expand her social circle, so she applies for camp at her therapist’s request. Rosa, however, just wants to forget who she is for a little while after publishing an article about a video game that some men took offence to and decided to ruin her life over. The two meet and connect right away, entering into a “what happens at camp stays at camp” sort of relationship. Soon, they must deal with feelings that weren’t supposed to happen.

I should probably warn that this book contains a lot of sex. It’s all very well-written and didn’t feel out of place to me, especially given the way O’Brien describes their connection and Alice’s desire to finally be with a woman and her finally coming out as a lesbian.

There is also a lot of pot smoking and mentions of rape threats and other threats of violence against women, though I don’t recall it going into too much detail.

Alice and Rosa fall for each other very quickly in the novel, which might be a genuine concern for some. However, it felt organic to me. They were exactly what the other needed. Not that they needed to be in a relationship to grow as people, but that they needed someone to support them and be there for them, something they each lacked in their lives.

As someone with anxiety, I can honestly say that O’Brien does a great job crafting a mentally ill character. Alice never overcomes her anxiety. It’s always still there, even when she’s pushing herself to be braver, to do things that scare her because she wants to help or to be with Rosa. The relationship doesn’t magically cure Alice of being mentally ill. She still has her bad days and is a work in progress.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is O’Brien’s feminist critique of online harassment, particularly towards women in gaming and the men who disagree with and subsequently harass them. She doesn’t get too preachy about her opinion of them. She doesn’t have to, letting it show through Rosa’s character and the growth she experiences as someone who lets herself believe she isn’t worthy of love and affection to someone that embraces it.

If you enjoy books about characters who are allowed the room to grow and develop, books about women of color who are given agency, books with delightful side characters, and books with feminist themes, I highly recommend giving Camp Rewind a shot.